Do You Need an Architect or Structural Engineer?

A drawing of the leaning tower of pisaArchitects design the way the structure appears–its aesthetics, what its spaces look and feel like, how the building looks in the landscape, how the structure functions with people or vehicles, etc., moving between or around the spaces.

Structural engineers focus on how the structure holds together, its strength, its ability to resist movement within and the effects of manmade, geographical, and natural stress on it. They make sure the solid parts of the structure (the walls, floors, roofs, etc.) will do the job of keeping it intact and functional.

After the architect creates the design of the project, the structural engineer examines the design to ensure of its integrity and safety, focusing on the physics of the design.

Physics is the key. Structural engineers know their physics and apply their knowledge to make sure a building or project holds together for as long as it is needed.

In Medieval times, structural engineers were called master masons. Master masons did much of the same thing as today’s structural engineers, but without computers and modern building materials, machinery or tools. They had manpower instead. Hundreds of men worked on projects then that would take a couple of men and modern machinery today. But, these cathedrals have held together for all these past centuries, and are still around today.

Master masons were thought of as magicians because it was like magic when incredibly complex buildings came together as planned. The common folk, of course, did not understand their secrets (their understanding of the physics involved), Master masons very carefully kept their secret ways of doing things to themselves to protect their trade.

Unfortunately, there were faulty practices during medieval times just as there are today as can be found in the reports of all the leaning towers built in medieval times. (Including the ones in Pisa, Italy, Suurhusen, Germany, Bad Frankenhausen, Germany, and in Gort, Ireland.) These towers began leaning as a result of faulty foundations made of wood which obviously isn’t too stable over a long period of time. So, these towers have to be reinforced and re-engineered every few years to keep them standing.

Interestingly, the leaning towers created by today’s architects are deliberate and not the result of errors by structural engineers. Such towers as the Capital Gate Tower of Abu Dhabi, the Tower of Montreal at the Olympic Stadium, and the Gate of Europe in Madrid were deliberately created to lean, a postmodern statement, no doubt.

Blog Resource: What Did the Ancients Know About Structural Engineering?

What Did the Ancients Know About Structural Engineering?

A drawing of an arch with two pillars and a clock.

Structural engineering has been around since the beginning of history, since the time we human beings first built our own homes. There was always someone there to figure out which rocks and pillars could hold up which roofs. Ever since some ancient ancestor discovered the wheel, the lever, or the pulley, we have all of us been a little bit of an engineer. We use these principles everyday when we change a tire or drive to work.

Most of the principles structural engineers use today were discovered by some ancient ancestor of ours. There is the ancient Mycenaean who figured out how to construct the famous Lion Gate with two stone columns and an arched beam. And then, there is the ancient Egyptian who discovered that if you want to build a very tall pyramid, you need a very broad base.

Our ancient Roman ancestors seem to have been the most precocious when it comes to structures. They weren’t much good at literature, but they did figure out how to build floating bridges, how to build domes (thus eliminating the need for numerous pillars to hold up the roof), and even created aqueducts to carry clean water into the city, sewage systems to carry waste materials out of the city, in-floor heating systems, segmental arches, and concrete.

Our Chinese ancestors were great innovators of metallurgy and bridges, among other things. Around 1050 BCE, they developed the blast furnace and the cupola furnace to make pig iron and cast iron. They developed steel and wrought iron and also created a pipeline transport system to bring natural gas to furnaces. And, they also built incredible bridges: beam bridges, arch bridges, suspension bridges and pontoon bridges.

For those of us who have ancestors from Turkey, there is the ancient underground city of Derinkuyu, discovered in the 1960s. These ancient Turks managed to build an 18-story underground city that had been hidden for centuries, since almost 3,000 years ago. They had managed to build a city to house about 20,000 people, complete with fresh flowing water, individual quarters, shops, communal rooms, arsenals, school rooms, housing for livestock, and even tombs. Archaeologist speculate that the city was built as a doomsday bunker to protect against the wars going on above ground.

Our ancient Indian ancestors from the state of Rajasthan created the Chand Baori well as a solution to the chronic water supply issues in that arid region of the country. Probably the deepest well ever dug, it extended 100 feet below the surface of the earth and was made up of a series of 3,500 steps in 13 levels for people to climb down to get water. The structure was arranged in a “V†shape and modern structural engineers have wondered how these ancient people could have constructed such a structure with the technology of their time. According to a local legend, it was built in a single night by ghosts.

Ancient Peruvians (the Incas) created another of the unbelievable feats of ancient engineering. They built Sacsayhuarnan, a hugh fortress located outside the modern-day city of Cuscos, Peru. It struck the Spanish conquerors as the work of demons because it was so unexplainable. The walls of the fortress are made of huge boulders, the largest of which weighs an estimated 120 tons. The question is, how did the ancients move these boulders into place, and how did they manage to fit them together so tightly that even a piece of paper can’t fit between them?

While all of the engineering feats of the ancients can’t be explained, we know that these ancient people figured out how to solve problems exactly the way we do today. They found a problem, they did some brainstorming, they came up with an idea or design for solving the problem, they built or created a possible solution, they tested it, evaluated it, did some redesign if necessary, and then shared the solution with others. They were much like us, don’t you think?