What I am thinking: Structural designer Jane Wernick

Jane Wernick is a British Engineer who has distinguished herself in the field of structural engineering. She has taught at Harvard University and has been the Chair of the Diversity Task Force of the Construction Industry Council, in addition to managing Ove Arup and Partner’s Los Angeles office from 1986 to 1988. In 1998 she founded Jane Werwick Associates Ltd., a superb engineering design consultancy which has worked on countless projects across the United States and Europe. I talked to Jane at the occasion of the Structured Lineages: Learning from Japanese Structural Design event, held earlier this year at MOMA. 

Sigrid Adriaenssens: You have worked with world-renowned architects, what is the value for you of working in a design team versus solo engineering?

Jane Wernick: I have only ever worked as part of a team. I very much enjoy the process of trying to work out and understand the aspirations of the client, architect and other consultants, and then trying to find structural solutions that support or even enhance those aspirations.

What objectives do you set for yourself when designing a structure? How would a trained audience recognize a structure designed by you?

I am keen to propose solutions that give delight, that are buildable and that give good value. As well as designing structures that are strong enough, stiff enough, durable etc. it is also important that, as engineers we appreciate what the structural elements will look like. For example, I think that a circular hollow section is likely to look much larger and heavier than a fabricated section with sharp corners. The triangular cross section is one of my favourites. This is what we used for the pylons of the Xstrata Treetop Walkway at Kew Gardens. Because we used weathering steel (because it didn’t need to be painted with an ‘un-natural’ colour) we couldn’t use rolled sections. And a tapered triangular cross-section was the most efficient we could use. It also looked more slender than the equivalent circular section would have appeared.

South Elevation Xstrata Treetop Walkway showing the pylons
Close-up Xstrata Treetop Walkway (Image credit LondonTown.com)

You once said “structural analysis is not a precise science, but difficult statistically; it is chaotic, and it is part craft” in the context of your work with the Fiat Team. This statement might seem upsetting to engineering students. Could you elaborate on this?

I think it is liberating. It means that there isn’t just one correct answer, and we can therefore inject a bit of art into the solution. I was talking about the fact that when we design a building we try to imagine all the worst loadcases and combination of those loadcases that might occur e.g. everyone standing on one half of the building at every level. Probably the building will never see any of those actual loadcases, and even if it did, we don’t actually go back and measure the stresses and deflections that occurred at that time. So it is as if we are designing for a parallel universe. We just know that by and large, if we follow through our logic, the buildings seem to perform o.k. The Fiat car project was a bit different. We considered a particular loadcase, of an applied torsional load, which represented one wheel being on the kerb. A full-scale prototype was made of the structure that we had analysed, and that load was then applied and the deflection measured. I think this is the only time in my working life that this has happened.

Communication between architects, engineers and the general public seems to have been important in your approach to advancing design projects. For example your hand sketches, your oral presentations and interviews and your written articles show a real talent to explain how structures are working, why a particular structure is being used and how that helps the design. How did you acquire these skills and why do you think they are important? How important is structural expression in your projects?

In order for good collaboration to occur we all need to trust and respect each other. I think as engineers we show our respect by assuming that the other members of the team will be able to understand what we are proposing, and why. We need to be able to explain ourselves. So we have to learn to be very straight forward in how we explain our solutions, and to keep on trying until we have got our message across. It isn’t always easy, and we don’t always succeed. But the best projects are those where we do all understand what the other is trying to achieve, and how.

Of course I am always happy when the structure is directly visible in the finished project. I like it if the observer can work out how it works. But there are also plenty of good pieces of architecture where the structural elements are not on display. My view is that in those cases the structure is like the bone structure in our face – It influences what we look like, but it isn’t the whole story.

Jane communicates with architect Sarah Wigglesworth using drawings to describe options for the Chelsea Pavilion
Chelsea Pavilion (image credit Jane Wernick Associates)

You have practiced in the USA, France and the UK. What are the similarities and differences in working in these varying contexts?

There may be differences in the ways in which projects are procured, how much time and money clients are prepared to pay for good design, difficulties with language etc. But in the end it is always the same – the best projects have the best clients, design teams and contractors who share a common goal.

How do you situate yourself in the tradition of British Engineering? (who were your teachers and role models, what do you bring that is different?)

I was very largely influenced by the words of Ove Arup, by the wisdom and advice of an engineer called Tony Stevens at Arups who was responsible for sorting out some difficult analysis problems with the Barbican Towers and Arts Centre amongst many other projects, and by Peter Rice. I’m not particularly interested in designing the worlds tallest or largest anything. I’m more concerned by our responsibility to the built environment. I want to be involved in projects that bring delight, and ideally that tread lightly on the planet. I enjoy being part of a multi-disciplinary built environment think tank called The Edge.

From your publication “Happy Architecture” and your involvement in the “Living Architecture” project, it seems that one of your personal core objectives is to improve the quality of life of people. Can you elaborate on that hypothesis? How do you think engineers can address the human crisis in Europe (eg. refugees, attacks, etc.)?

As part of RIBA Building Futures I edited a book called ‘Building Happiness, Architecture to make you smile’. It is a collection of essays about how the way in which we design our built environment might, or might not, affect our psyche. Certainly some project do bring a smile to our faces, others just make us feel comfortable. On their own, I doubt that they can make us feel happy, but there is some research that certain ways of planning buildings and open spaces can lead to higher levels of depression etc. People feel better if they think they have some control over their lives. If in some small way the way we design our space can assist this, then so much the better. As far as global security is concerned, it would be a shame if we had to build prisons around us to keep us safe. We need more than architecture to do that. I guess it comes down to good communications, trust and respect again. And let’s not forget a shared sense of humour too, if we can.

Living Architecture, architect Nord, Structural Engineers Jane Wernick Associates

In 2015 you were made Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Why did this happen and why is this important?

I don’t really know why it happened. I guess someone put me forward, and then others supported the idea. It might be because I do other things than just straight forward engineering, such as being on the Council of the Architectural Association, and being a member of CABE’s design review panel. I was pleased that a structural engineer, who isn’t a ‘Captain of Industry’ got the award. It also gave me the opportunity to commission the design of a great hat.

What motivates you?

Collaborating with like-minded people and seeing things built.

Sigrid Adriaenssens (Princeton University), Caitlin Mueller (MIT) and Jane Wernick (Jane Wernick Associates) earlier this year at the Structured Lineages event.

What is you greatest professional achievement and why?

I think it is starting my own firm, on my own terms, and the fact that we have contributed to a great collection of projects. More recently, it is the fact that I have found another lovely firm, engineersHRW, to take us over, so that I am not responsible for it all any more.

Balancing Barn, a cantilever project by Jane Wernick Associates (image credt Jane Wernick Associates)
The ringing singing tree (image credit Jane Wernick Associates)

What is your favorite structure and why? What did you wish you had done differently?

Well, I think the treetop walkway is my favourite project. We had a brilliant team and had a lot of fun.

It’s not really sensible to wish that I was someone else, as that will never happen. So I can’t really wish I had done anything differently.

What question do you never get asked but would like to be asked? What would be the answer?

I would like to say that I am not a single-minded person. I like to try to do lots of different things – making music, making things, gardening, snorkeling etc. I couldn’t imagine only being an engineer.

What is your advice to structural engineering students wanting to be structural designers?

If you want to be a structural designer you need to be both a good analyst and someone who is interested in the end product. If you can find lots of good ways to communicate your ideas your life will be easier. But the most important thing is to find a good working environment, with people who trust, respect and like each other.

Author: Sigrid Adriaenssens

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