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How can Architects and Engineers Work Together to Create Better Designs?

by Kevin F. on January 22, 2014

In my years in the design industry, I’ve worked in a few different types of design offices, both big and small.  I’ve worked in office with architects and landscape architects only; and I’ve worked in offices with both architects and engineers.  One of the biggest challenges I’ve found in my professional career is getting architects and engineers to work together.
For some reason, it took me a while to figure this out, but the training of architects and engineers is very different.  Going through the landscape architecture program at Ball State, our focus was on looking at a number of possible solutions to every problem.  To explore options until you couldn’t explore any more.  Our focus was not only on function, but the aesthetic of the project.  How it looked, how the users experienced it, how it felt to be in the space.  I just assumed that the training of an engineer was similar to ours.  I did not really realize the differences until I had a chance to work with engineers on several projects over the years.  An engineer’s training is much different; they are trained to find the most efficient solution to a problem - Period!  Their training is to find the most cost effective solution that is the most functional; and then make it work.  Their training is more of a linear thinking process.  These processes are very different things.
Anyone that has ever worked on a project with many disciplines has heard the arguments.  Engineers generally feel that architects spend too much time focusing only on how things look and take all of the design fee and project budget for the look of the project, but don’t take time to figure out how it can actually work.  Architects complain that engineers don’t care about how a project looks and that they can’t think creatively, they only care about getting it done and moving on to the next job. 
My experience has actually been quite the opposite.  I’ve found that when you get a good team together that everybody brings something to the table and typically the best designs are created by a multi-disciplinary team that works together.  In reality, all members are an important part of the team that can help shape a project.  But all members have to approach the project with an open mind. So, what are some things we can do to insure the best projects are created and we serve our clients in the best way possible?
To me the biggest factor in helping architects and engineers to work together is communication.  But isn’t that really the key to any good project or relationship?  I know this sounds simple, but just establishing some general guidelines for communication at the beginning of a project and setting expectations is critical and can make a world of difference moving forward.  Some tips for establishing communication on a project include:
  • Having a meeting to set expectations and communication requirements before a project ever starts.  Get everyone in the same room and review the project up front.
  • Set roles and expectations for each team member at the outset.
  • Set deadlines within the project before anything moves forward.
  • Have regular team meetings as the project progresses to discuss progress and next steps.
Beyond constant communication at all levels there are a few other things that are important to making the architect/engineer relationship work. 
  1. Project concerns should be discussed at every stage of the project.  In every phase of the project, the entire design team should review the drawings and there should be a meeting to discuss any concerns.  Too often, the designer does not share details of the design until the construction drawing phase.  At this point it is much harder to make changes than in the early conceptual or schematic phases.
  2. Another good practice is to include the entire design team in meetings with the owner.  That allows them to hear the owner’s issues and concerns first hand.  I know some architects that like to have all the information and pass it along to the team.  To me this doesn’t make any sense, other than to have control over the information.
  3. A final thing is that all parties MUST be willing to listen to the other team members’ point of view.  Often times on a project we get an idea that we can’t let go of and we’re not willing to listen to other possible solutions.
I know that many of these suggestions seem very simple. Quite honestly, they are.  However, I’ve constantly been surprised by the amount of times I’ve seen just the opposite on a project.  The next time you have an opportunity to try this on a project, go for it.  I think you might be surprised by the outstanding results you can accomplish by truly working as a team.