19th July 2019

Why risk taking is important and why good engineering design is often invisible? by Julian Broster

Making things is an art, and art is about making things.  Artists take risks.

The idea that engineering is an art backed up by science is not new; indeed it was written into the founding charter for the Institution of Civil Engineers 200 years ago.  We would argue that good engineering design needs to avoid the certainty of inevitability; that is to say that Engineers should challenge and innovate in their designs.

In order to do this we need to permit some turbulence and disruption in the concept stages of the design process – prior to testing, developing and producing a design.  As with other forms of art, we must be prepared to repeatedly test and reject ideas, but as engineers operating in commercial environments we have to do it quickly !

The early turbulence includes form finding, which for intuitive engineers does not require complex mathematical models to develop concepts.  Our art is seeing a structure that can be constructed easily, safely, quickly and cost effectively. 

With the occasional exception, good engineering design tends to be invisible.  The structural engineer carries the biggest portion of design risk on a construction project, which is life safety.   Good engineers attempt to achieve this with elegance, delight and commercial success for the Client.  Notable proponents of this approach include Robert Maillart, with his bridges across Switzerland, and  Ove Arup who re-defined the collaboration between engineer and architect so effectively in the second half of the 20th century.

Robert Maillart – Salginabotel bridge, Switzerland

For me the art of engineering is firstly the exploration of ideas in developing designs that are elegant, affordable and safe to build.  This is done through sketching, modelling, and drawing.  We have all the computer-assisted tools we could possibly need to do this now, but the simple process of engineers hand sketching to convey an idea remains the most fundamental. 

Secondly, the art of engineering is being prepared to take on risks.  This has to be intelligent, intuitive, transparent and responsible.

Why risk taking is important and why good engineering design is often invisible? by Julian Broster