A Structural Engineer Describes Working with Architects in an Integrated Architectural/Engineering Practice
When owners have demanded increasingly more daring building designs from architects, the response has been increasingly more intricate architectural solutions. As design practitioners, we have come to see a state of heightened competition for building commissions as the norm, which necessitates that architects devise exceptional building designs. Both in regard to aesthetics and functionality, each successive design must top the last.
So, what does this mean for a structural engineer and, especially, within an integrated architectural engineering practice, where—if you’ll forgive the pun—the weight of expectations is equitably distributed?
Structural Challenges are often Economic Challenges
The work of the structural engineer has never been more challenging. The ever-changing landscape of structural engineering now includes energy efficiency requirements for the building envelope, considerations for the latest building codes, and, of course, budgetary demands. One aspect of design remains consistent: structural engineers must conceive structural systems that harmonize with the architectural design in the most cost-effective manner.
As building shapes become more and more complex, structures must still be economically viable to build. This is the reality of our industry; we have to adapt to this reality as design professionals.
Facing Change with an Integrated Perspective
If there’s one thing that structural engineers should not be shy about, it’s owning a challenge. Whether that challenge encompasses technical difficulties or constructability issues, developing solutions that further the design process is what we do on a daily basis. Fortunately, structural engineers are not alone in responding to structural challenges.
HLW has a longstanding history of integrated design practice, established soon after the firm opened more than 130 years ago. This integrated architecture and engineering approach is represented in the original partnership of an architect and a structural engineer, Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz and Andrew McKenzie, respectively. This history was what attracted me to HLW when I first joined the firm in early 2012. I saw myself as becoming part of a tried-and-true tradition of integrated design practice—an approach that has been invaluable as HLW has successfully navigated challenging periods during its many decades of existence. These transitional periods have included both economic challenges and shifts in the overall paradigm of architecture and engineering practice.
Today, this longstanding tradition is still evident in our company culture. We routinely take advantage of the latest technological advancements available in the market and throughout the industry. Significantly, though, the interdependencies between architects and structural engineers are always in the forefront of our design process. This is true as we perform individual tasks within a team environment.
Working Together, Early and Often
Within an integrated design practice, members of the design team recognize that the structural engineer’s workflow is highly dependent on the amount, quality, and type of information obtained from the architect and other project team members. This information flow, in turn, affects the quality and effectiveness of the feedback provided by the structural engineer to the architect. The successful management of such interdependencies is reliant upon implementing a design process that supports efficient project execution, the creation of high quality contract documents, and cost-effective integrated design.
Early phases of design often emphasize work that is architectural in nature. However, the resolution of many engineering and site design issues is essential for early decision-making on a project, especially, for issues that require feedback from the structural engineer. The structural engineer requires external inputs, such as technical and environmental data about the site (from a geotechnical engineer). Similarly, we need the general layout and design (from the architect), building systems information (from the mechanical engineer), and the service criteria and performance requirements (from the owner). All of this is critical when providing comprehensive feedback to the architect and to the rest of the design team.
When all members of the team work during the earlier stages of the design process toward the completion of necessary tasks, investigations, and approvals, potential pitfalls can be avoided. Perhaps, there is nothing more fulfilling to an owner than watching a team work together as a cohesive group early, often, and throughout the project’s evolution. This is what it means to have an integrated design process.
Integrated Design Tools
Each member of a design team has a number of design tools applicable to their respective role. In an integrated design environment, these tools may change during the course of the project.
In the past, structural engineers had limited capabilities in the methods used in structural analysis. Similarly, computer solutions were unreliable. As a result, structural engineers primarily relied on their background and experience to carry out structural activities, including constraints analysis, materials selection, structural logic and conception, aesthetic integration, and constructability assessments. Intuition and pragmatism, combined with creativity and imagination, were often (still are often) the seeds resulting in ingenious structural design solutions.
Solutions, including Integrated Design Process (IDP), Start with an Idea
Every engineering design solution begins with an idea. The latest advancements in technology, including visualization tools, provide us with the capacity to simultaneously analyze and integrate all criteria and constraints—an incredible asset during pre-design. Ideas have the opportunity to evolve into solutions through utilizing these tools. For example, we can fine-tune structural systems by making timely adjustments to achieve overall project objectives. Today, unlike in the past, we have the tools to perform structural activities at an accelerated rate, which leads to solutions also at an accelerated rate.
In the beginning, Integrated Design Process (IDP) was used to describe a more holistic approach to building design. In my opinion, no specific, or “right,” definition for IDP exists today. Design professionals have their own opinions on how to execute IDP based on their own experiences and practices. My personal definition is based on a way of professional work life: architects and engineers working together towards the common goal of building better buildings more efficiently and at less cost.
This is roughly the model established by architect Eidlitz and engineer McKenzie more than a century ago, long before the term IDP was coined. Perhaps, as the practice of integrated disciplines continues to evolve, future generations of HLW architects and engineers will call IDP something else. Or, perhaps, just maybe, design professionals everywhere will no longer focus on the semantics and instead say, “Well, it used to be called a thing eons ago, but now we just refer to it as the way we do business.”
About The Author: Alvin Tabar, PE, is a Senior Structural Engineer within HLW’s engineering group. He is an accomplished engineer with more than 20 years of experience designing structural solutions for construction projects around the world. In the late 1990s and into the early 21st century, he was active as a project design engineer in Hong Kong helping to transform the city’s skyline with large complexes composed of 30, 40 and 60-story concrete residential towers. He then worked in Florida designing hurricane resilient structures for oceanfront condominiums. Tabar’s innovative flood mitigation designs have more recently been applied to structures in New York City and in Jersey City where HLW, an integrated design practice, is active in both the residential and commercial sectors.