Adding creativity to the engineering mix

Hilson Moran, training, education
Educating the engineers of the future — Phil King.

The university education of engineers is aimed at designing new buildings rather than innovate for old buildings. Philip King believes that we need a generation of engineers and sustainability experts who have been taught in such a way that creativity comes naturally.

How do you think the rest of the world perceives engineers? Are we seen as imaginative, dynamic or creative? I fear not. Rather, we are seen as decidedly unexciting characters, uninspiring even and, perhaps, most distressing considering our combined and collective achievements over hundreds of years, as nerdy and dull. Is this the fault of the media or the scientific, mathematical bent of our work?

So many words in our language which describe the intelligent and dedicated carry a whiff of the derogatory — boffin, egghead, and so on. Engineering is a fact-and-figure-based subject which demands patience and perseverance. It is also wide ranging, covering anything from fixing washing machines to enabling space travel. So unless Hollywood casts an engineer as the next action hero, we are unlikely to change our reputation in the imminent future.

Fame is not everything, but what does worry me is that our public image is a deterrent to a vast reserve of potential talent. We are not attracting those more creative, free-thinking minds that I believe our industry needs, and it seems there is little we can do to tackle that situation. So instead, we need to teach all those wonderful young mathematicians and scientists how to engage the right side of the brain — the creative side — and bring imagination and lateral thinking to the future of engineering.

University courses place a distinct emphasis on new buildings. This is 5 Aldermanbury Square, London, for Scottish Widows, designed by Eric Parry Architects — an innovative, elegant new glass and steel building, offering 35 000 m2 over 18 floors, with retail at ground level. A ‘whole building’ performance assessment methodology was applied, and Hilson Moran undertook advanced thermal modelling, developing a 3D computational model to enable the evaluation of alternative design options at concept stage. The project was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2009 and won two BCO Awards in 2008.

But why do we need creativity, when our work requires the full command of digits and angles? Sustainability is the answer. For the last 10 years, we have been designing new buildings to perform better environmentally than ever before. The problem is that new buildings make up such a tiny proportion of the built environment and deliver only marginal improvements. We need to focus on the 99% of our buildings which are existing, old stock, and where making improvements is much more challenging.

Universities need to be encouraging the engineers of the future to innovate for old buildings. We need a generation of engineers and sustainability experts who have been taught in such a way that creativity comes naturally — so that the logical, analytical side of their brains works in tandem with the visual, creative side to solve old problems in new ways…so that they relish and thrive on the chance to figure out new puzzles.

But that is not what is happening. University courses place a distinct emphasis on new buildings. The reality is that it is far easier to design a new building to be environmentally friendly than it is to successfully negotiate the complexities and contradictions of older buildings.

Something has to change. But how?

First, let us acknowledge the undoubted strengths of our university degree courses. They give an outstanding theoretical and technical grounding, and new teaching technologies make learning a more interactive and involving process. However, it is not until the 4-year process post-graduation that engineering students work towards meeting 16 competencies and encounter engineering in the real world. I think that is too late in the process — we have missed the opportunity to instil a more free-thinking approach.

University used to be the place where we were encouraged to think for ourselves — a place where teaching was more about guidance than following a series of instructions. When we were not in the lecture theatre, there would be plenty of exposure to the real-life application of the theories we were learning. Over a 5-year course, we might have spent six months installing, six months with a manufacturer and then six more months carrying out testing and commissioning in a live environment. It was a well planned blend of theory and practical application. I am still not sure how this obviously beneficial hands-on aspect of learning became so unfashionable.

Universities need to be encouraging the engineers of the future to innovate for old buildings. The refurbishment of Nexus Place, London, for Tishman Speyer and designed by Sturgis Associates comprises a new façade to the entire building, relocation of the existing internal core and a heightening of the structure by four floors. The 13-floor 15 000m2 office scheme was given new MEP plant within the existing architectural constraints. [Photo: Peter Durant (photographer) and Sturgis Architects]

I have given a lot of thought to how courses could improve. I believe there are four elements of primary importance which should be introduced into our degree programmes.

• In-depth teaching of carbon efficiency — and specifically in the context of older buildings.

• Better commercial schooling in terms of financial viability and cost efficiency. Our sustainable designs must be viable when confronted with a tight budget.

• Better context and a holistic viewpoint. The best engineering solutions aim for passive performance and fulfil multiple needs — while also meeting client objectives, corporate-responsibility goals and those ever-changing legislative requirements.

• Last, but definitely not least, meaningful, practical work placements, apprenticeships, and input from progressive industry experts — either in the lecture theatre or in a mentoring role.

Only when we have recognised that new and shiny will not save the planet will we start to make a greater impact, and then we will require the innovative and creative minds with the technical insight to guide imagination and carry out large-scale and widespread remodelling.

Philip King is design director at international multidisciplinary engineering firm Hilson Moran.

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