What keeps engineers from being more creative? | Opinion


I recently attended an industry event where six women spoke about their experiences in the real estate industry. The event was inspirational, but one less positive comment really struck me.

One of the speakers, an architect, spoke of his frustration with coming up with more innovative ideas and always being told ‘no’ by his structural engineer.

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My first response was that she needed a better engineer! But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Are we the ones who always say no? What is preventing us from being more creative?

Well, there is a finite limit to the size of a beam before it stops working. You must have columns or walls somewhere. The gravity is undeniable.

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

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

We’re learning that it’s best to be careful… which is certainly 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 when we start in the workplace, we learn to use the design codes.

We learn what equations we need and how to work quickly. We’re learning that it’s best to be careful… which is certainly part of the problem.

Most engineers who design an extension to the back of a townhouse know that if you knock through the back wall, you need to install a gate frame to maintain the stability that the wall would have provided. Most engineers would do this in steel, because it’s easy and because they know it will work.

But does it have to be steel? Do we even stop considering alternatives?

In fact, the answer is often “no”. The fees are tight and the time is tight, so we’re going to specify something that we know will work. The answer for the frustrated architect in many cases is simply that the engineer does not have the resources to be more creative.

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

But, really, we have only ourselves to blame for it. Jobs can be a race to the bottom and we often win jobs by being the cheapest – but the cheapest is rarely 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, I guarantee they are). Isn’t it time we valued ourselves a little more?

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

We can only play this role if we have the opportunity. Often, we come in too late in the project to be able to make a big difference, when the architect has already developed a project and agreed with the client.

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

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

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

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