Font Size

- Aa +

Wed 2 Apr 2008 12:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Engineers vs. Architects

Continuing the debate on who controls the built environment.

Continuing the debate on who controls the built environment.

One thinks it up, the other builds it. One wears a monocle and turtleneck, the other a hardhat and steel-toe boots. One's an ‘artist', the other a ‘workman'.

These are the classic conceptions of the difference between architects and engineers. While admittedly simplistic, these descriptions illustrate the heart of the chasm between two professions that collaborate to build today's evermore iconic skylines.

Any project solution is only as good as the questions you ask; if you ask specific questions, you get specific answers. Engineers are very good at drawing boundaries around what questions need to be asked, whereas architects tend to unpack the problem in a bigger way. - Henning Rasmuss, Paragon Architects

Whether its architects complaining that engineers insert structural elements that change their design or engineers complaining that architects don't think of the engineering challenges when designing, the fact is, constructive coexistence between them is crucial.

Like age-old rivalries between the Sharks and Jets, Yankees and Mets or soldiers and cadets, the relationship between architects and engineers is-albeit occasionally tumultuous-fundamentally necessary.

Synergy between architects and engineers is important in maintaining structural, as well as, professional integrity in the field. While both disciplines could be performed in isolation, everyone involved is better off for their collaboration.

"The classical model seems to be that architecture creates the question, or opportunity, and engineering provides the solution," says Henning Rasmuss, director of South Africa-based Paragon Architects. "These days, buildings have become so complex that architects and engineers should begin the process together.

Conrad Groen, development director for Nakheel Waterfront, draws distinctions between the fields in his definition. "Architecture deals with the vision through form, function and aesthetics," he says.

"Engineering is essentially providing the structure and mechanism to enable the vision to operate efficiently whether through the structure or the mechanical/environmental systems engineered," he adds. Inherent in Groen's definition is the notion of separation between the disciplines.

If it's true that both architects and engineers play significant roles in constructing today's cities and that we've come to a place in the evolution of the built environment in which both architects and engineers are absolutely necessary on major projects, a question arises: Do architects and engineers operate independently or interdependently in their collaboration? Put simply, where does architecture end and engineering begin?

Chicken or egg...or both?

Mohammed Shariff, architect and project manager on Dubai Sports City, says architects and engineers work in conjunction with each other from inception to completion. He insists there is never a time during the course of a project when the role of one or the other is finished.

In fact, in today's built environment, where new buildings are ultimately hybrids of state-of-the-art engineering and cutting-edge architectural design, it would seem both disciplines play their part in consulting on the design and offering solutions to problems.

"In the hybrid phase, both are crucial and both are synchronised. You get the best designs by focusing on both aspects," says Rasmuss.

"Combining architecture and engineering for a successful building design is the result of a collaborative team effort, and the disciplines therefore merge into one another," says Jeff Willis, associate director of Arup.

One without the other cannot be sustained alone," adds Ammar Al Assam, director of business development for Dewan Architects & Engineers.

Iconic building designs that bend and twist require complex geometry and innovative thinking, which, in turn, requires special design talents. Engineers as well as architects are bringing this combination of skills to projects with increasing frequency.

"The two specialties must collaborate at the conceptual design phase and continue through the completion of the project," says Phil Junger, principal at US-based TVS. "The architect has the role to interpret the vision of the client along with the support of the engineers.

American engineer Irwin Cantor of WSP Cantor Seinuk said in a recent article in Modern Steel Construction: "Certain buildings can only be realized by the intimate collaboration of the architect and his structural engineer." This is a notion with which Willis wholeheartedly agrees. "For me that sums it up nicely," he says. "Except I would, of course, include the services engineers in that..."
While interdependent collaboration is ideal, it goes without saying that both job description and programmatic challenges are different for architects and engineers. Collaboration, insofar as it relates to structural questions, does occur, but the professions often come to a project with clearly defined, and clearly separated, mandates.

If architecture is the artistic process, then engineering is the mathematical process. Architects are tasked with interpreting the vision of the client, while engineers are responsible for finding mathematical solutions that will ensure the building stands up.

The architect is the artist. Whether he/she designs a box or a bird’s nest, the engineer’s job is to make the seemingly impossible possible. - Heath Andersen, Whitby & Bird

"First and foremost is the architect. Then, the engineers come in, hopefully, not too long after [the architect has] conceived the idea," says Heath Andersen, associate director of Whitby & Bird.

"Depending on what the architect or client is like it can sometimes take a long time to get the engineers involved. But, the sooner the engineers get involved, the sooner the idea goes from conception to reality," he says.

Engineers, to be fair, do get the opportunity for artistic input. For example, if an architect wants to use concrete or steel, the engineer's responsibility is to listen to the brief and, if necessary, suggest better ways to achieve the same effect, whether it's technical, environmental or operational.

"Engineers are trained to be pragmatic," says Willis.

"I have seen the dynamic between the visionary and the pragmatist bring some dramatic results when the engineer, faced with an apparently insoluble problem, asks ‘Can we look at this a different way?' and makes a suggestion that sparks the imagination, bringing a new approach and an excellent result.

There are those in the field that believe engineers, and not architects, are actually leading the process because of the technical and geometric complexity of today's evermore impressive buildings.

"The appropriate architectural solutions are no longer formal solutions but engineered solutions," says Rasmuss. "Architects are completely dependent on engineers, and they're not as dependent on us... the fact is, [engineers] don't need architects as much as we need them. There's a power imbalance...

Rasmuss points out that many buildings around the world were built without the vision or inspiration of architects, and they all function well enough. "To be honest, we'd still have architecture with just engineers. But, I think it'd be a bit more boring and utilitarian...," adds Andersen.

"All engineers, by nature, are a bit conservative," adds Andersen. "I think they have to be because, especially with structural and electrical engineers, they're literally dealing with people's lives. You can't take that for granted.

That said, Rasmuss is quick to follow up with the oft-cited pragmatism of engineers, "By and large, engineers are less proficient in elegant planning... Engineers are very good at solving rational problems, but they often lack an ability to create something elegant. Elegance speaks to the quality of a building.

"Building solutions are only as good as the questions asked and, generally speaking, engineers are not good question-askers. They're not trained for that. They're good answer-providers," he adds.

A question of rivalry

Generally speaking, engineers endeavour to find the lowest common denominator, while architects pursue the highest common multiple. Engineers are pragmatic while architects are visionary.

If this characterisation is true, then it stands to reason that both would have a sense of ownership-albeit a slightly varied one-over successful projects and thus, professional rivalries would ensue. However, it seems that the opposite is true.

While most architects and engineers will admit to a level of friendly rivalry or good-natured chiding, there is little support for the idea that rivalries exist to the point of being detrimental to the project. In fact, there seems to be broad acknowledgement that architects can do things engineers can't and vice versa.

"Both architects and engineers have become more sophisticated and aware of each other's disciplines. This allows them to make their respective disciplines function together without radically affecting design," explains Al Assam.
Both can contribute a potential solution outside their specific sphere of knowledge...One profession cannot complete the project without the other," adds Groen.

As an architect, while I’m designing, I’m thinking about what challenges my structural engineer will face. - Mohammed Shariff, Dubai Sports City

Basically, they need each other. They need each other to consider that which they are untrained to deal with. Architects need engineers to tell them when something is structurally unfeasible, and engineers need architects to get them to think outside the confines of that which is singularly black or white.

A question of ego

While there is mutual respect for and acknowledgement of each other's value to the process, much like those in other professions, architects and engineers are not protected from the siren song of their own egos.

"The property industry has always had larger than life characters. From ‘starchitects' to ‘starchi-engineers', those figures are certainly in the field," says Rasmuss. "Sometimes it's very good and sometimes it's detrimental. I've seen it work both ways.

Groen thinks professionals need to believe deeply in themselves and with that, inevitably, comes a degree of ego. Likewise, Rasmuss believes egos have to be a part of the process. "I think the architect's job is to push the boundaries to see what can be done. If they weren't doing that, they'd be a bit remiss in their job," he says.

Willis concedes that egos play a role in our lives and professional relationships are not exempted from that. Asked whether or not egos can negatively affect the relationship between collaborators and ultimately the design of the project, Willis' answer is simple, "...they can if we allow them to".

The prevailing message is that while egos are necessary, they are not mutually exclusive of success in the project. It would seem that there is a difference between having a commanding persona and having an inflated sense of self-importance.

While the former can be an important driving force in the project, the latter can derail it.

"Everybody has an ego. Egos are there all the time, but design processes need champions....Every project needs a person that believes in the project more than everyone else in the room," explains Rasmuss.

The collaboration of strong-willed professionals often results in the most unique products," adds Groen.

"The problem with egos is that the big ones don't often know where their boundaries are," explains Rasmuss. "The projects that are championed for the right reasons, by the right people, are successful on all fronts. For that, you definitely need egos.

Put simply, when you've got a professional situation that revolves around a design process, egos will inevitably be present.

The truly great architects and engineers know how to manage the egos in the room, keep their own ego in check and extract the best possible result from everyone involved. This type of dynamic is based on a culture of respect; respect for one's colleagues and respect for the building process.

Certain engineers inevitably work better with certain architects, but at the end of the day, the successful projects are those that are built on respecting the process and its ability to produce desired results.

Respecting others is certainly not a new concept but it's tantamount to achieving success in the project. According to Rasmuss, respecting others is one of the few things people are remembered for on their deathbeds.

While the debate about legacies and deathbeds is one for another time, the final word on the question of architects and engineers and who controls the building process is still unclear. "Architecture and engineering have become so detailed these days and there are so many things to consider," explains Andersen.

"We're not talking about a box with a window in it; it's a very complex process. I think it would be very hard to design a building without one or the other," he adds.

RELATED LINK:Collaborate? No, Calatrava

For all the latest construction news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.