14 conceptual design questions to ask yourself before sitting the IStructE exam

In preparing myself for the IStructE Chartered Member exam, I have used the following 14 questions to evaluate my strengths and weaknesses in conceptual design within 4 broad categories. These are based on the four pre-requisites mentioned in Bob Wilson’s 2004 paper on Conceptual Design in The Structural Engineer (Vol 82, Issue 4).

"Conceptual design" by Bob Wilson


I would recommend you read the article as it is very helpful. If you are an IStructE member of any grade (including students and graduates) you can access the article free of charge.

I would also recommend you have tried at least one exam question before this, or at the very least read one through, annotated it and have it handy, as this will give you a good context. I am focused on building structures questions, but you should be able to apply this to any question.

You could run through these questions with a 1-5 point scale (1 – not confident, 5 very confident) or simply highlight certain areas you need to look at more.

So here they are:

The widest possible technical knowledge

1. Can I recognise a wide range of structural principles in existing structures?

See image below. By looking at case studies of existing buildings and ‘novel’ engineering solutions, you can build a library of examples and the way people have solved problems in the past.

2. Can I comfortably use and combine “core technologies” or   “physical principles” to suit a problem?

A simple example would be combining a truss with portalisation to allow clear access in a key area (to meet certain constraints e.g. services, access). Perhaps more relevant to the exam, an example could be shallow foundations with a steel frame (rather than a concrete frame which will be heavier overall)!

3. Do I know the advantages and limitations of these “core technologies”?

We're talking about span tables for different choices (e.g. composite vs precast floor) but also braced vs moment frames (moment frame could result in unacceptable amounts of deflection).

4. Can I comfortably analyse & design these “core technologies”?

Typically, this would mean generating multiple solutions for the same question (specifically “distinct and viable” – see Ralph’s blog post and the exam pack for more details of this)

Structural principles in action

Structural principles in action. Images: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis (Top) – unusual cable system reflected in façade, Gherkin – Diagrid structure on show (Bottom right), Tower Bridge – Braced tower structure hidden behind façade (Bottom left)

Aside: I understand “Core technologies” (as Bob refers to it) as the various fundamental physical approaches to transferring loads. For example, in a spanning structure the choice (and combination) of beam, truss, frame or funicular components (Millais – Building Structures uses and expands on this terminology).

Coming of age as an engineer

5. Am I developing solutions independently rather than re-phrasing problems?

I always try to go to my superiors with solutions rather than problems – even if they're not fully detailed!

6. Do I have a broad understanding of relevant topics? And can I transfer theoretical knowledge between different situations/materials?

7. Am I confident enough in what I do to take responsibility for my work? (And humble enough to listen to criticism from those I trust!)

Constraints & criteria

8. Can I quickly assess the stated constraints in a brief/question?

This is mainly about practice!

9. Am I able to identify the unstated constraints?

Again, comes mainly through practice – I am developing a checklist to make sure I can quickly run through every area a solution needs to consider!

10. Can I evaluate potential designs in terms of structural analysis, materials and construction, and for functionality, safety & value for money?

See the ‘aide memoir’ in Wilson’s paper.

11. Can I quickly assess the main pitfalls/areas needing more evaluation and any automatic fails? (e.g. ignoring deflection or overall overturning, on a cantilever solution)

My colleague had a section in his reference file where he listed common problems, and how to deal with them – such as changes in column positions between floors.


For more information about constraints please see our exam pack, available now.

Communication skills

12. Can I sketch structural ideas and solutions (free hand if necessary), in proportion, quickly and efficiently?

13. Can I draw plans, sections & elevations to scale?

14. Am I able to visualise, organise and draw the ‘critical’ details to scale?

Sketching skills are commonly criticised by examiners in their reports, and this is an area that can be a strength with practice. Resources such as this course from  Drawing At Work/UCL can help you.

There are lots of other areas that the exam will test but I have found the hardest area to get up to speed on so far has been conceptual design.



What areas do you feel weakest in, and what are you going to do about it before the exam? Feel free to discuss in our Forum!


3 Comments on 14 conceptual design questions to ask yourself before sitting the IStructE exam

  1. Badmus Raifu Oludamola // 4th November 2017 at 11:43 pm // Reply

    I am a graduate of Civil Engineering from one of Nigeria University. I need a practical guide/mentor.
    Please call you connect me with anyone.

  2. Very informatic.thanks

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