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SSRC Mourns the Loss of Nick Snowden Trahair

Updated: Jan 26, 2022


Nicholas Snowden, a leading Australian academic and contributor to knowledge of the behaviour and design of steel structures, died on May 19, 2021, at the age of 87.

Nick was born in Brisbane on 29 th April 1934. His father Geoffrey was a neurologist; his mother Alice had a degree in commerce from the University of Melbourne. Nick went to Fort Street Boys school in Sydney, where he excelled in sport (rugby union, water polo and swimming) and led the school chess team to victory in the Sydney All Schools competition.

Nick received five degrees from the University of Sydney, including a Bachelor of Science (1954), Bachelor of Engineering (1956) and Master of Engineering Science (1959). In 1960, after three years with the Department of Works in Canberra, he joined the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney, and went on to receive a Doctor of Philosophy in 1968 and a prestigious Doctor of Engineering in 1994. He was appointed Lecturer in Civil Engineering 1960 and rose through the ranks to Professor in 1979, then Challis Professor of Civil Engineering (1984-1998), and Emeritus Professor from 1999 onward. He held visiting appointments at Washington University, The University of Sheffield, The Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, The University of Alberta and Imperial College of Science and Technology, and delivered invited lectures throughout the world.

As head of the structures group, he nurtured a cohort of PhD students and provided opportunities for younger colleagues, many of whom proceeded to have outstanding academic and professional careers. He created a supportive environment and an ambition to be a world-leading research group in steel structures. Amidst the focus on teaching and high quality research, he was known as a formidable spin bowler at the annual cricket matches between PhD students and staff.

Nick created the Centre for Advanced Structural Engineering at the University of Sydney to strengthen links with industry in 1989. Through the Centre, he worked on exciting projects such as the design and testing of components for the Olympic Stadiums for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. He also created the BHP Steel Chair (1990) in conjunction with the then CEO of the Australian Institute of Steel Construction. In its time, it was the first industry funded chair in Engineering at the University of Sydney, and set a significant precedent for the University.

Nick was Director of the Australian Institute of Steel Construction (1989-1998), Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia FIEAust and Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. From 1964 to 1995, he was a member of the Steel Structures Committee of Standards Australia which produced the steel design codes AS-CA1 (1968), AS1250 (1972, 1975, 1981), and the first cold-formed steel structures code AS1538 (1974). He co-chaired the Steel Structures Committee which developed the Limit States Steel Structures Standard AS4100 (1990), internationally regarded as one of the world’s leading steel design standards. Nick is broadly considered the father of AS4100 and many of the design equations developed by Nick and featured in AS4100 have been adopted across the world. Nick was also instrumental in moving Australian steel design into the “computer” age, as principal developer of the LIMSTEEL computer software design package which is almost universally used in Australia and New Zealand for the routine design of steel structures.

Throughout his 38-year career, Nick maintained a strong and continuing connection to academic research, teaching and industry collaboration. He was engaged by bridge consultant MBK (now Cardno) in 1981 to undertake complex buckling analyses of steel truss road bridges to be fabricated in Australia and supplied to Indonesia. Nick’s work was essential in ensuring the stability and safety of the bridges, which were of spans to 80m and erected by cantilever method. In a massive program, over 3,500 spans were subsequently fabricated and supplied for bridges built throughout Indonesia in the 1980/90s incorporating Nick’s recommendations. He was also engaged to advise on the structural performance of the Sydney Cricket Ground lighting towers when the National Rugby League Grand Final 1981 was almost cancelled due to dynamic vibration under high wind. He formed a team with younger academics to write computer programs for vibration analyses, undertake structural testing on key components and instrument the towers for vibration measurements, ultimately to propose effective measures to dampen vibrations.

In 1995, an international conference was held in Sydney to honour his 60 th birthday and achievements in structural stability and in the design of steel structures, with representatives from most major economies attending. Amongst these were the chairmen of the British, German, Canadian and New Zealand steel structures committees, and members of national steel structures committees from the USA, Italy, Singapore, Japan and South Africa. The Proceedings contain an outstanding set of papers in testimony to Nick’s international reputation as a world leader in structural stability and design.

Nick continued his research after retiring in 1999 and was called upon as advisor for several major projects, including the design of the arch for the Wembley Stadium in 2000, a world first in terms of its structural form and scale. The arch comprised some 500 individual steel tubes laced together to form a 450m long fully welded elegant lattice structure. It was designed from first principles of structural engineering by a design team at Connell Wagner. To build confidence within the project team, Nick was asked to conduct an independent review of the design methodology and confirm that it provided adequate structural reliability. Nick’s verification of the proposed approach gave the team the sought confidence in their design. Likewise, when the western grandstand of the WIN Stadium in Wollongong buckled in strong winds in 2011, the local government appointed Nick as its independent expert to oversee and instill confidence in the redesign.

Nick’s contributions to research, design and teaching of steel structures are enormous. He was the author of two seminal books (The Behaviour and Design of Steel Structures (now in six editions providing advice on the steel design codes of Australia, USA, UK, and Europe) and Flexural–Torsional Buckling of Structures) and over 220 research papers. It is Nick’s research into the lateral buckling of steel structures that gained him international standing in structural stability, with his contributions in this area being considered by many as unrivaled. This work earned Nick numerous national and international awards, including six medals and prizes from the Institution of Engineers, the ASCE Shortridge Hardesty Award for “his research on the lateral–torsional stability of beams and active participation in the development of several standards that are of significant value to the profession”, and the Lynn Beedle Award of the Structural Stability Research Council. Nick was a founding editorial board member of the Journal of Constructional Steel Research. Nick married Sally (nee Dixon) in 1959. They had five children: Jeremy, Lisa, Andrew, Jonathan and Benjamin, of whom Jonathan died from heart disease in 2020. Nick was a devoted husband and loving father. After retiring in 1999, he traveled extensively and played golf and bridge. He was an avid gardener and loved literature, from the ancient Greek classics to science fiction and the contemporary novel. He has continued to write papers on structural engineering and was corresponding with colleagues about work until a week before he died Nick is survived by his beloved Sally, his other four children, and six grandchildren (Joanna, Katie, Esme, Linus, Julian and Angus).

Nicholas Snowden, an outstandingly eminent structural engineer with tremendous impact in the domain of steel structures but also a humble and gracious man. He was known for his clear thinking and concise writing, which he patiently imparted to students and younger colleagues. __________________________________________________ Kim J.R. Rasmussen / Gregory J. Hancock / Mark A. Bradford Sydney, June 2021

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