Tertiary institutions urged to embrace timber construction in engineering

Thea Smal, Engineer at Unilam Pressings and engineering graduate, has taken advantage of the courses on offer at the ITC-SA to help bridge the gap between her studies and the practical application thereof in her current profession

The Institute for Timber Construction South Africa (ITC-SA), SAQA-accredited professional body for the engineered timber construction industry, has noted a decline in familiarity with timber as a building material among graduates of local tertiary level engineering programmes, which has serious implications for the timber industry. As such, the Institute urges training providers in this field to review their curricula for a more holistic offering that embraces timber as a standard construction material.

While timber frame construction makes up a small, but growing, percentage of new builds in South Africa, timber is widely used for roof trusses, from domestic to commercial applications across the country. “With the high-volume usage of timber in roof trusses for a range of roofing applications, it is essential that all participants in the value chain are well equipped to ensure that timber roof trusses adhere to regulations, from design to certification,” says Amanda Obbes, ITC-SA General Manager, remarking, “The engineer has a pivotal role to play in ensuring the safety of the occupants of a structure, not just during the design, fabrication and erection of the roof trusses, but they essentially have the final say on whether or not a structure is fit for habitation. This makes it essential for the engineer to have proper exposure to timber and its design capabilities as a construction material and is the reason the ITC-SA is calling on universities and colleges to extend to timber its due in their engineering courses and degree programmes.”

A graduate’s perspective

Thea Smal, Civil Engineer at Unilam Pressings, has experienced this phenomenon as a university graduate. “At university, our exposure to timber construction was only in a third-year semester subject, namely Timber Design. We were offered much more in-depth learning for the other structural industries like concrete and steel, with two full semesters dedicated to these, as well as a measure of practical experience in the field. The first time I was introduced to timber as a building material was also the first introduction to limit-states design and our first exposure to information on how to design. Both concepts were introduced in the same subject with a focus on how to design using the SANS codes with limited reference to implementing these in the timber industry.”

While it is not uncommon for new graduates to experience a temporary ‘gap’ or lag between skills learned at university and their application in the working environment, upon entering the timber construction sector, Smal experienced an amplified break between the theoretical learnings from her studies and applying these at work: “It was difficult when I started working; I had a gap between what I had learned and how to apply this,” she says.

Timber and the built environment

The ITC-SA calls on training providers in the engineering field to review their curricula for a more holistic offering that embraces timber as a standard construction material

The world is developing at a rapid pace and we need more building options to support this growth. With prolific urbanization afoot, many developers are targeting height as an answer to density and most often will use steel and concrete to build these structures. We are missing a golden opportunity by skipping out on timber altogether, to build these structures more sustainably with a natural and renewable resource, because timber is often not part of the engineering graduate’s toolkit,” she says, noting, “A more sophisticated grasp of the benefits and limitations of all materials, timber included, could help to create a built environment in which timber is not pushed to the sidelines, but is harnessed alongside other industries, used for primary construction and stepping in to complement other trades, for a better construction sector overall.”

Bridging gaps

Early on, working for an ITC-SA System Supplier, Smal realized that there was an opportunity to broaden her knowledge and practical skillset in the timber construction field. She was led to the ITC-SA, whose mandate it is, as a professional body, to oversee the training and development of its members. “I was delighted to find the courses on offer at the ITC-SA. I have learned a great deal from participating in these courses and they have helped me bridge the gap between my studies and the practical application thereof so that I can carry out my profession with confidence,” she says.

As part of the ITC-SA’s directive to boost skills development and bridge gaps in the timber construction sector, the Institute offers a number of online courses and regularly hosts Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) approved CPD-accredited training courses for continuous professional development. These include, among others, timber information conferences and workshops at various trade shows and institutions like Local Authorities, Public Works, Banking Institutions and Banking Valuators,” Obbes remarks.

Online courses available through the ITC-SA

Roof Specialist Level 1

Home study, online assessment

Min. R380

Level 1 Estimator/Designer Course

6 ECSA CPD points

Home study, written assignments & exam

R3200 excl. VAT

Level 2 Estimator/Designer Course

6 ECSA CPD points

Home study, written assignments & exam

R3700 excl. VAT

Roof Inspection Training Course

3 ECSA CPD points

6-8 November 2018, Gauteng

R5800 excl. VAT


According to Obbes, “Exposing professionals and industry specifiers to timber construction on equal footing with other construction materials during their studies and beyond is critical, not only for the timber industry to thrive, but for multiple trades to be able to work in complement with one another for the best possible outcome. Without the necessary skills in the timber sector, this vision has little chance of being fully realized. This is why the Institute has implemented a host of courses that can boost the professional’s knowledge of timber, not only for personal development, but for the value that this brings to their workplace and the industry at large.”

Timber has unrivalled potential as a building material to answer the global call for more sustainable buildings that serve the people who live, work and play in them as well as environmental imperatives that will continue to underpin our drive for a greener built environment; it is critical that we support this vision through education, training and life-long learning,” she concludes.

The ITC-SA welcomes feedback and suggestions from students, professionals and other institutions in South Africa on the role that timber construction plays in tertiary education courses and programmes. The Institute calls on role players in the industry to submit their suggestions for collaboration to advance the agenda of timber construction in the field of engineering. Please forward your comments, suggestions or collaboration proposals to amanda@itc-sa.org.

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