What’s stopping engineers from being more creative?

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There are good reasons why we choose the tried and tested, but too often that stifles innovative thinking and the potential for progress, says Anna Beckett

I recently attended an industry event at which six women spoke about their experiences in the property industry. The event was inspirational, but one less positive comment really stuck with me.

One of the speakers, an architect, spoke of her frustration at coming up with more innovative ideas and always being told “no” by her structural engineer.

My initial response was that she needed a better engineer! But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Are we the ones always saying no? What’s stopping us from being more creative?

Well, there is a finite limit to how small we can make a beam before it doesn’t work anymore. You do have to have some columns or walls somewhere. Gravity is undeniable.

So maybe there are some situations where we have to say “no”. But if we are not working with the architect to create a better solution, then are we really doing our job?

Part of the problem is the way that engineers are taught. We spend our time at university learning the principles that form the basis for engineering.

We learn that it’s better to be on the safe side… which is definitely part of the problem.

We learn technical mathematics and physics. We learn to derive the equations that we use on a daily basis. And then, as we start in the workplace, we learn to use design codes.

We learn which equations we need and how to work quickly. We learn that it’s better to be on the safe side… which is definitely part of the problem.

Most engineers designing an extension to the rear of a terraced house would know that if you are knocking through the rear wall you need to install a portal frame to retain the stability the wall would have provided. Most engineers would do that in steel, because it’s easy and because they know it will work.

But does it have to be steel? Are we even stopping to consider any alternatives?

Realistically the answer is often “no”. Fees are tight and time is tight so we are going to specify something we know will work. The answer for the frustrated architect in a lot of cases is simply that the engineer isn’t being given the resources to be more creative.

If you bought the cheapest pair of running shoes you could find, you would know that they probably wouldn’t do you much good.

But, really, we only have ourselves to blame for this. Bidding for jobs can be a race to the bottom and we often win jobs by being the cheapest – but the cheapest is rarely ever the best. If you bought the cheapest pair of running shoes you could find, you would know that they probably wouldn’t do you much good (if you don’t know that then I guarantee it’s true). Isn’t it time we valued ourselves a little bit more?

Making the building stand up is a huge responsibility, but the structure is also part of the soul of the building as much as the space or function is. As engineers we have so much knowledge and expertise that we can contribute to any project, and as we try to reduce the embodied carbon in buildings, we have a massive part to play.

We can only play that part if we are given the opportunity. Often we are brought into the project too late to be able to make much of a difference, when the architect has already developed a scheme and agreed it with the client.

Now, being creative should be about finding ways to use less. Working a little bit harder to justify what we already have.

If the architect or client has already decided to demolish a building, it is quite difficult for us to suggest that we totally change the scheme to justify something existing instead. If we are going to use new materials or composites of others, then we need to be able to suggest structural forms that will work with those materials.

We need to pull up our socks, sharpen our pencils and approach every project with the curiosity that originally led us all to become engineers. But we also need the design team to give us that opportunity, so that we are not just making the architect’s idea work; we are working together with the whole design team to create something better.

This article was originally published on Building Design.