Better together: Architects and structural engineers

Written by Kalpesh Chavda, associate at Perega (Formerly Thomasons Ltd)

Before the specialisation of their roles, architects and engineers often used to be one and the same. While their differences have become increasingly defined, as building professionals and consultants, they still have a lot in common. The affinity between these two closely aligned professions runs deeper still, with both being driven to enhance the built environment and create landmarks and great spaces for society’s enjoyment.

It is on this common ground the two can build the foundations of mutually beneficial collaboration through open dialogue.

Architects want to deliver quality, robust, buildable constructions and engineers want to influence the creative process. Combining these desires towards a shared end goal, where the interdependence of the disciplines is the backbone to a successful project, removes potential barriers and conflicts.

Where to start

Establishing an open dialogue requires early, frequent and high quality communication.

While by no means a new idea, the marriage between the two roles should happen at the conceptual design stage, enabling the engineer to inform architectural decisions. The alternative involves a lack of integration, avoidable design compromise and successive rounds of design development increasing both timescales and cost for the client. The result is badly performing and difficult to construct buildings representing poor value.

Facilitating a dynamic and agile dialogue at the concept design stage is most successful face to face. Workshops and meetings around a table, discussing and sketching out the various options, may sound outdated but are hugely effective. Along with saving time in the long run, it’s an opportunity to form an alliance and for each to buy-in to the other’s contribution.

As the design develops, communication should be more detailed and largely visual, based on drawn information. 2D drawings, mark-ups and overlays may then evolve into shared 3D model environments. As the exchange of ideas enters a more technological format, the process becomes increasingly digital (i.e. emails, cloud based project collaboration tools, BIM). Although the communication medium has changed, it is key for the exchange of ideas to remain fluid.

Bridging the divide

Architects can engage and inform engineers by speaking more openly about the vision behind their scheme. Early discussions and development with the structural engineer can help avoid oversight of important practicalities such as load paths, early grid and level implementation, cold bridging, waterproofing and movement joints.

Structural engineers can facilitate the dialogue by enquiring more about the architect’s plan and decisions, seeking to understand their philosophy to inform their creative contribution. They should push to preserve the architectural vision where possible and not be reluctant to make suggestions to improve it.

Having the confidence to freeze design is also important as continuous design development is difficult to manage and reconcile for all involved. Furthermore, minimising technical language can increase clarity of concept and encourage greater two-way participation.

Finally, avoiding the temptation to get caught up in ‘too much detail too soon’, particularly in the early stages, is crucial to optimising the design process.

The path ahead is an exciting one. While change is never without its challenges, creating and sustaining a healthy dialogue between architects and structural engineers is the way towards even more ambitious and rewarding collaborations.