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Fundamentals of Beam Design

The evolution of beam design, in the materials available for use and
advancements in the understanding of their behaviour and physical
properties, had made it possible to construct the architectural masterpieces
of today. To appreciate these achievements the Engineer must have a
fundamental understanding behind the choice of material including beam
cross section profile and physical characteristics, the significance of the
beam supports, as well as being able to understand and perform basic
calculations on beam deflections, shear stresses and bending moments.

Choice of material
Ultimately the choice of material determines the strength of the beam, that
is how much load it can support before failure occurs and generally relates
to its Young’s modulus (E). However, most materials exhibit different
behaviour when subject to compression and tension, which must be
accounted for in its design.

The four most significant materials used in beam design, that will be
examined further here are: cast iron, steel, concrete and wood. Others
include carbon fibre and composite materials.

Cast Iron
Cast iron was recognised as a building material in the late 1700s when
during the Industrial Revolution a method of production (by blast furnace),
this being both economical and practical, was developed. Cast iron is
generally strong in compression but not tension so initial applications were in
the form of bridges and other structures requiring short members existing in
compression. Coalbrookdale iron bridge, built c.1770 provides and excellent
example of this, figure 1.
Figure 1 – Coalbrookdale Iron Bridge

Young’s modulus of cast iron: E ? 211 Gpa means it is relatively strong yet
simultaneously brittle by nature. This undesirable characteristic lead to a
number of catastrophic collapses of early bridges and limited its use as a
building material, despite the ability to form beams of varying shapes and
elaborate designs. In spite of these negative connotations it was viewed as a
revolutionary building material as it enabled the replacement of traditionally
masonry with sleek, slender iron beams.

In the late 1880s, Henry Bessemer developed a method for mass producing
steel – a move that signified the dawn of the skyscraper. This strong
material with a Young’s modulus of: E ? 800 Gpa, could now be feasibly
formed into I-beams and steel columns. Combining a series of these I-
beams and steel columns it was possible to construct a structural, steel core
of great height (figure 2) to which the floors, roof and walls of a building
could be attached, giving birth to the skyscraper. This method was used to
construct the Empire State Building, New York, which was to remain the
tallest building in the world for over forty years.
Figure 2 – steel core construction, New York c.1930

Using steel as a building material is not without its disadvantage, good in

both compression and tension due to the ability to dictate a specific cross
section profile, it softens at high temperatures so to prevent the collapse of
buildings in the event of fire it tends to be encases in a fire resistant

Another advantage of steel is the ability to vary its composition and hence
change its physical properties. Typically an alloy of iron and carbon, the
carbon content commonly being between 0.2% and 2.14%, the addition of
manganese will provide a significant increase in the strength at a modest
cost. Similarly the addition of chromium or nickel will harden the steel and
increase its ability to resist corrosion. Other alloys can be added accordingly
to enhance certain physical properties or characteristics.


Both the Ancient Egyptians and Romans used concrete in their buildings,
however after the collapse of the Roman Empire its secrets were almost lost
until its rediscovery in recent times. The application of a patent for the
manufacture of Portland cement in 1824 signifies one of the important
milestones in history of concrete and since this time significant
advancements have been made with the development of pre-stressed
concrete beams.

Concrete contains water, aggregate and cement. The aggregate tends to be

gravels (comprising of crushed rock and sand) that form the bulk volume of
the concrete. Cement, commonly Portland cement, bonds together the
constituents providing the strength and durability of the concrete.

Concrete has a wide range of functions and is particularly suited for

applications where it is subject to compressive forces, such as integral
building columns, yet with reinforcements this range can be expanded to
include thin-shell structures as show in figure 3.

Figure 3 – El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia

Pre-stressed concrete contains tendons (usually made of steel), as concrete

is generally only good in compression these tendons offset the tensile stress
a concrete member would have otherwise experience when subject to a
load. There are three main types of pre-stressing concrete beams, pre-
tensioned, bonded post-tensioned and unbonded post-tensioned:

1. Pre-tensioned concrete: the concrete beam is cast around already

tensioned tendons in the manufacturing process; these are then
released and secured.
2. Bonded post-tensioned: the tendons are inserted into a pre-
designated duct after the concrete in cast (poured and begun the
curing process) on site; these are the released and secured.
3. Unbonded post-tensioned concrete: these are the same as bonded
post-tensioned except for the fact that they allow for movement of
the tendons within the concrete and can be adjusted at a later date.


Wood has been used for centauries as a building material due to its high
availability, durability and strength. Wood is classified according to the tree
of its origin; it beinga hardwood or softwood, this classification does not
necessarily represent its engineering properties. For example, Balsa is
classified as a hardwood yet its characteristics mean it is actually softer that
many commercial types of softwood.

As an organic material, wood has a tendency to adapt to its surroundings

specifically climate conditions where by it will expand when moisture is
present and contract in dryer climates. Figure 4 shows a wooden frame,
which will form the integral structure of a building.

Figure 4 – wooden framed house

Beam Characteristics
There are a number of properties of a beam that an Engineer should be
aware of as they dictate beam behaviour when subject to a load and
ultimately represent possible areas or mechanisms for failure. The main ones

 Second moment of area (also referred to as the second moment of

inertia): this depends on the cross section profile of the beam and is
a measure of the resistance of the shape of the beam to bending.
 Bending moment: usually illustrated on a bending moment diagram,
and often related the deflection of the beam, can be used to
calculate regions subject to maximum bending forces and
consequently most likely to yield. It also illustrates which sections of
the beam are in compression or tension.
 Beam deflection: beam deflection tends to be undesirable and
correlates to the bending moment.
 Shear diagrams: these are used to illustrate stress concentrations
along the beam and provide a means to identify areas of maximum
shear forces where the beam is more likely to fail by shear.

Second moment of area

The second moment of area (I) is a property of the shape used to predict the
resistance of the beam to bending and deflection. It is calculated from the
physical cross sectional area of the beam and relates the profile mass to the
neutral axis (this being a region where the beam is subject to neither
compression or tension, as labelled in figure 5.). It is dependant on the
direction of loading; for most beams except both hollow and solid box and
circular sections, the second moment of area will be different when loaded
from a horizontal or vertical direction.
Figure 5 – a) simply supported beam of length l with no force; b) simply
supported beam subject to point load (force) F at centre creating bending.

The second moment of area can be calculated from first principles for any
cross section profile using the equation:

However, for common beam profiles standard formula are used:

I – beam / Universal beam

Figure 6 – I-beam cross-section profile with loading parallel to web.

The I – beam or Universal beam has the most efficient cross sectional profile
as most of its material is located away from the neutral axis providing a high
second moment of area, which in turn increases the stiffness, hence
resistance to bending and deflection. It can be calculated using the formula:

As shown in figure 6, this is only suitable for loading parallel to the web, as
loading perpendicular to the web would be less efficient.

Box section

Figure 7 – Box section cross-section profile

The box section has the most efficient profile in loading both horizontally and
vertically. It has a lower value for second moment of area so is less stiff. It
can be calculated by using the formula:

Bending moment and shear diagrams

Bending moment and shear diagrams are typical drawn alongside a diagram
of the beam profile as shown below, this enables an accurate representation
of the beams behaviour.

a) represents a beam subject to a uniformly distributed load (udl) of

magnitude w, across its length, l. Total force on beam being wl.

The beam is simply supported with reaction forces R.

Distance x represents any point along the beam.

b) shear force diagram shows the regions of maximum shear, for this beam
these correlate to the reaction forces.

The slope of the shear force diagram is equal to the magnitude of the
distributed load.

A positive shear force will cause the beam to rotate clockwise and a negative
shear force will cause the beam to rotate in an anticlockwise direction.

c) maximum bending moment occurs when no shear forces exist on the


As the beam is simply supported, that is only subject to vertical reaction

forces, no bending moment is experienced at these points. If the beam were
restricted as in a cantilever situation then bending moments would be
experienced at either endCorrelating to the diagrams of beam loading, shear
force and bending moments maximums and values at distance x along the
beam can be calculated using the following formula:

Reaction force and maximum shear force and Shear force at distance
Maximum bending moment and Bending moment at distance x

Maximum deflection and Deflection at distance x

These formulas are specific to this beam situation, that is a uniformly

distributed load with simple supports as shown. For a cantilever beam, or
one with varying degrees of freedom at the supports (this refers to restrains
in the horizontal direction subjecting the beam to a turning moment at this
location) then different formula will be required. All formula can be
calculated from first principles but for convenience look-up-tables such as
those contained in “Roark’s formulas for stress and strain” can be utilised.

The equations for maximum beam deflection, ? MAX and deflection at distance
x, ? are shown to be dependant on the Young’s modulus, E and second

moment of area, I, where as shear force and bending moment are

independent of these beam characteristics.