Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design

The robot was a bit sinister. But otherwise it was amazing. It was obviously inspired by nature, because it looked like it was designed by a honeybee and built by a spider. So you would expect a natural design to look traditional, old, primeval but actually it looked futuristic. Or maybe not futuristic, maybe gothic, like a Tim Burton filmset. I couldn’t decide. I also have no idea how it didn’t just collapse in on itself! If you understand it how it works, please share in the comments, I’m sure we’d all like to know.

But as the sun set lowered behind the red brick of the V&A, I turned my back on the new pavilion and headed back inside, for the main course – a new exhibition about engineering.

Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design is a chance to learn about a very famous engineer; about him as a person, some of the things he did and also what his business has gone on to do. It’s also a great opportunity to learn about engineering in a way that’s personal and easy to understand.

The exhibition is laid out to encourage a set path, first around a mezzanine walkway past large suspended models then down into a large room with more models, drawings, videos, tablets to interact with, audio recordings and a soundlab to experience.

We’re introduced to Ove Arup by his humour, his early Christmas cards, his nonsense verse, the face that he called their first computer Mumbo Jumbo. We also learn about his early projects, the penguin house at London zoo, an ingenious design to help the war effort and a hospital design that was more pleasant for patients.

Then there’s the familiar form of the Sydney Opera House, which his firm designed. I enjoyed seeing the original architectural design for the first time; but it was little more than a charcoal scribble on an A3 sheet of paper. So the engineers did some great work to realise it, which is explained with some different models and videos. The site photos alone will stick in my memory for a long time, and made a big impression on my wife.

There’s also the Pompidou Centre, the Menil Collection, St Pancras International and a feature on Wikihouse rounded off with the Soundlab. I’d been encouraged by a colleague to check this last bit out, and it was very good. We sat for 10 minutes to see (actually it was mostly about listening) to the different sound environments, which was fun to compare mono and stereo, or suddenly feel like you’re in a theatre listening to an orchestra.

The exhibition then is a good introduction to engineering. It’s quite light-hearted, there are good explanations to go with models and parts of it are quite inspiring. For purveyors of the art, there are things to learn from as well. Seeing other people’s sketches is always instructive and one of my highlights was seeing an ingenious design to protect the D-day flotilla from ships crashing into it.

All in all, I think the V&A has done well at presenting a job that is endlessly fascinating in a way that is immediately accessible. I hope you get to see it and enjoy it too.

Clifton Suspension Bridge: How Brunel Avoided Disaster

Two weeks ago I was back in my university city of Bristol, and had the chance to have a guided tour of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I’d heard previously that one of the abutments was hollow, and I was secretly hoping that we would get to abseil into one of them, but it wasn’t to be. One thing did really strike me though during the guided tour.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge built in 1864 was famously designed by Brunel. It wasn’t built in his lifetime due to a lack of funding but was then erected in memorial to him after his death. It is the picture postcard advert for both the city of Bristol and engineering in general; however based on what the guide said, I think it could nearly have ended in disaster.

The bridge span is 214m and the width is 9.5m. Therefore the ratio of span/width is 22.7. As far as I’m aware in Brunel’s time that wasn’t a ratio that people considered but it’s become significant since 1940 when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed. That had a span/width ratio of 71, which for the technology at the time was the highest of any bridge in the world. It really pushed the boundaries of innovation, but unfortunately the designers weren’t aware of the impact this would have on the resonance of the bridge. And as you can see in the youtube link here it oscillated in even relatively light winds until it was torn apart only a few months after it was finished.

What the guide said that caught my attention, was that Brunel’s design had been for one horse and cart, but after his death, the bridge design was widened at the request of one of the donors, who wanted two horse and carts to be able to pass each other. The bridge also now has space for pedestrians either side.

Could it be that Brunel’s original design was only 3m wide ? If so then it would have had a span/width ratio of 70 and could have suffered the same fate as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Who knows but maybe that extra horse and cart was the saviour of Brunel’s reputation!

If you’d like to read more about engineering failures, you might like this book I reviewed.

Good Books about Engineering

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Sir Isaac Newton

When I was preparing to apply to become a chartered member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a mentor – I think as a warning against complacency – challenged me that I should be reading at least 6 books about engineering a year. From my experience, most engineering books are text books, so I asked him which books he suggested, and he couldn’t think of a single example of a readable book about engineering!

Although not the easiest task, I have found some good books that I would recommend to those wanting to learn a bit more about engineering in an accessible way. And in no particular order, they are as follows:

Tony Hunt’s Structures Notebook

I’m a great lover of short books, especially those that can be read in a single sitting, and this is one such pearl. Anthony Hunt was a famous structural engineer who had his own practice that worked variously with Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw. His notebook is slimmed down minimalist introduction to the principles and possibilities of structural engineering. Mostly simple line sketches with a few words of description it goes through step by step from simple ideas (shear, bending, flexure..) to how they can work themselves out in practice (shells, barrel vaults, nets..). I use it at work to induct placement students as it takes less than an hour to read.

Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down

This is a paperback by JE Gordon – one of the founders of materials science – draws on his diverse experience to explain a wide variety of engineering principles. I read this book about ten years ago, so my memory is a little hazy but I remember a section on dress-making to explain stress lines and his discussion based on first hand experience of the merits of welding vs. riveting, which was very interesting to think about the practicalities or making and checking that the joins are good. The book is a typical sized paperback, which took me a few hours to read. I remember enjoying it and have since recommended to at least one person who was wondering about whether to become an engineer.

Collapse: Why Buildings Fall Down

Each chapter of this book is dedicated to a different engineering failure and the lessons that were learnt from it. Although this might be interesting to the casual reader, it’s probably most useful to structural engineers so they learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Hardback with colour pictures and large font it was easy to read and I hope I learned some lessons from it! The chapter on the Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse particularly sticks in my mind.

To Engineer is Human.

The author – Henry Petroski – a professor of civil engineering at Duke University has written several books which could be candidates for this list, although so far this is the only one I’ve read. I think the title is a clever play on the phrase “to err is human” and the book is a discussion about engineering mistakes and what we can learn from them. He draws on a wonderful breadth of stories from around the world and his own experience. I’ve written a more thorough book review of it here.

So that’s as far as I’ve got at the moment! Although some kind people on twitter have pointed me to these, which I also plan to check out:

Where Stuff Comes From

The New Science of Strong Materials

Why Buildings Fall Down: Why Structures Fail

Exploding Modern Architecture

Book Review: To Engineer is Human

Lots of meat, without the maths that makes it hard to swallow.

When I was preparing to apply to become a chartered member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a mentor – I think as a warning against complacency – challenged me that I should be reading at least 6 books about engineering a year. From my experience, most engineering books are text books, so I asked him which books he suggested, and he couldn’t think of a single example of a readable book about engineering!

Petroski’s books then are rare gems of attempting to span that large distance between the remote island of engineering knowledge and the mainland of public imagination. Reading it as a structural engineer there was plenty that I was already familiar with, but also lots that was new. He draws on examples from both sides of the Atlantic, so having learnt my trade in the UK I found the discussion of iron bridges particularly Othmar Ammann (Quebec Bridge) and the Roeblings (Brooklyn Bridge) fresh and new. While others may be less familiar with Beauvais Cathedral, cracks in Big Ben or Paxton and the Crystal Palace.

His opening chapters suggest that the book is for a non-technical audience, but he sometimes lapses into advice for professionals such as lamenting that our drawings are no longer as beautiful as Galileo’s. The vocabulary is probably only accessible for teenagers and up (discussion of monographs, commissions, cantilevers etc.) but other than that, in my opinion it is accessible for a non-technical reader.

If I was being picky, I would like to have seen an over-arching story arc. Like there is in the excellent Fermat’s Last Theorem, which keeps you turning the pages. Petroski has research and includes an impressive amount of breadth – references to nursery rhymes, poetry, photos, quotes and lots of stories – but there is no one thread drawing it all together.

I think it could also benefit from more detail of the human side of the characters. For example my impression is that Brunel was quite a risk taker, he sought his father’s advice for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but then ignored it when he was advised to include a central support; which was quite bold for a 20-year-old designing the longest spanning bridge in the UK!

So in summary, this book is a good introduction to engineering with plenty of nuggets and reminders for the more seasoned professional. It’s not a gripping page turner because there isn’t an over-arching narrative arc, but I enjoyed reading it and got several pages of quotes and stories from it that have broadened me out a bit and I’ll no doubt use again.

How to Be More Innovative the James Dyson Way

I became an engineer because I enjoy being creative, so I look up to James Dyson’s impressive track record of innovation. And even beyond having creative ideas, he’s also got a keen marketing sense. Going from starting a vacuum cleaner business on his own – after his business partners abandoned him – to running a company with more than a billion pound turnover and profits of 25% in 2014. So I’ve been doing some research about him and these are the five things I’ve learned about how to be more innovative:

Ask ‘Stupid’ Questions

Dyson credits his success at innovation with being willing to do ‘completely stupid or wrong things… just to see what would happen’. He put this down to coming from an arts background (he studied classics at school), rather than a scientific one, where you are encouraged to seek the ‘right’ answer. Whatever your background though, I think the key thing is being brave enough to question the premises of things, however stupid it may seem to do so.

Search Around for Solutions to Similar Problems

While doing domestic chores, Dyson became frustrated with his vacuum cleaner. He took it apart and realised that the design was flawed, the suction happened through the bag, so as the bag filled the suction reduced. But it was only later, in a completely different context that he came across a possible solution. He was at a Sawmill and noticed that on the roof there was a cyclone, which through various tubes picked up all the sawdust from the machines. This gave him the idea for a cyclone vacuum cleaner.

Work out what Success Looks Like

Dyson set himself two goals at an early stage, that his vacuum cleaner had to have no loss of suction and that it had to pick up particles as small as 0.5microns across (this is as small as the particles in cigarette smoke). This set a course for how to improve the design and also helped him to know when it was complete. Stephen Covey calls this principle ‘Begin with the End in Mind’

Take Lots of Little Steps

One of the most useful lessons I learned from researching Dyson was about his incremental improvement process, which he took from Thomas Edison. Rather than producing a few prototypes, he made 5,127. Starting with a prototype made from cardboard and masking tape, to prove the principle worked. Each prototype had only one variable changed compared to the last. Even though this process sounds quite laborious (and took 4 years!) he said it was critical to understanding exactly how each variable affected the design.

Invest in Innovation

Dyson is known for investing more than most companies in R&D. In 2015 he spent £113m on innovation, approximately 8% of the company turnover. Very few of us can set a companies R&D budget, but if applied to individuals, this would equate to someone on the UK average salary of £26,000 spending £2,000 a year on training!

James Dyson has always tried to innovate and in his words ‘drastically improve things’. We may never reach his level, but we can learn from these five simple things that he does and apply them to our own lives, whether at home or work to help us to be more innovative.

What’s the point of having a structural engineer?

Building is expensive. The recent financial crisis proved that construction is a luxury, because during hard times we can do without it. For many people, property is the most expensive outlay in their lives. So when it comes to embarking on an expensive building project it’s important to make sure every pound counts.

So avoiding hiring a structural engineer may seem an easy saving. The Romans built all their great structures with an architect to provide the vision and experienced builders to make it stand up. What’s a structural engineer for? What’s the point of them?

What you get with a structural engineer is someone who can – using a scientific approach – tell you exactly how much structure you need. One element of that is judging the strength of the structural frame. In order to design a structure that is strong enough without additional materials, which are wasteful and expensive.

A brilliant demonstration of the potential of structural engineering came from a group of students a few years ago. They had to build a dome structure, 40cm high and hollow, with a kilo of spaghetti and some glue. The winners would be the group that supported the biggest weight with the least spaghetti.

A common sense approach might be to use triangles to make the dome shape. To make it easy to build you might use the same size triangles throughout and estimate the strength by averaging out several different people’s opinions. A reasonable strength to achieve from a bag of spaghetti is hard to gauge, maybe a few kilograms is achievable.

The engineering students in question, tested the spaghetti to calculate its material properties (how much force it could take and how much it bent for a certain amount of force). Instead of designing the whole dome as one unit, they approached it as a series of 10 arches, which combined together make a dome. Using some trigonometry they were able to work out the best shape for the arches. They then used some engineering software to check that there were no particular weak spots and that the whole structure would be working hard before any one part broke. By separating the dome into 2D arches, they could build the dome flat and them assemble it, making it easier to build well.

Spaghetti dome 3D and section
Spaghetti dome 3D and section

So what was the benefit of having a structural engineer? Well if a smart person had designed something and built it well, it might be expected to hold a few kilograms. The ‘engineered’ spaghetti dome held 195.5kg! Slightly more than the 190kg predicted. It performed so well that the engineering department had to bring in a new testing rig, as their first one only went up to 100kg.

So what’s the point of having a structural engineer? Well a structural engineer helps you to get every ounce of strength out of the structure. So although their services cost money, they can design something which is easier to build and without additional materials, which are wasteful and expensive.

If you speak German, you can read more about this example here.

What makes a good engineer?

We were off to the pub. I was walking with two architects with a mutual intent to enjoy the sunshine with a glass of something fermented in hand. We’d just made a careful incision through the London traffic. Suddenly the conversation opened up and one of them asked me exactly what was it that made a good structural engineer. Good question. Obvious question maybe, but not something I’d ever heard posited before. And looking back I was quite pleased with what I came up with in the space of a few pounding heartbeats.

If they’d asked what a structural engineer does, that would have been easy. Hours spent sketching or calculating the size of bending moments are not quickly forgotten. Or you can just ask Google. For example the Institution of Structural Engineers website explains that ‘Structural engineers design, create, solve problems, innovate and use maths and science to shape the world.’

But what’s the difference between a good one and an average one? What does it mean to design better, solve better or innovate better? Are good engineers mined from exotic locations? Or can they be moulded? Are they like wizards, born of engineerkind. Or are they more like hobbits, who just need an invite to a great adventure to rise about expectations?

I mean obviously it’s subjective. There’s no golden rule to measure engineers by. Of the many good engineers who have achieved fame – Brunel was lauded for his bold innovation; Peter Rice thought it was about imagination and Bill Baker gives the impression it’s all perspiration.

I mean a good engineer must be dependable, scientific, able to think through a situation logically, prudent, a good communicator, understand contracts, party wall agreements and the management of risk. They must have integrity, work to improve the environment and ensure worker safety.They must be cautious but brave, striving for the best while preparing for the worst. They must be lifelong learners, questioning, curious. Widely read and deeply knowledgable.

But I wanted to answer succinctly. To lay down the shield of jargon and the breastplate of verbosity and wrestle with the question unarmed. I didn’t want to give a list post – the 37 things that all good structural engineers do and how you can emulate them. I wanted something pithier, punchier, peppier. I wanted a tweet not a novel.

To cut to the crunch, I feel that if you boil it all down, what separates the good from the rest, is that the good ones understand what everything does. This means that crucially, they know what you can justify doing without. It’s tempting to add strength to the structure to cover the weakness in our understanding. The better the engineer, the less structure you’ll get. Good engineers give you less. Less is better. Less is more.

So back to my conversation. The good question about good engineers. Well after a deep breath I slowly opined ‘a good structural engineer knows exactly what’s needed’. And I’m still not sure how I would improve on that.