25th July 2019

A blend of artistic and scientific skills – Rob Westcott’s art of engineering

The practice of engineering requires a blend of artistic and scientific skills.

We are designers, devisers of solutions, and design is a creative and artistic endeavour. But we are designing things that will be subjected to all kinds of loads, and they must resist them to an agreed standard.

So when we design, we must be armed with scientific and mathematic principles. These artistic and scientific needs can be conflicting – a good engineering solution will be well balanced, but it is perhaps easy to have too much of either. Whimsical designs might be good for discussion and inspiration but are unlikely to be built.  At the other end of the scale simplistic answers can be crude, often expensive, and miss opportunity.

Time is almost always a factor.

The formal design process construction professionals are familiar with, can help with good engineering design. Setting out design stages, and adequate time for them, allows the artistic side to dominate early on before the scientific side takes over to refine. Ideas and options can be dreamt up, thought about, sketched, considered, discarded, amended, re-sketched, discussed, and tested against other disciplines.

Taken to the furthest degree, one could argue a design is never complete.  A solution can always be improved on; made more efficient; or performance improved. A good example of this is the Brompton folding bike. Now considered a design classic and hugely successful, it was first invented in 1975 and in production since 1981. The bikes today have the same brilliant concept but have been revised and refined many times over that 44-year period. This, of course, is based on prototyping and extended testing of full-scale models.

In contrast, buildings and places are almost always bespoke and should be responding to the site, the client’s needs and other factors. For engineering, the physical geography is a major influence affecting the ground conditions, loading (earthquakes, wind), exposure (sea, desert) etc.  Therefore no two buildings are the same, even if they look it.   Buildings are also slow and expensive to build so it is extremely rare to prototype and live test a building. BIM is partly an answer to this, but even with VR we are a long way from truly road-testing buildings in use in a digital environment, and clients are rare who want to allow redesign time following the production of such models. But it would be normal in a manufacturing environment.

So, judgement and experience are critical factors to feed into engineering design. Learning from precedents is essential too. Engineering failures are often spectacular, often tragic, always expensive, but provide important learning points and must be studied carefully.   

Engineers do not work in isolation.  Clients are often keen on innovation, but paradoxically not when their project is the test site! Architects do not like gravity and the support structures it necessitates.  Many stakeholders just dislike change instinctively. So, along with artistic and scientific skills, experience and judgement, we perhaps need to add diplomacy, advocacy, and belief to the engineers’ armoury. A sense of humour is useful too!  Rare is the individual who possesses all these attributes, and so most engineers practice as part of a team to work effectively with a wider team. Collaboration is essential, internally and externally.  

A blend of artistic and scientific skills – Rob Westcott’s art of engineering