Engineering Criticism

Background: Architectural Criticism

There is an entire field of writing and thinking that is concerned with analyzing, critiquing, and reviewing works of architecture. Traditionally “architectural criticism” means (from Wikipedia):

“…the act of writing or speaking about a building, usually of historical importance or novel design or built in a notable public space.”

I find Geoff Manaugh’s post on architectural criticism over at BLDGBLOG illuminating. The point he makes is that the scope of architectural concern isn’t limited to what is formerly considered Architecture, the iconic buildings designed by famous architects. I highly recommend you read the entire post (and, well, the entire blog, really), but to quote Geoff:

“Architecture,” for most Americans, means Home Depot – not Mies van der Rohe. You have every right to discuss that architecture. For questions of accessibility, material use, and land policy alone, if you could change the way Home Depots all around the world are designed and constructed, you’d have an impact on built space and the construction industry several orders of magnitude larger than changing just one new high-rise in Manhattan – or San Francisco, or Boston’s Back Bay.

You’d also help people realize that their local Home Depot is an architectural concern, and that everyone has the right to critique – or celebrate – these buildings now popping up on every corner. If critics only choose to write about avant-garde pharmaceutical headquarters in the woods of central New Jersey – citing Le Corbusier – then, of course, architectural criticism will continue to lose its audience. And it is losing its audience…

Put simply, if everyday users of everyday architecture don’t realize that Home Depot, Best Buy, WalMart, even Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose, can be criticized – if people don’t realize that even suburbs and shopping malls and parking garages can be criticized – then you end up with the architectural situation we have today: low-quality, badly situated housing stock, illogically designed and full of uncomfortable amounts of excess closet space.

And no one says a thing.

Everyone, everywhere, is surrounded by the architecture of the built environment, be it city hall, the office building they work in, the highway overpass they drive over every day, the parks they walk their dog in, or the virtual worlds they explore in computer games. The built environment impacts everyone’s daily experience in a way that is so pervasive and all-encompassing that I suspect few people are aware of where the bounds of the built environment actually are. And it is every aspect and part of the built environment that Geoff is saying is open to architectural criticism, not just the blockbuster starchitect projects. As long as everyday architecture continues to be outside the realm of architectural criticism, it will continue to be poorly designed and executed.

Going a little further, I want to pull in the idea that mankind is part of nature, not opposed to or outside of nature. Western civilization has for some time operated under the assumption that humans can control nature and have dominion over it. The reality is that humans are nature, a part of it anyway, and our attempt to subjugate it to our wills is having an odd, unpredictable and recursive series of consequences both on humans and the natural systems of this planet.

Everything is now the built environment. We live in the Anthropocene. The Earth is now the built environment. There are no more boundaries, no Wilderness, no untouched pristine lands. The idea that Man and Nature are separate entities is fallacious, and it blinders critical thought on human impact on the world.

So What Does That Have to Do With Engineering?

In the same way that Home Depots, Half-Life, and the suburbs are a part of architectural space, so too are urban centers, the urban heat island effect, Portal 2, the insane hydrology of the American Southwest, agriculture, The Matrix, climate change legislation, golf courses, transportation infrastructure, the cloud, stormwater mitigation strategies, carbon tax schemes, and rare earth mining operations a part of engineering space (and, thus, open to engineering criticism).

I see two main differences between architectural criticism and current engineering writing; the audience and the scope.

The audience of architectural criticism is (or should be, as I gather architectural critics agree on) wider than the community of architects. They want to engage the wider public in the conversation.

The difference between writing on engineering topics and writing on architectural topics is that in general the only people who read engineering related pieces of writing are themselves engineers.

I want engineering writing that is accessible to people whose first thought when someone says “the first law of thermodynamics” is not

The First Law for Control Volumes

In terms of scope, thoughtful engineers should write about engineering projects, yes. But also architectural projects, landscape projects, urban design projects, novels, film, political situations, and cultural ideologies and narratives (especially cultural ideologies and narratives).

What could thoughtful, critical, engineering writing, in a way that non-engineers will be able to understand and connect with.

What’s the Point?

Ask a random passersby what they think of when they see a tall glass building. I got a “Ooo, shiny!” today.

Ask many architects what they think of when they see a tall glass building. Maybe they’ll say pride, or appreciation for the design and the form of it.

Ask an HVAC engineer into green building design what she thinks about a glass building, and chances are she’ll say “An enormous heat load requiring a huge amount of energy to condition.”1

If a design team set out to design the most energetically consumptive and inefficient building they could, a standard glass building would be the result. Heat bleeds into and out of the skins of glass buildings.The only way to make glass buildings comfortable to inhabit is to expend extraordinary amounts of energy heating and/or2 cooling them, unless the local climate is a steady 20°C year-round. This is fine if cheap, abundant, dense sources of energy are readily available. For most of the 20th century this has been the case, which is one reason why glass buildings became so common.

by CTD 2005

[Image via flickr by  CTD 2005]

However, conventional energy sources are harder to come by these days, and becoming more so. Not only are they running out, it turns out that they are poisoning our world and royally monkey-wrenching the world’s climate system; if we don’t stop using fossil fuels, we’ll be toast. Renewables cannot and will not supply the same abundant dense energy to our civilization that oil and coal did. Let me stress the word will not, but leave discussion for later.

Here is the glass building situation broken down:

  • Dense, abundant, and readily-available energy sources make glass buildings habitable.
  • If dense, abundant, and readily-available energy sources go away, glass buildings will not be comfortably habitable.
  • Dense, abundant, and readily-available energy sources are going away.
  • Dense, abundant, and readily-available energy sources are the biggest contributors to climate change, are threatening the stability of the climate in which humans evolved, and must be phased out immediately if humans wish their future climate to in any way resemble the one in which they evolved.
  • Conventional glass buildings have no place in a resilient, low-energy built environment.

Now this is the sort of critique that, in my experience, engineers mostly just communicate to each other, grumbling about this or that project over the proverbial water cooler. It gets communicated to the architect when trying to explain to them why the project hasn’t a hope to meet its LEED energy targets due to the southwest-facing all-glass lobby enclosure, but typically not as well as it could be (think lots of graphs and charts and tables and glazed-over expressions and…).

The other issue is that the high loads on a glass building are just the beginning. You can’t critique glass buildings from an energy perspective alone and do it justice without critiquing the entire paradigm of a financial district filled with buildings that only operate between 8am and 6pm, Monday through Friday and empty on nights and weekends, occupied by people who drive dozens of miles every day to get to work, in a city that is completely paved over so all rainwater mixes with pollution on the ground and runs off in concrete tubes to eventually contaminate streams and oceans.

Everything is interconnected. You pull one thread and the entire thing unravels. If all a critic of glass buildings says is that they are inefficient energy hogs, a reader might be tempted to think that a highly insulated, thermally massive building is a fine solution. There, we fixed it, done, slap a LEED plaque on it and call it a day. Without contextual analysis — where is the building located? what is its relationship to the surrounding landscape, plant life, and hydrology? what is the building’s density with respect to it’s neighborhood, annual rainfall, and insolation? what is its relationship to local history, community, and culture? — we will continue to build a fundamentally unsustainable environment for ourselves.

To parallel Geoff’s statement at the end of the quote above, as long as people don’t think that every aspect of our built environment – of our engineered environment – is open to broad, contextual criticism, our systems will continue to be poorly thought out and designed, using too much energy, too much water, ruining too many ecosystems, ruining community, and being too fragile to withstand system shocks.

And no one says a thing.


1As with everything, the thermal performance of building envelopes is a complicated and nuanced issue. “All glass buildings suck” is really too simple, but it works for my point today.
2Often, these buildings are both cooled and heated at the same time, the trademark of a particularly inefficient air conditioning system design known as Variable Air Volume (VAV) reheat.

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3 Responses to Engineering Criticism

  1. calvin says:

    very insightful call to communicate past the jargon that silences the real message that engineers should be sending out to our clients

  2. […] the scope of traditional engineering practice, thought, and, ultimately, criticism. It’s why engineering criticism should apply to a broad range of projects and not just bridges, dams, and internal combustion […]

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