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Understanding Structures: Analysis, Materials, Design

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By David Seward. Palgrave Macmillan, third edition, 2003. 360pp

David Seward's book attempts to straddle the 'handbook'and the 'textbook'approach to engineering, writes Matthew Wells.

The layout is clear and the subject matter carefully graded in increasing complexity. Only simple determinate structures, those whose stresses and strains can be found without knowing too much about the stiffness of the various parts, are included, which excludes many modern structures.

However, Seward avoids the pitfalls of many elementary textbooks, which view the simple topics only as stepping stones to advanced theory.

Everything is worked through with the same emphasis, sometimes obscuring the importance of key concepts, such as Euler buckling. The apologies that attend 'difficult' explanations are distracting.

The examples are homely - children's swings and washing lines. The use of recognisable, simplified exercises, such as the Bosphorous bridge, brings immediacy and inculcates a sense of the forces involved in real structures. Unfortunately, Seward specifically excludes aesthetics from consideration.

Engineering is as creative as other disciplines but you wouldn't necessarily get that from this book.

As a survey of current design practice, Understanding Structures reflects the transition from permissible stress to limit state design theory. This process was confusing to me 20 years ago and this snapshot doesn't make it any less so. However, one senses something of the true nature of structural design in the lacunae (useful asides attach to the open structure of the text). If the warning not to descend into unsupported excavations is pertinent, then the other survival technique still really important on modern sites also needs a mention - stay away from edges.

We have a copy of this book in our company library and I would expect every engineer in our group to regularly use the methods described as 'back of envelope' checks at the end of a complex analysis.

Architectural students often ask for 'a calculation' to satisfy the bizarre requirements of the RIBA technical assessment and we direct them to adjust one of the robust examples as an appendix to their technical studies.

I prefer engineering texts to be beautiful and readable but I guess you can't have everything.

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