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Understanding ULS & SLS in structural design: Ensuring safety and comfort

Do you know the difference between Ultimate Limit State and Serviceability Limit State?

Have you ever wondered how your house stands up to the elements, or why you don't feel like you're on a roller coaster whenever you walk across your living room? The magic behind it all lies in two vital principles of structural engineering: Ultimate Limit State (ULS) and Serviceability Limit State (SLS). At DTCE Structural Engineers, we're on a mission to create safe, comfy, and practical spaces, and we're ready to explain the magic for you!


Let's dive into the world of structural design, shall we?


The Basics: ULS and SLS Explained

Ultimate Limit State (ULS) and Serviceability Limit State (SLS) are both design criteria or methodologies used in structural engineering, forming the basis for our calculations and analysis.


ULS & SLS in structural design are not just rules or guidelines; they underpin the mathematical and computational models to ensure that structures are safe and functional. They involve complex calculations that consider factors such as material strength, load types (like wind, seismic, or human-induced loads), and environmental conditions, among other variables.


While ULS focuses on the extreme conditions a structure must withstand without collapse (like earthquakes or high winds), SLS deals with normal usage conditions ensuring the building doesn't show excessive deformations or vibrations that might cause discomfort or disrupt the building's functionality, even if these wouldn't lead to a total structural failure.


By providing the criteria for both safety and functionality, these design states play an instrumental role in the overall design and analysis process in structural engineering.


The NZ Building Code: Your Safety Net

The New Zealand Building Code establishes design and construction standards for our nation's buildings, incorporating both ULS and SLS to guarantee safe, long-lasting, and purposeful structures.

While SLS guidelines are in the New Zealand Building Code, it doesn't explicitly require meeting the criteria for Building Consent. This means some buildings are designed and built under ULS guidelines, without accounting for SLS. How can that manifest itself? We've highlighted some common failures of existing structures below.


Common Types of Failures in Existing Structures

When ULS or SLS is not properly accounted for, failures in your structure can occur. Here are a few examples of the common issues we've come across in our work, many of which could be avoided with proper consideration of both ULS and SLS:


wall cracks
Cracks in a wall due to an earthquake event

Structural instability

When ULS principles aren't properly considered, buildings may struggle under heavy loads, like earthquakes or wind events, causing scary or life threatening scenarios like collapsing walls or buckling columns.






cracks near window
Crack near windows due to excessive deflection

Excessive deflection

If SLS criteria are not adequately addressed, structures can experience excessive

deflection or movement over time.


This can manifest as sagging beams, sloping floors, or cracked walls and ceilings.






Floor joists that may lead to bouncy floors
Floor joists that may lead to bouncy floors

Bouncy floors

As mentioned earlier, neglecting SLS criteria can lead to bouncy floors characterised by excessive vibrations or movement.


This can be both uncomfortable and potentially unsafe for occupants.





corrosion on balustrade
Corrosion in balustrade due to poor materials choice

Material deterioration

Failures can also occur due to the degradation of building materials over time, such as steel corrosion or timber decay.

Properly addressing SLS criteria, including considerations for material durability, can help minimise these issues.






piles on a property
Inadequate piling for a building which didn't get CCC

Foundation issues Substandard design or construction of foundations can lead to uneven settlement or even complete foundation failure.


This can cause structural distress and potentially compromise the building's safety.





Addressing ULS and SLS in Existing Structures

Ideally, when a building is designed and built, it will incorporate both ULS and SLS. However, because it isn't explicitly required for Building Consent it's not uncommon for existing structures to meet the ULS requirements while falling short of the SLS. In these cases, we can consult with you regarding the cost-benefit analysis of upgrading the structure of your building.


This consultation will consider the expected lifespan and functionality of the building, the potential risks associated with not meeting SLS criteria, and the financial implications of any necessary upgrades. By working together with you, we can help identify the most appropriate and cost-effective solutions to address the shortcomings of your building's design, ensuring its safety, comfort, and compliance with the New Zealand Building Code.

Project Example

In a recent project, we partnered with a client on a basement conversion project that involved constructing a new retaining wall and a concrete slab so they could make a vibrant new space.

During the measurement and concept phase, we noticed that the span's ceiling joists were significantly undersized. Even though the joists met the ULS criteria, the lack of consideration for SLS meant that the floor above felt like a trampoline!


We recommended an upgrade while the ceiling was still open. The client agreed, resulting in a safer, more comfortable space that added value to their property.

Last words

While ULS keeps your building safe under extreme conditions, SLS ensures your day-to-day comfort and ease. Ignoring either can lead to multiple problems during the lifecycle of your building.


At DTCE Structural Engineers, we believe in a balanced approach, prioritizing safety and comfort in equal measure. Our commitment to open communication helps us deliver bespoke solutions that meet your needs and enhance your quality of life.


Whether you're planning a new building or upgrading an existing one, we're here to ensure you get the best of both worlds: safety and comfort.

Let's shape a more secure, comfortable future together!

CONTACT US



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