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Further Thoughts on Engineers of the Future

Further Thoughts on

Structural Engineers of The Future

Thank you to all who viewed the last post on 4th October. A total of 150 views so far; great to have such an audience.

In Verulam in this month’s edition of the Structural Engineer Magazine Karl Micallef supported the proposition that, Structural Engineering and Architecture might be merged as professions, albeit with a common education in the earlier stages of their degrees. It was not stated as a proposition in the post, but was a possible vision for the future given the rapid progress of Information Technology (IT) which is likely to happen.

Predictions of the future are invariably widely off the mark; in a random world a rare few are noted as prescient only after the event has occurred, conveying on the authors the status of ‘visionaries’. No doubt this prediction will go the same way.

The post was ‘tongue-in-cheek’, very much in the language of Chris Wise and his warning that engineers are on the precipice of extinction or a severe re-definition of their roles.

Nassim Taleb , a Lebanese born philosopher and former hedge fund trader,  who is credited with coining the phrase ‘Black Swan’. Black Swans are events such as the credit crunch of 2007 which saw a toppling of what he would term ‘fragile systems‘. In short these are top-down systems, or organisations, which are vulnerable to random events owing to  a lack of robustness. To achieve robustness, as engineers must with their designs, it is necessary to avoid complexity perhaps, at least in design appraisal.

How are engineers to achieve robustness? By adopting new technologies structural engineers need to engage in problems by testing their validity with ‘easy to understand’ concepts, to understand the limits of technologies and new materials available and to have a good appreciation of the architectural, environmental and cultural influences on their designs. They should be open minded and ready to cast off out dated methods and prejudices;  as  Nassim Taleb might advise – a ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ approach to their work and organisations.

The post, and letter to Verulam, was very much a call to take on the challenge laid by Chris Wise to avoid the Black Swan, as it might be termed, whereby engineers might be swept along by progress into a much diminished role. Structural Engineering is a broad church with a great variety of expertise. One area in which they have ‘moved on’ from the 19th century is where they played a greater part in the practice of architecture. This has even been recognised outside the profession. Sir John Betjemen, the late Poet Laureate, wrote about this in relation to the rebuilding of London Bridge.

A quote from John Betjeman in ‘Trains and Buttered Toast’ (edited by Stephen Games), regarding the former Waterloo Bridge by John Rennie the Elder is interesting to read from the point of view of a poet and broadcaster:

‘The greatest question of all arising from the destruction of Waterloo Bridge is how much an architect ought to be an engineer. Rennie is not well known to anybody. He is frequently confused by people who want to be funny about Wren and the Renaissance. His chief work is Waterloo Bridge, if we except his magnificent docks at Stonehouse in Plymouth, and in both the bridge and docks he showed himself to be an architect and engineer at once. In the eighteenth century these two qualities were generally combined, but with the coming of factories in the last century there was much to learn and not enough time for an architect to learn it. Engineering and architecture got divorced and we have the result in St Pancreas Station and hotel: that magnificent steel roof which is pure architecture and engineering, with that fantastic Baronial palace of a hotel appended to it. King’s Cross Station, built in 1851, next door to it, is a fine example of engineering and architecture in one. It is so hidden by huts and litter in front that no one notices it. But now that we have had about eighty years wherein these two great sciences have been divorced, there is a chance for them to come together again. The introduction of steel and concrete into architecture has shown that new proportions must be made and new and vaster scales on which on which flats, offices and halls are to be built. A bridge is a wonderful opportunity. An architect must be a town planner and engineer at once. We have shown the Crystal Palace, which is steel and glass, and in King’s Cross that we in England were the first modern architects and that Germany and the Continent only copied us.’

Completed in 1945 the second Waterloo Bridge, designed to carry road traffic, in place of the Rennie bridge is illustrative of the divide between engineer and architect. Sir Charles Gilbert Scott, the architect, by admission that he was ‘no engineer’, worked with Rendel Palmer and Tritton as engineering consultants. The final design comprised reinforced concrete continuous beams spanning from the banks of the Thames and cantilevering out to the centre span. The beams, although continuous, were nevertheless shaped like arches and clad in Portland stone. As Sir John Betjeman mused about how the new bridge was to be designed and built. An architectural vision of an arched bridge, in fact turned out to be a pastiche, continuous beams clad to look as if they were arched. Admittedly the engineers had problems with allowing for levelling of the bridge by jacks in the event of river scour causing settlement, which might have been problematic for a purely arched bridge, but the result is interesting, with regard to the parting of the ways of the two professions.

Under the influence of engineers (in the UK) such as Ove Arup, Oscar Faber, Tony Hunt, Ted Happold, to name but a few, during the 20th century and beyond, a culture has developed with a number of structural and civil engineers reaching out to architects, clients and other professions, to produce designs which, as far as possible, embrace the modernist principle of ‘total architecture’; to win back some of the influence which was in danger of being lost prior to the 20th century.

As outlined in the previous post the advances of materials and information technology (IT) are going to provide a new challenge, which demands that engineers are light footed enough to embrace the new, but wise enough to continue the application of engineering judgement; to adhere to the principles of good design. It is difficult to see how the profession will be able to advance the strides made by the inventive engineers mentioned above without expanding engineering courses which embrace the built environment, whereby students of engineering study alongside architects, in collaborative projects and where there might be opportunity, with a flexible curriculum for such students to be able to cross over to either branch of the professions. For this it may be necessary to alter radically the courses to remove much of the content of subjects which are arguably part of the history of teaching engineering; less mathematical content and more design content perhaps.

Of course there is a venerable branch of engineering which will be grasping the more technical side, and this is where it was suggested that, those engineers might undertake University courses  alongside the mechanical engineers who are taught stress analysis, and are able to undertake the complex modelling and analysis which is demanded by more intricate and more detailed design. This is the other branch of engineering mentioned in the previous post. Every bit as integral to the design and building process as the fore-mentioned engineers in the previous paragraph.

Whether Civil Engineering would benefit from similar radical steps it is not easy for the writer say, but would be interesting to hear an opinion on this.

To pose a similar question to Chris Wise how is the structural engineering profession to avoid a Black Swan; to achieve ‘robustness’ and to avoid ‘fragility’?

A clear vision to work towards would be a good place to start.


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