DAILY NEWS Oct 30, 2012 11:40 AM - 8 comments

Engineers not the underdogs, but sometimes feel "hurt"

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A set of brave individuals took the podium at a panel held on Monday, October 15 at the Design Exchange in Toronto's downtown. Under the title "Limits of Architecture," the event explored the relationship of architects and engineers, a relationship which the organizers themselves described as having been "long and at times tumultuous."

As the promotion for the event put it: "An infinite struggle is enacted almost daily during the building process, yet these two seemingly disparate professions co-exist — but how?"

The panel was moderated by Professor Ghyslaine McClure and Dr. Effie Bouras, both of McGill University's Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics. These two individuals have also organized a concurrent exhibition at the Design Exchange entitled "Considering the Quake/Seismic Design on the Edge." In focusing on the intersection of engineering with architecture, both the exhibit and the panel courageously delve into territory that is rarely explored in the public realm.

The panel included two speakers from Arup Toronto: engineer Hassan Ally, and Richard Terry, buildings practice leader. Also on the panel were Professor Constantin Christopoulos, P.Eng., leader of the University of Toronto's structural dynamics and earthquake engineering team, Toronto architect Stephen Teeple, and Calvin Smith of HOK Canada. Lisa Rochon, the Globe and Mail's architecture critic made the introductions.

Bouras fanned the flames of debate by using quotes from Arthur Erickson and Walter Gropius to ask the question, "Is rationalism the enemy of architecture?" Not surprisingly, all the panelists agreed this was not the case but in fact that engineering and architecture are deeply integrated.

Terry (newly arrived from the United Kingdom), gave the work of Richard Rogers as a prime example. Rogers' buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris or Lloyds in London wear their engineering services on the outside, so that the engineering IS the architecture. "At the other extreme," Terry cited the Guggenheim Museum in New York where the engineering structure is buried within its spiral organic form.

"Engineering is what enables spectacular architecture, and will enable it in the future," said Professor Christopoulos. He cited the Bahai Temple of Light being constructed in Santiago, Chile (designed by Toronto architects Hariri Pontarini Architects) for which new glass materials have been developed and which "floats" on seismic isolators. Christopoulos also mentioned the work of his ex-students at Cast Connex who have designed massive cast steel structural nodes that are being used by architects around the world as an aesthetic and functional element.

"To make an island for an airport is an incredible thing," said Smith, while Ally cited the York University Subway Station under construction in north Toronto as an example of engineering helping to dictate the architectural form.

The panel discussed questions such as the impacts of sustainable design and BIM, but the most interesting discussions were on the question of "Are engineers undervalued?"

"Of course!" was the laughing response from the engineers. Terry went on to say that the oft-quoted analogy of master-servant for architect-engineer "is not helpful." The panelists agreed that it was important to set the right attitudes around the design table.

But while everyone on the panel was stressing the importance of engineering, it was evident that some engineers do feel undervalued. Bouras recalled an occasion from her days as an engineering student when she ventured into a studio class. After she introduced herself to the group, the professor summarily dismissed her with the rude remark: "I hate engineers!"

During the question and answer session, a member of the audience said it was amazing that engineers are not considered as playing a critical role in our buildings. Ghyslaine said that perhaps it was because "engineers are typically not looking for exposure," and don't mind being in the shadows. "We take our enjoyment from the work," she said.

"We don't have big names to throw about; we don't have iconic engineers. But I don't think we feel like the underdog," said Ghyslaine.

Terry agreed, but at the same time he remembered several times in his career being disappointed when others were thanked for their role in a project, and "we were not." "It hurts," he said.

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Reader Comments

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this is a fantastic initiative- saw the exhibit and it was outstanding, bravo to dr bouras and dr mcclure for thinking outside the box; good to see some are interested in the cutting edge and nonsuperficial understandings. bravo to those that support such initiatives and look past their own pastures.

Posted March 22, 2013 05:21 PM

Andrew McLellan, Struct. Eng.

It is ultimately in an architect's best interest to ensure that engineers are appropriately compensated in order to provide exceptional or even acceptable service. If engineers are not provided the appropriate fee to design and review innovative or creative systems, architects will not get innovative or creative systems. In fact, I believe there are inadequate fees to ensure a healthy and growing structural engineering profession. We have to make sure there are funds just not to survive, but to grow and mentor the younger generation and attract top candidates to the profession. This will also allow more time for practicing engineers to get involved with the codes and help streamline the technical aspects of our profession. With more talent within our profession, we can better optimize our code which will help make our design more efficient and minimize the use of valuable resources. Without the funds, the bridge between Architects and Engineers can only grow. As an engineer, I want to live in a world with great architecture, but that is not going to happen without the necessary support from our institutions, architects and clients. I have heard many complaints from engineers about these issues but very few suggestions as to how to change the tides of our predicament. I would like to hear from other engineers about how they feel they can help change the conditions we find ourselves in and how we can begin to implement those changes. Whatever we have been doing doesn't appear to be working.

Posted November 6, 2012 06:27 PM

H. Champion

I empathize with Jeff Truman and Arda Ozum, and certainly agree that the relationship is best when both professionals know their limits. The push toward an integrated project design methodology will never succeed if the people involved remain arrogant and self-important.
Speaking as an architect, we too are expected by many clients to produce amazing buildings for the lowest fee given insufficient time and an inadequate budget.
I have worked with some engineers who have been real team players and the building has been much better for it. I have also worked with engineers who told the client they could save money by putting a column in the corner rather than by cantilevering it as designed. While true, it was out of the overall costing context, it completely undercut the design and resulted in a poorer more pedestrian building.
When I was being trained, there were those who lamented the loss of 'Master Builder' status that architects had during the Renaissance. I do think we have surrendered to much responsibility/authority to newer professions and quasi-professions. We need to manage the risks we take on, not avoid taking any risk at all by letting someone else be responsible.
I agree that no one can do it all anymore. We were not taught enough to be structural, mechanical, or electrical engineers. The goal was to know enough to be able to understand what the engineers were telling us and discuss it intelligently.
One of the most important efforts underway is to pursuade clients to select consultants based on a value proposition rather than on the lowest fee. We would all benefit from this.

Posted November 1, 2012 02:30 PM

jeff truman

As an Owner of a small engineering shop, I find the best engineer/architect relationships are when both understand their limits.

Further, it seems architects are trained, and supported by their associations, to know and run EVERYTHING. That is not possible. And certainly not to perform the complex calculations that only a well trained engineer can perform. It is precisely that lack of detailed expertise that makes architects feel inferior, and drives a need to control, as in all human relationships.

On an airport project, a kerfuffle ensued when we used the OSHA loads for the baggage conveyor, which were not in accordance with the loads listed in the design-build spec, which was prepared by the architect, who did not consult with an engineer in determining structural loads. The architect would not accept their mistake, despite the obvious issue it could have caused with the structure of the conveyor. A great example of exceeding one's limits, then getting stuck in a position of pride, which was exacerbated by a cultural condition.

The sanctity of a human's ego should not be maintained through risk to another person's safety!

Posted November 1, 2012 10:02 AM

Arda Ozum

As owner and director of a structural engineering firm based in Edmonton, Alberta I have reluctantly steered my business away from working with the vast majority of architects in our City. We pursue industrial projects that don't require the services of an architect. Turning away work with architectural firms is the only way we can stay in business.

When we work on projects where an architect is the prime consultant, we are expected to be lowest bid to get the work but at the same time provide top quality service for the project. The two criteria do not co-exist and the majority of buildings in Edmonton reflect this. It has been a rare occasion where we have profited from working on a project where an architectural firm was involved. It is my opinion that most architects here in Edmonton do not value engineers or the working relationships they have with them. It feels as though we are a necessary evil to get their projects completed.

The problem is made worse by a professional organization that does little to regulate fees and protect the value of engineering services. This is compounded by engineering firms that drastically drop fees and devalue the service for everyone in the industry in order to win projects. If we as engineers don't hold value the service we provide by drastically dropping rates to win projects, why should anyone else value our services?

Posted October 31, 2012 01:22 PM

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