A Creative Engineer Is Not an Oxymoron

Is being creative in a construction project the prerogative of the architect? Are engineers expected or even allowed to be creative?

When I worked at an architect’s office there were two kinds of architects. The self-confident designers were not too interested in technical or economic boundaries and had to struggle to get their visions realized. Then there were architects who seemed to be more down to earth, perhaps creating more normative than innovative solutions. Most engineers seem to fall into the latter category.

Some years ago I interviewed several HVAC engineers about a new cooling technology for buildings. My client was a university who wanted me to collect expert feedback on the solution. One of the interviewees from an established firm said that the idea was so bizarre that he thought he was on Candid Camera. I got the same reaction from a couple of other experts as well. Without hesitation they condemned the idea as unfeasible because it was so unconventional. “An expert is someone who knows what worked in the past,” as the saying goes.

Engineers are problem solvers. To put it bluntly, the role of the engineer is to solve problems that architects have created. Their playground is generally limited by an architect’s design. Therefore their creativity has little room to flourish.

Engineers want to play it safe. An experimental, untested solution can fail, and lives can be lost as a consequence. When an architect’s design is a failure he or she can always say that: “It is a question of interpretation.” (I picked this wonderful expression from Jim Kent’s presentation “The Social Nature of Engineers”.)

In spite of all the limitations, there is room and the need for engineering creativity. Here are some exemplary ways for engineers to utilize their creative capacity:

Early involvement in construction projects

Engineers are usually great team players and they should be involved in a construction project as soon as possible – not as a brake pedal, but as a co-creator of alternative solutions. The earlier the engineers are brought in, the easier it is to devise optimized solutions. Some might see this as an added cost, but the ROI can be handsome.

New service and product development

Some of my engineering clients, e.g. Granlund, use their long experience as designers for creating new business models outside the design domain. Granlund develops software and services for facilities management and energy efficiency. Their product development offers new opportunities for learning and feeds back information to design projects.

Cross-industry partnerships

Engineers can team up with other designers and experts. A cross-industry team can innovate business models and products, which create new markets or disrupt existing ones. Creating environmentally friendly solutions, for example, requires knowledge that crosses the boundaries between disciplines and industries.

Encouraging creativity

Engineering firms should encourage their employees and managers to uncover their hidden creativity. Practical ways to do so include: coaching, prototyping and testing, drawing on influences form other industries, including users of buildings in projects, sending employees to work temporarily in other firms, and taking part in competitions.

Communicating

Engineers are often quite understated in their communication. How many engineers are known by name compared to architects? Why not give yourself a bit more credit publicly and show how engineers have an important contribution in creating great built environments.

Perhaps engineers need more of the winning mindset that my countrywoman Cristina Andersson promotes: “People and companies are not prepared to win – they don’t want to win, they would rather focus on surviving.”

 Photo: © Aarni Heiskanen