Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What do engineers do?

I’m a structural engineer and I design buildings. When I say that to people 9 times out of 10 I get a reply along the lines of “so you’re an architect then”.  Why is it that what engineers do is so misunderstood and underappreciated?  There are fantastic role models out there, if you know where to look, take Yewande Akinola an engineer who is getting amazing exposure on channel 4 at the moment http://www.channel4.com/programmes/titanic-the-mission/articles/yewande-akinola as one of the modern engineers rebuilding the titanic.

I have been asked the architect question so many times by people of all age groups that I’ve perfected my fairly basic initial explanation. 

Take a person, imagine this is the building, a product.  The architect would say what they want the person to look like, their height, shape, any defining features and functions.  The structural engineer (that’s me) would say well, we will need the bone structure to take this form, be in these places, fit together like this and be built like this.  But it takes a lot more specialists to produce a successful building than you would imagine and often, frustratingly, it’s the architect that gets the credit and publicity.  Continuing the person analogy, you need mechanical engineers to design the heart, lungs, essential organs and make sure they are the right size for the job. Electrical engineers are responsible for connecting all the organs together, designing the nervous system of the person or building and we all have to work together to coordinate the end product.  I know this is a very simplified example but it tries to paint a picture of the collaborative nature of engineering, it is all teamwork and communication.

I’m not from a family of engineers, in fact, I didn’t know a single engineer when I chose to study it at university but I was utterly inspired by a book that I read during my History of Art and Architecture A-level: Peter Rice’s An Engineer Imagines.  He eloquently showed how successful engineering and architectural collaborations result in some of the most career defining projects.  His enviable CV included the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Sydney Opera House, neither of which could have been realised without ground breaking engineering and appreciation of the architectural intent.



My career defining project (so far!) Aylesbury Theatre opened earlier this month (I took this photo on the gala opening night), my company Ramboll worked closely with the Architects (RHWL’s Arts Team) for over 6 years to realise the architectural vision.  It was an amazing project to be involved in, I was responsible for the structural design of the striking timber foyer, the high performance reinforced concrete auditorium and the multi-functional steel roof trusses.  There have been a whole host of specialist designers involved, including Ramboll’s mechanical and electrical engineers, fire and fa├žade engineers and external consultants for the theatre equipment and acoustics.  The successes of the project I believe are attributable to the Architect’s vision and the skill and dedication of the team of engineering specialists and contractors

I would like to see a better understanding of the role of engineers in the community, whether responsible for buildings, schools, infrastructure, industry, sustainability, invention and innovation and the importance of collaborative working.