Our History

The years prior to the launch of SESOC in 1988 were a time of significant change. The New Zealand building industry was in a state of flux. The financial crash of 1987 and the practices in the building industry stretched by the boom preceding this crash were fresh in everyone’s minds. Developers had become a market force, demanding lower fees and shorter design and construction times. The government had sold the Ministry of Works, an historic setter of standards for engineering and construction in New Zealand. The government had ruled that scale fees were not permitted. Local Authorities granted Building Permits, but had no empowerment to enforce construction standards.

This was the era of deregulation with major changes being looked at by the government – leading up to the Building Act being passed into legislation in 1991 and the associated regulations soon after. Deregulation in the view of the government of the day included potentially opening up design and construction to all-comers in the belief that market forces would sort out poor engineering and construction issues. In addition deregulation of design codes in the form of performance-based regulations rather than the prescriptive building standards of the day was advocated.

In 1986 the concept of a national body representing structural engineering as a whole was conceived. This body would have the interest and representation to challenge/influence the government on proposed changes to regulations covering both the building industry and the profession itself. It would also encompass all construction materials, all regions of the country and be concerned with all aspects of structural design and construction.

A steering committee was formed in late 1986. Discussions were held with IPENZ and encouragement and support duly received. To launch the society with an initial membership it seemed desirable that it canvas membership from those structural engineers already members of the Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury Structural Groups with the chairperson of each local structural group ex-officio members of the new society’s Management Committee. The current good relationship with the, now eight, regional groups, is a direct consequence of this early arrangement.

With an initial membership of 80 the New Zealand Structural Engineering Society (SESOC) was launched in 1988. The first SESOC Chairman elected was Barry Brown, who in a bid to influence IPENZ and promote SESOC, also was elected to the IPENZ Board for a few years. Ian Billings and Tony Gibson, his immediate successors in SESOC, continued with this tradition of promoting the society with IPENZ.

From the outset, the Society had a number of very specific aims and objectives:

  • To be a truly national body, without bias to any region;
  • To provide a service to structural engineers “out in the provinces” who could never access local structural group evenings;
  • To be a practitioner-focused body, to provide practical support to members;
  •  To be a political force pushing for appropriate building controls, regulations and Standards for engineered structures;
  • To fight for an appropriate professional structure and standing that would ensure the public was served and public safety and confidence was maintained;
  • To promote equally all structural materials and systems;
  • To work closely with the country’s engineering schools and similar academic bodies for promotion of structural engineering as a career and to guide teaching standards;
  • To establish and maintain relationships with engineering learned societies, both within NZ and overseas (e.g. NZSEE, NZGS, IStructE, IE Aust, ASEC, SEAOC);
  • To establish and maintain relationships with ACENZ, NZIA and the NZ Contractor’s Federation.

To achieve the first two of these goals the committee set out to achieve the following (not all at once):

  • A technical journal at least twice per year;
  • A newsletter mid-time between journals, providing an update on current matters;
  • In time,one-day seminar series moving about the country and being within a moderate travelling distance for outlying provinces;
  • To provide user-friendly design aids;
  • In due course, to arrange a major conference.

This format, established back in 1988 is still the format that provides a backbone to the society today.

Finances were stretched in the early years, but with the Society’s third President, Tony Gibson’s innovative idea of national travelling technical seminars, SESOC was on soon on firmer ground. With the major objective to become a practitioner-focused body, one of our key initiatives was to publish a technical journal and regular newsletters.  Our first technical journal, the October 1988 edition, set the course firmly on sharing information on and influencing building control changes.

In late 2006, our first electronic newsletter, SESOC News, was published. This electronic format helped us communicate more effectively with members, and become more proactive in issuing considered advice and guidance on a range of issues affecting structural engineers. In 2007, SESOC signed an MoU with the Institution of Structural Engineers from the UK (IStructE),  a mutually beneficial relationship, allowing increased dialogue internationally  for SESOC as well as member benefits, and access to international technical papers and publications for New Zealand structural engineers. In recent years, SESOC has  enjoyed a developing technical and cultural relationship with the Structural Engineers Association of California (SEAOC) through the SESOC/SEAOC Collaboration initiative.

This has included representation and presentations of papers at conferences held by both organisations and exchanges and collaboration on technical subjects.

So, even as the society continued to ably serve the technical needs of its members by 2000 it was recognised that quality  issues were a matter of concern for structural engineers and hence also for  SESOC. In an ongoing programme in the interests of promoting the concept of excellence in professional engineering, SESOC has been working with its members to deliver good practice design guidelines via its seminars and continued to provide professional advice on the regulation of engineers, on design codes and standards.

SESOC entered uncharted territory in September 2010, with the first in what we now know was to become the Canterbury earthquake sequence.

The events of February 22nd 2011 are well documented. To many, that day will remain etched in the memories, a moment when time really did stand still. Even to those that do not reside in Canterbury, the indelible images of things that we hoped would never happen, may still seem fresh. To every structural engineer in the country, this was perhaps the day that shapes our future — what messages do we take from it and how will we look back in the future on this and the events that have followed? This opinion piece discusses a number of those messages and draws some conclusions as to what the engineer of the future may need to think or do, if we have really heeded these messages.

Although it is not a technical issue, our most important lesson is that this is first and foremost about people, not things. For many SESOC members, it was deeply personal and they were directly impacted in ways far beyond their professional involvement..

Following the earthquakes, there were a lot of new learnings from direct observations of what worked and what had not. Some of this would take time to digest and understand,
but SESOC adopted a proactive stance and published the ‘Interim Design Guidance’ (IDG) offering a three-pronged approach, with:

  1. Clarification of Building Code or NZ Standard requirements that did not seem to have been understood or followed correctly; and
  2. Recommendations for improvements to design to meet the performance objects of the Building Code where then-current practice or Standards did not seem to have worked well; and
  3. Recommendations of design improvements that might be made in order to achieve better outcomes (less damage) in the future, recognising that many owners were seeking these outcomes.

Much of this has since been addressed with revisions to Standards, strengthening our SESOC ethos of not just learning new behaviour but also insisting on the best known behaviour.  We are now also actively engaged in preparing guidance to help establish a code of practice on Low Damage Design and to introduce it into building regulation so that it comes under the umbrella of the Building Code.

Today, post-event serviceability is much more at the forefront of design philosophy; and this is being achieved through innovative engineering. Another new player in a shifting scenario is climate change where the focus is on the use of renewable resources. And, so once again, engineers will be required to adapt and innovate as they move towards building a sustainable future. The engineer of the future needs to be able to recognise the complex needs of society in adverse circumstances and provide leadership in managing these, and SESOC has been functioning at the forefront to constantly reach out to a larger audience, to understand and evolve through these changing dynamics.

Since our fairly modest beginning, we have come a long way. We prepare a number of guidance documents by technical sub committees, develop a range of seminars, and continue to communicate and deliver useful resources for SESOC members, whose strength has risen to 2500 members. Relationships with our international counterparts from the United Kingdom and California, and our working relationships with Engineering NZ, with NZSEE, and with NZGS are stronger than ever. We are developing ‘position statements’ on emerging issues, giving greater thought to how to reach out to the different geographical regions, how to cater for diversity amongst our membership, and how we can do more as a learned society to assist the professional development of our emerging structural engineers. But, what does the future for them hold?

A gaze into the crystal ball, albeit a smoky one, leaves us with a lot of questions unanswered. Will structural engineers become obsolete as the computers of tomorrow devour data and spew out results digitally, ready to be concretised? Or will they evolve into  ‘thought leaders’, excellent communicators, who excel at the creative and conceptual components of structural design that can never be emulated by a computer.

Either way, the answer lies in being sensitive to the rapidly shifting shape of the world around us, through cohesion of information and awareness of the changes occurring in the field of structural engineering so that our new thoughts, new ideas and new ways of doing things help us stay well equipped and excited for the future.