/ Articles / Change Leader Full Interview: Engineering Is Much More Than What’s Taught in School

Change Leader Full Interview: Engineering Is Much More Than What’s Taught in School

Todd Danielson on February 17, 2020 - in Articles, Interview

Sinéad Mac Namara is an associate professor at Syracuse University, teaching structural engineering courses for the School of Architecture and the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences. She also co-authored a book, Collaborations in Architecture and Engineering, with Clare Olsen.

V1 Media: Please tell me about your education and background?

Mac Namara: I have a bachelor’s degree in Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering from Trinity College, Dublin. And from there I went to Princeton, where I got a master’s degree and a PhD, both in Structural Engineering. And I have been teaching at Syracuse University, in both the Architecture and Civil Engineering programs, for 13 years now.

V1 Media: Can you describe the Syracuse School of Architecture and the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences as well as what they focus on?

Mac Namara: The School of Architecture is a big, professional degree program with about 100 students graduating with a bachelor’s in architecture every year, and 700 total students, including graduate students. It’s among the top-ranked programs in the country. Our emphasis is on a rigorous training for the profession with a broad base. They get a lot of professional, comprehensive skills; but they get a rigorous theoretical and historical grounding. The College of Engineering offers a number of different degrees in the different areas of engineering, I teach mostly Civil Engineering students. They are also in a professional accredited program and most of the students are preparing for a career in engineering.

V1 Media: Could you tell me a little bit about your research focus? I’m particularly interested in collaboration among architects and engineers.

Mac Namara: My research has been in pedagogy; teaching for innovation and creativity in engineering, teaching technical engineering skills in architecture, which is a less-technical field typically then engineering, and I became interested in collaboration among technical and nontechnical experts.

A few years ago, I co-authored a book, Collaborations in Architecture and Engineering, with Clare Olsen, a colleague in architecture. We were working on an NSF grant together to look at how the teaching skills of architecture could be used in the engineering context to foster innovation and creativity. In doing so, we came across interesting people and case studies. From that, came this book about the way in which collaboration among architects and engineers is structured, and how the different ways the two professions work are manifested in the projects they create.

We interviewed a lot of civil or structural engineers and architects about work they created. We talked to them about how their working relationships were structured. We talked to them about how they worked with one another; the influence that each other’s skills and expertise had; the ways they’ve earned each other’s trust in that process; and how such colloaborations were important in their careers. We were really trying to write a book for students of both professions. We wanted architecture students to understand they wouldn’t make buildings in isolation by themselves, like a Leonardo da Vinci style character who understands and controls everything from the tip of the building to the foundations and everything in between. That simply is not the reality of the contemporary profession. Working with others to incorporate expertise that you don’t have is a vital skill.

For the civil engineering students, we also wanted them to understand the set of goals that the designer they work with would have for a project would be very different from those that are important in the expertise they bring to the assignment. As a structural engineering student, to take a broad view, the primarly goal is to make sure the building doesn’t fall down, right? So we’ll take the loads that are on it and figure out a design that will be safe and serviceable for the clients. But the architect is coming with a whole set of other goals, and the engineer hasn’t really been trained to think about them. So we wanted this book to be a window into that wider process for civil engineering students.

V1 Media: If you’re talking to engineers, what’s the piece of advice you’d give them so they can better relate to the architects they work with?

Mac Namara: We talk a lot about the vocabulary of the two disciplines, and we notice from our research that civil and structural engineers and architectures who work in the field for any length of time are very good at this learning the important terms of each other’s professions. There is tremendous mutual learning and teaching that happens. It was fascinating to talk to civil engineers on projects that are considered prominent pieces of architecture. For example, the new building that the Cooper Union University did in Lower Manhattan was by an architecture firm named Morphosis. It got a lot of awards and attention, and students of architecture will know this building. We talked to the structural engineer who’d been working in the field with architects for probably 20 years and he was really knowledgeable about architecture–way more knowledgeable than most civil engineering students are, because civil engineering students have little exposure to architecture while they’re being trained. Architecture students usually have some exposure to engineering during their training. So a big emphasis for engineering students is, from our point of view, to get them a bit more engaged in design, in talking about design, learning about design–whether it’s history of their own profession as designers, being more aware of what’s around them in terms of architecture and design more broadly, and seeing interesting projects that are happening. We wanted engineering students to realize that the people in the profession they’re going into are really good at interfacing with designers. This will be a lifelong learning that will happen over time and we wanted to prime them for that. I always advise engineering students interested in the structural field to take architecture or deisgn  classes if they can, to get that early exposure.
We have some key messages in the book; a big emphasis was on how you might better prepare students for collaborative practice  in the profession, so we asked professionals about what the students they hired didn’t know. What can we do to better position them for this kind of work? We talked about a common vocabulary, because architecture has a very distinct disciplinary vocabulary that it uses, and engineering does, too. The two don’t overlap as much as you would think. So it was for those students within those disciplines to start to get them more exposure to each other’s set of values or constraints.

We talked a lot about how the people who do this work well have a tremendous amount of respect for each other’s expertise and often formed lifelong working relationships. Interestingly, even though it’s starting to become more of a thing in the industry where you have civil engineers and architects and engineers all working in the same firm, most projects are still done by separate companies. You have architecture firms that in turn hire engineering firms to help them with their projects (some of that has to do with the way contracts are structured, favoring separate firms), We found people working together for years and that some partnerships among architects and engineers will persits even as individuals move to different companies. So a certain architecture firm will have an individual engineer or two they’ve worked with for years even if that person worked at different firms over that time. Architect Steven Holl, a prominent architect in contemporary architecture, has worked for years with a civil and structural engineer Guy Nordenson, who runs a practice in New York, and they have had a very productive working relationship for years, that both discuss with incredible enthusiasm and admiration for each other’s contributions.

Other prominent architects talked to us about people they’ve worked with for 10 or 15 years. Over time, they describe a mutual trust that builds up as well as a mutual respect for the expertise and importance of the other discipline. Where those relationships were good, the engineer often had more influence on the design than most architecture students would imagine. Again, architects who have been in the field for years know this and have these good working relationships. But students of architecture tend to think they’re the sole author of the objects, and students of civil engineering don’t tend to know much about design at all.

But when you really look in depth at layers of decisions that go  into at interesting and good contemporary pieces of architecture, you’ll learn for example that a particular building is built out of concrete for an entirely technical reason. Moving from the first sketch an architect made of a building to the real thing in the world, there were huge numbers of decisions made, and a significant number of them were influenced by structural and mechanical engineering reasons, which isn’t a narrative usually presented to architecture students. Technical reality and constructional reality influence what things look like all the time, and architecture students don’t get exposed to that narrative nearly as much as they do to conversations around design intent or design theory or even design history.

V1 Media: Do you have advice for engineers early in their career on how they can speed up the process of working more and better with architects?

Mac Namara: I recommend engagement with “visualization and representation.” Engineers often aren’t explicitly taught to draw or use the tools of drawing, the tools of communication. So when I say visualization, I’m talking about everything from BIM models to hand sketches to 3D virtual-reality programs. Any opportunity engineering students can take in that regard–whether it’s model making, or sketching, or being more facile with things like BIM models–creates opportunities for them to be part of the conversation in a way that they can’t if they don’t have the willingness to engage with  images, drawings, or diagrams.

Engineering students ought to have more drawing classes, more classes that engage them with everything on the spectrum of representation, from just bring  willing to put a pencil to a piece of paper and sketch something to explain what they’re trying to do, all the way up to BIM models, scripting, and Grasshopper and all the more-technical tools of the field that people tend to become familiar with through time, but don’t necessarily have explicit training on. That sounds like very mechanical advice, but it is important because young engineers have largely been trained fairly rigidly with the idea that there are singular solutions. A traditional engineering education–except the latter semester or two–tends to focus on solutions to well defined problems, where every students in class gets the same answer (or fairly close) to the question asked. It’s also the answer that’s in the back of the textbook. The reality is that the vast majority of engineering solutions are contextual; they’re neither unique nor universal. There isn’t one answer to most engineering problems. There are a range of answers that work, and we don’t tend to teach engineering students to really appreciate that and be willing to engage in the iterative process of going into a meeting, throwing out six or seven ideas, and seeing which one works. They should try a few ideas, and have the tools and mechanisms to think through problems a couple different ways so they can be flexible and responsive to the other goals their nontechnical expert–their architecture partner, their landscape architecture partner, or industrial design partner or whover is presenting the problem.

An architect is concerned with so many more aspects of building design than the calcualtions for safe structural members that I was taught about: how people move around the building; what the building looks like; how the building performs thermally; how the building performs environmentally. They have so many layers that they’re often coordinating a bunch of other experts, and usually there is a fairly complex set of needs that sometimes come into conflict with the technical constraints that come from a structural engineer. The structural engineer needs to hear about the architect’s other goals and concerns, and engage with drawings, sketches, models, anything visual that would help have those conversations and understand those competing goals for the design. Those are skills that a young civil structural engineer needs.

The other big thing we came across was engineering students don’t know the history of engineering that well and don’t know the design field that well. You wouldn’t dream of graduating somebody from the school of architecture without taking history of architecture classes. They know the famous innovations of their fields and the important people who made them. They learn a lot about how the field is put together now and what the field does or doesn’t value.

Nobody is surprised (but I think they should be) that civil or structural engineering students don’t have the same education. They don’t know about Gustave Eiffel or other  famous innovators whose work influenced the field. They don’t know necessarily know how the different materials came into the profession and what influence they had when they did and how they changed the different forms. In the late 1800s there is a shift from cast iron and wrought iron structural members to steel, if you look at the scale of buildings at that time, there’s a big jump. That gives a certain context for the scale and size of buildings. A material choice drove that.

I ask my engineering students at the start of every semester who their favorite engineer is, and the students almost never have an answer for me. If you had a bunch of law students in your classroom not a single one of them who could name a Supreme Court Justice–living or dead–that they admired, you might have some concerns about the future of that profession.

V1 Media: For engineers who have finished their education and are working out in the field, and going back to school is not an option, what might be the best routes for them to get brought up to speed on design techniques and history? Would that be online learning or continuing education, or approaching architects and trying to get to know how they do things?

Mac Namara: Some engineering programs talk about history of design and innovation. I was lucky to have gone through one that did that at Princeton. I think a lot of this comes over time. A lot of people we talked to who were doing really interesting work had slightly hybrid educations. We talked to a lot of engineers who had minors in architecture; interesting architects who had some civil engineering education in their background. There are a couple of interesting programs, for example, at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; their structural engineering program is housed in their College of Architecture. And so those students tend to have had that exposure. We also found that young engineers who started at firms that do a lot of collaborative work were further ahead. So one thing is to find yourself a first job or two that’s in a place that does a lot of collaboration, because some of that education will just sort of happen your way.

I’ve talked to several people in the field of civil engineering who have lunchtime seminars in their offices.

Be conscious of the fact that you’re going to work with a lot people who have very different backgrounds than you do, and you come with expertise they need. Any career has a component of lifelong learning, and a big facet for civil and structural engineers is figuring out how to work with nontechnical experts, nontechnical stakeholders in any project they’re doing. If you’re a traffic engineer, you have to understand and learn about the politics of any municipality you were working with to understand how decisions get made.

Structural engineers who work with architects need to be willing to engage and listen to the other stakeholders’ needs and processes. Then they’ll more likely be invited back in that process. The other big takeaway from the research in our book was that the earlier the engineering experts were involved in the design process, the more influence they had on the final outcome. And that tended to happen in these mature relationships. Rich Garlock, who works at Leslie E. Robertson and Associates, which does a lot of tall buildings, talks about how when he has been called in late in the process, it’s often very difficult to fix if something’s gone awry—perhaps the budget’s gotten out of control because they’re deploying some awkward technical solution to an engineering problem because they didn’t get proper technical input at the start. If he finds a way to save money in that process as well as fix the problem, he gets called earlier next time. And the earlier he’s called, the more influence he can have in the design, but that relationship doesn’t just happen automatically. So young engineers should realize they’re cultivating those relationships over time, and the better they can work within the system they’re presented and the more willing they can be to learn about the architect’s goals so they can try to cater the engineering for them, the more influence they’ll have in the design process long term.

V1 Media: In your research, you focus a bit on historical structures; you noted how the Notre Dame de Paris was the skyscraper of its time. Could you describe how modern engineers could or should learn from ancient structures or engineering history?

Mac Namara: I’m not an expert on Gothic history, but from about 1000 to 1400 AD, different cities around Northern Europe were building ever-higher cathedrals, trying to outdo one another. And if you look at the history of the longest bridge or the tallest building in the world at any point in time, it’s a fascinating way to trace who had money, who was in power, whose economies were on the ascendancy and were trying to assert that culturally. It’s England, and then it’s France, and then America for a really long time and then its different countries in Asia, depending on whether you are talking about bridges or buildings.

A lot of what we think of as decoration on a Gothic cathedral actually has a technical purpose. For example, there’s a very little pointy piece that looks like a decorative flourish on the very outside edge of a flying buttress (the supporting columns on the exterior that are a classic feature of gothic cathedrals). It’s called a pinnacle. It looks like a tiny version of a mini spire, and it’s assumed by most people to be decorative. It’s actually a form of pre-stressing to eliminate cracks on the very outside edge, which is where the tension is highest when the wind blows and it’s applied to the whole structure. So when students have studied their history and how different designs have evolved, the engineering is often very easy to read. If you study that, you’ll have a greater sense of structural form and see how a structure’s needs influence overall design. It gives a context for your much-more-detailed technical knowledge.

There are also examples of where failure to learn from the past has resulted in disaster. One of the most famous examples is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in the 1950s. The phenomenon of long-span bridges vibrating into the wind was hundreds of years old. Thomas Telford wrote about it in the early 1800s. John A. Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge, wrote extensively about the vibration problems of the decks of  long spand bridges. So generations of engineers had addressed this problem and solved the problem, and yet at the Tacoma Narrows you have a failure like this. In general, students study failures from the past to make sure they’re not repeated. But we don’t tend to study the best examples so we understand how innovation took place and the fundamental principles behind how structural engineering evolved.


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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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