Integrating Architecture and Structure: A Cross-Discipline Approach

Too often, the role of structural engineering in the architectural design process is reactive.  This is an unfortunate reality since these two disciplines are so closely related.  So much so that, in the building design realm, one does not exist without the other.

In many instances, planning and design advances beyond the programming stage to the point where an entire facility plan is on paper with little or no input from the Structural Engineer.  While this isn’t necessarily beyond the point of no return, the Structural Engineer usually has two choices:

Make It Work – this path often leads to inefficiency, unnecessary complexity, and additional costs.

Change It – while this path may lead to a better design, it can require a significant amount of backtracking and rework.

Of course, design development is an iterative process.  However, the better approach is for the Structural Engineer to become immersed in the project from inception.  Getting involved at the first stages of programming discussions with Owners and end-users allows the Structural Engineer to be engaged in the conceptual development of the overall plan at a time when their input is highly effective and purposefully influential.

‘At the beginning’ is the best time for the Structural Engineer to provide insight for the big-picture decisions that are part of every project; decisions that have a major impact on form, function, cost, and constructability.  Many factors require thoughtful consideration and, if left unattended for too long, can have a negative impact on the process.  Waiting until the Owners have bought into the design is not a reasonable or beneficial methodology.

Creative is one of the more powerful and influential words used to define an Architect or the process of Architectural Design.  How often are Structural Engineers defined in the same manner?  Not very often, I would surmise.  But the true answer is driven by their extent and timing of integration into each project.  If they’re a late arrival to the process, numerous constraints may already be in place, limiting their creative freedom.  With early involvement, their creative potential is much broader and will have a more positive impact on the project as whole.

Yes, the discipline of structural engineering can be rigid, formulaic, and is always constrained by material strengths and the immutable laws of physics.  However, there are almost always multiple solutions to every problem.  Early involvement ensures that many of these potential solutions remain viable and that a consensus approach to a final solution is made.  There is no better time to make the right decisions than during the conceptual sketch-planning stages of development.

The collaborative team mindset between the Architect and Structural Engineer is crucial at the very onset of each new project.  Efficient, cost-effective, and highly sustainable buildings are always desirable goals.  Achieving these goals requires that the Architect and Structural Engineer work together from day one.  Both the Architect and the Structural Engineer are highly trained and skilled participants, each with a different knowledge base that must be integrated for successful results.

Written by Thomas Forsberg, PE, Structural Engineer and Principal at SCHRADERGROUP