Welcome to POSTEN Engineering Systems

Welcome to  POSTEN Engineering Systems
Innovators of Post-tensioned, Reinforced Concrete, Tilt-up Wall and Steel Frame Software

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Structural Engineering - at it's Exciting Best - then & now

Who should design - the Architect or the Engineer?

Albert Speer, Hitler’s Architect of the Third Reich, pointed out in his Autobiography that the Architect was the melding of Art and Science, expressed in the name, with Technician as part of the name.  Architecture at it’s best is Holistic in nature – a Unified Design.

On the flip side, within the Design Professional community, Architects and Engineers tend to see themselves as total opposites (right half brainers and left half brainers).  Whether they believe it or not, this perception is a choice that they have made individually for themselves.  I say that as an Architect and as a Structural Engineer. I am both and, fortunately, I do have both a right half and a left half to my brain, which I see as an advantage.

The reason that Architects tend to be generalists and Engineers tend to be specifists is primary due to the educational system that trains these disciplines.  Architectural Schools actually have classes, whose only purpose is to instill creativity in the students.  Engineering Schools focus on the math.

There is an old joke that says:
“The Architect is someone, who knows a little bit about a lot of things.  He goes on learning less and less about more and more, until he ends up knowing absolutely nothing about everything.
The Engineer is someone, who knows a great deal about a few things. He goes on learning more and more about less and less, until he ends up knowing absolutely everything about nothing.
The General Contractor is someone who starts out knowing absolutely everything about everything, but ends up knowing absolutely nothing about anything, due to the fact that he does business with Architects and Engineers, and
The Sub-Contractor is someone who starts out knowing absolutely nothing about anything, but he never learns anything, due to his persistence in doing business with Architects, Engineers and General Contractors.”

Well I can’t speak for the contractors, but for the Architect’s and Engineers it is an exaggeration of an underlying truth.  And it does not have to be that way, nor has it always been that way.

Structural Engineering is actually a very young profession.  I used to work for Structural Engineers with license numbers in the single digits – it is that young.

The great Architect, Julia Morgan, after graduating from the University of California in Architecture went on to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  This was an Engineering School.  Like other Architects of her time, she designed the Architecture, the Mechanical Engineering, the Electrical Engineering, the Structural Engineering and the performed the Construction Management.   The fact that she designed the steam heating system and the structural system of the Oakland YWCA, did not seem to negatively impact her ability to create the outstanding Architecture of that Beautiful National Historic Landmark. In fact, I believe it helped, since it allowed her designs to be holistic in nature – a unified design.

It was only over time that these disciplines became separate professions.

When I entered the profession of Structural Engineering in the 1970’s, the great achievements in Structural Engineering were Architectural, and Structural Engineering was an exciting field to enter.

Post-tensioned concrete, with it’s promise of long slender spans, was in it’s infancy. Buckminster Fuller was developing Geodesic Buildings and Tensegrity.  The most popular exhibit at the Spokane Worlds Fair was the American Pavilion – a tent structure.  Oakland California’s Oracle Arena was a ground breaking suspended roof structure, in which the whole building was a celebration of Structural Engineering.  At U.C. Berkeley, T.Y. Lin was experimenting on his dream of a Curved Suspension Bridge.  Thin Shell concrete roofs (domes, folded plates, etc., culminating in the 4 uprighted hyperpolic paraboloid thin concrete shells forming the roof soaring high above San Francisco’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral) was the most popular course in U.C. Berkeley’s Structural Engineering department.  During this period of time, so many great buildings were expressions of the Structure that support them.

On the flip side, it seemed like everyone was writing extremely innovative computer programs (i.e. POSTEN, SAP, HP calculator programs, etc.).

Structural Engineering was an Exciting field to enter. 

Structural Engineers tended to be more generalist than not, willing to try new things.  As an example, Structural Engineer Hugh O’Neil, after a long successful carrier building his Architecture/Structural Engineering practice, in his early 60’s decided to change gears and focus his talents on building a suite of the extremely powerful and innovative structural engineering computer software.  Late in life, he stepped out of his comfort zone, trying something completely new.

So - What happened?

Over the years, Structural Engineering’s focus shifted primarily to mathematics (i.e. strength vs ductility, asd vs lrfd, push over analysis, etc.). While Architects have Heroes (living and dead) who are ALL practicing Architects, designing outstanding buildings, Structural Engineers’ Heroes are almost always College Professors (researchers, who may never have actually designed a building). For many Structural Engineers, being a great Engineer meant being chairman of the SEAONC Seismology Committee.  With exceptionally few exceptions, there are no Structural Engineers that are idolized by fellow Structural Engineers for being Great Practicing Engineers.

This has had a demoralizing affect on Structural Engineers.  Many Structural Engineers have expressed resentment that Architects get the accolades and that the work of the Structural Engineers goes on un-noticed and un-recognized (underneath the skin of the Architect’s wall finish).  But that is certainly not the fault of the Architect.

Over the recent years, there have been major innovations in Structural Engineering, but most of them have occurred in the field of research or manufacturing and with structural materials that are normally hidden under the skin of the building.  Research is great and innovations in manufacturing make money for the inventors, but the effect on elevating the status of Structural Engineering or empowering pride in Structural Engineers is minimal.

Structural Engineers need to think beyond the calculations, beyond the normal ways of designing in every project they do and produce Structural Engineering that CELEBRATES the Building’s Structure, similar to the thin shells and tent structures of 40 years ago.  And we, as Structural Engineers, need to value and applaud these Structural Engineers by name.

To the credit of the Structural Engineers Association, they now present awards recognizing the achievements of practicing Structural Engineers.  It is a great start.

If you value yourself (the Practicing Structural Engineer), others will value you too.

The Structural Engineers of Skidmore Owings and Merrill have shown the way back with Oakland, California’s Christ the Light Cathedral, which is a celebration of the Best of Structural Engineering in Wood Frame.  The structural frame of this building is its soul.  It is what you see and are impressed by.  Bravo to SOM.

Structural Engineers usually tell the Architect what he can’t do.  In the case of Christ the Light Cathedral, clearly the Structural Engineer asked the Architect how he could help realize the Architect’s dream and most likely offered his own suggestions on how to make it better.  A true collaboration – A Holistic Design.

 As much as the Structural Engineer wants to create a Great Structural Design, as much as the Structural Engineer wants to be the equal partner with the Architect in making his dream your own, the Greater the Final Design will be.  It will naturally celebrate the building’s structure and embolden the whole profession.

Structural Engineering is an Exciting place to be – if you care to make it so.

No comments:

Post a Comment