The marriage of form and function

Urban life 18 May 2016 Kaare K.B.Dahl

Effective collaboration between architects and engineers can reduce critical errors, long delays and cost overruns throughout the building process.

8 min

Tilting, twisting towers or supertall structures? Courageous cantilevers or bold, bending buildings? Architects have their heads in the creative clouds while engineers cling to data and science, with no acknowledgement of beauty or innovation. Or at least that is how the stereotypes go. Although this viewpoint might be highly exaggerated, it holds some truth. Sinead Mac Namara, structural engineer and Associate Professor at Syracuse University, New York, explains:

“There are definitely differences between architects and engineers. But it’s important to understand that this is an entirely necessary and correct result of their respective educations. In school, engineers are taught to solve very specific, clearly defined problems within their own subdisciplines. By contrast, architects are taught to think about the whole picture – to have a vision for a complete project.”

Sinead Mac Namara is one of two authors behind the book “Collaborations in Architecture and Engineering” (2014) and has been researching the relationship between architects and engineers intensively:

“Long delays and cost overruns can be a consequence of poor collaboration when constructability issues arise,” she says.

So how can a good partnership possibly be established and maintained, and the risks of adverse consequences thus reduced, if the disparities between the two professions trace back to identities formed in school? The short answer is simply to avoid bad teamwork, which Sinead Mac Namara asserts probably happens for one of two reasons: poor communication or inefficient project structure, as seen when engineers are brought into the process too late to have an optimal impact on the design.

Creating a mutual start

In Copenhagen, Denmark, the Niels Bohr Building is starting to take shape, and when finished in 2017, the 53,000-m2 laboratory and teaching facility will accommodate scientists and students from most parts of the world. Since 2010, a consultancy group consisting of Ramboll engineers and architects from Vilhelm Lauritzen, Christensen & Co, GHB Landscape Architects and Collin Gordon Associates has been working together on the complex project. Their remarkably close teamwork and the use of building information modelling (BIM) are preventing the type of collaborative problems that can result in timeframe and cost overruns:

We work together in an atmosphere of confidence and mutual respect, which means we can challenge and inspire each other across disciplines and companies. If experts cannot listen and learn from each other, it becomes difficult to create a world-class project.

The success can also be attributed to the fact that architects and engineers prepared the competition proposal together and that 3D technology was used throughout the entire process.

Our 3D models allowed us all to access detailed information at various stages and do clash detection every fourth week. There is no doubt that our thorough use of BIM has been a huge driver for good teamwork.

Many paths to success

Sinead Mac Namara is unsurprised that the Niels Bohr Building, a project with strong team spirit, also avoids collaborative issues that impact the time schedule and budget:

“Our research shows that early collaboration, mutual understanding and respect for the ‘other’ discipline are all essential factors for good teamwork. All these measures prevent misunderstandings and errors, and ensure that all considerations come into play from the very beginning,” she explains and continues:

“Additionally, emerging tools such as BIM software are starting to play a role in facilitating good collaboration, and this will likely increase over time.”



1 Mutual respect among disciplinary experts

2 Early collaboration, which is particularly important for projects that are large-scale or complex in their technical resolution

3 Emerging tools like BIM software and new contract types such as integrated project delivery (IDP)

4 Establishment of common vocabulary

5 Commitment to mutual teaching and learning

Source: Sinead Mac Namara, Syracuse University, New York.