Pier Luigi Nervi in Italy (part 2): cantilevering stadium roofs

This blog post is based on a manuscript I wrote with my colleague and friend Prof. David Billington.  If you are interested in finding out more about Prof. Billington and his thoughts on Pier Luigi Nervi, you might want to sign-up for this amazing free on-line course “The Art of Structural Engineering” , given by Prof. Maria Garlock. You might also be interested in my … Continue reading Pier Luigi Nervi in Italy (part 2): cantilevering stadium roofs

Reporting from IASS 2017 – Severe Conditions & Disasters

Last week at the IASS the Form Finding Lab was very involved in the session on severe conditions & disasters. The session was chaired by our own Sigrid Adriaenssens and close collaborator Prof. Ruy Marcelo Pauletti from the University of Sao Paulo, and many more collaborators presented their research. The revue of familiar faces started with Eftychia Dichorou from the University of Cambridge. Dichorou presented … Continue reading Reporting from IASS 2017 – Severe Conditions & Disasters

Reflecting on the Future of Design at the IABSE conference

On Saturday, April 29, the IABSE Future of Design 2017 conference was held in New York City. The Form Finding Lab was well represented, with Victor Charpentier in the organization, Professor Adriaenssens as a speaker and alumnus Professor Ted Segal (Hofstra University) leading a design workshop. Demi Fang ’17 summarized the main ideas of the speakers and panelists:

The Future of Design NYC conference kicked off with a vibrant set of “10 + 10 Talks,” in which structural engineers paired up with professionals in a field slightly different from their own. Each pair gave a joint presentation on their thoughts on the “future of design.”

Throughout the five presentations and the Q&A that followed, several recurring themes unfolded.

Technology can be leveraged as a tool to enhance, rather than compete with, the creative human process of design.

Glenn Bell (SGH) and Antonio Rodriguez (LERA) began with a presentation titled “Disruptive Influences as Opportunities, Not Threats.” Rodriguez gave a personal anecdote of a mentor who once warned him against entering the engineering field with the argument that computers would soon take over engineers’ work. Rodriguez explained how he has found that some engineering decisions do, and always will, require human judgment. That’s not to say that technology should be considered a competitor; rather, technology can play a key role in enhancing those creative processes that are best executed by humans.

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Antonio Rodriguez of LERA on distinguishing the roles of technology and humans in the future of design.

Bell quoted Chris Wise of Expedition Engineering from a talk at the 2015 IStructE conference in Singapore: “Which bits of the engineer’s life are really human and which should we let go to machines?” Many presenters touched on the importance of this distinction, especially with the rise of digital drawing tools that easily allow for technology to “take over” the design process. Rodriguez made the distinction by identifying the processes at which computers do best, such as repetitive tasks and optimum searches. The use of these technologies “free designers to do what they do best: solving human problems.” He went on to conclude that the “future of design depends on how technology is used to enhance people’s skills, facilitate collaboration, and improve relationships.”

This approach was whole-heartedly echoed in the following presentations. Eric Long (SOM) cited Frei Otto’s scientific explorations of soap film as an example of how “technology inspires design.” As a firsthand example, he cited SOM’s partnership with Altair in topology optimization; fittingly, his presentation partner was Luca Frattari of Altair, who emphasized the fundamental role of these technologies as tools, or “a complicated pencil.” Sigrid Adriaenssens (Princeton University) presented some of her engineering projects such as Dutch Maritime Museum courtyard roof and the Verviers Passerelle from her practicing days in the Belgian structural engineering firm Ney and Partners. With a nod to David Billington’s principles on structural art, she used these examples to note how “using optimization tools efficiently can allow for efficient, economic, and elegant systems.” Her presentation partner, Bill Washabaugh (Hypersonic), also shared stunning sculptures that utilized engineering technology to not overshadow but recreate motions of nature, such as the rippling reflection of a tree over water, the murmuring of a sea anemone, or the flight of a flock of birds.

With increased levels of collaboration in the design process, broadness and diversity in education can help prepare engineers well for future challenges.

Bell pointed out that the drive towards resource efficiency and sustainability has led to the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration in the design process. He described his perception of the structural engineer as a T-section, with the “flange representing a broadness in education, and the stem representing a fundamental expertise in structures.” As one of the few educators presenting, Adriaenssens answered one of the last questions squeezed into the end of the Q&A session: what educational approaches should be taken to prepare the next generation for the future challenges of design, which differ greatly to the challenges of the older generation? Adriaenssens shared her conviction in bringing students with different backgrounds into the field of engineering in order to supply a diverse workforce to face these interdisciplinary challenges. “Many of the students I advise are excellent in other fields – they are superb athletes, musicians, or dancers. Asking an 18-year-old to focus on one particular field limits their potential.” She mentions courses at Princeton that bridge engineering with other fields such as the arts, explaining that “aside from the traditional engineering courses, we also need courses that focus on interdisciplinary training,” supporting Bell’s previous statements.

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Bill Washabaugh (left) and Sigrid Adriaenssens present their projects that utilize technology as an advanced tool for imitating and perpetuating the systems and aesthetics of nature.

Guy Nordenson (Princeton University) reinforced his colleague’s comments with statements on a more specific type of diversity: “I think Sigrid is a manifestation of where we’ve come and where we’re going,” not just with her more creative and innovative approach to engineering, but also her presence as a female in the field. “Looking out at the audience, it’s great to see that there are a lot more women in the field than when Glenn and I were students. We can do a lot to improve diversity in education starting as early as high school.” Continue reading “Reflecting on the Future of Design at the IABSE conference”

What is the value of critique in structural design?

Practicing chefs in the kitchen can revise and refine a recipe to their own satisfaction, yet their progress need not be limited by their own opinion. What might result from allowing a fellow chef or a mentor to taste their recipe? Each taster might give his/her own personal feedback – too salty, not crisp enough – and the aspiring chef, filtering through the responses, may … Continue reading What is the value of critique in structural design?

Prof. A’s Tedx Talk: Designing for strength, economy and beauty

  Check out this video and like it on YouTube. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Structural engineers envision, design and construct the bridges and long‐span buildings those city dwellers depend on daily. The construction industry is one of most resource‐intensive sectors, and yet our urban infrastructure continues to be built in the massive tradition in which strength is pursued … Continue reading Prof. A’s Tedx Talk: Designing for strength, economy and beauty

Our ultimate top 20 book list for 2016

As the holidays are approaching and as your loved ones – yet again – run out of inspiration for your holiday gift… the Form Finding Lab comes to the rescue. We present you a list of our favorite books on engineering, architecture and anything in between. Happy holidays, The Form Finding Lab. Compiled by Tim Michiels, with contributions of Sigrid Adriaenssens, Victor Charpentier, Demi Fang, … Continue reading Our ultimate top 20 book list for 2016

What I am thinking: the engineer and architect Marc Mimram

Marc Mimram is a celebrated French engineer and architect with projects in France and around the globe. He generously shares with us his ideas on bridge design in conversation with PhD candidate Victor Charpentier.

Victor Charpentier (VC): Marc Mimram, you are both an architect and engineer. Yet you have said that when you are given a project, the greater part of the inspiration for the initial spark comes from a third field, which is study of the landscape and geography. Can you explain why this is so important to you and how this affects your designs?

Marc Mimram (MM): Each project should be specific. It has to be depending of the situation where it take place.

To become a coherent project, it has to be related to the geography, the horizon. It should express the relation to the ground, to the sky, to the landscape considered as a geography informed by history.

In that case the structural project can take roots in the reality and forget the abstract equation of strength of materials to express gravity, the movement of forces, the movement of light; being part of the situation, part of the world, belonging to the site.

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Whong Sheng Da Dao Bridge in Sino Singapour, Tainjin Eco-City (China). (Image provided by Marc Mimram)

Advanced technologies have allowed structural form finding to become an integral part of many recent design projects. How do you add your personal, creative touch to a process that can become largely computational? What are your thoughts on the role of this method for the future of engineering design?

MM: The process of computational form finding is a method of optimization and as such, it follows the development of the project. It is obviously important to develop the project with frugality but the rational process of development can be plural and the choice has to be related to the specific situation, taking into account the landscape, the topography but also the economical situation, the knowledge, the development of local craftsmanship, the local materials.

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Liu Shu footbrigde in the City of Yangzhou with a variable width of 3 to 5.7 m (Image provided by  Marc Mimram)

In the past decade, many of your larger bridge projects have been built in Asia or in North Africa in part because of more local design freedom. In your opinion, are there too many inhibitions in the field of construction in western countries? What could be improved to bring creativity and exploration back to construction while at the same time maintaining the high standards of safety?

Continue reading “What I am thinking: the engineer and architect Marc Mimram”

Bending Active Systems in Antiquity: What was so special about the bow of Odysseus?

The second Saturday of May is National Archery day (May 14 in 2016).  While today archery is mostly practiced for sport, the bow and arrow have been used by humans in hunting for centuries.  The purpose for bows, regardless of the target, is to propel an arrow using stored elastic energy.  They are one of the most effective ways of storing energy of the human muscle.

The oldest bow in one piece dates back to 800 BC, the same era that scholars believe Homer’s Odyssey was written.  The Odyssey tells the journey of Odysseus, a hero in Greek mythology.  As part of the story, his wife, Penelope, patiently waits for 20 years during and after the Trojan War for her husband to return.  Through this time she challenged her suitors to string the bow of Odysseus.  With the exception of Odysseus himself, none of the suitors possessed the strength needed to string the bow.

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Ceramic with depiction of Odysseus holding bow and arrow in The Odyssey

While Odysseus was a Greek hero, there is a limit to human strength when stringing a bow.  The human body allows one to draw their arm back about 60 cm and the maximum force a strong man can withstand holding in a string is about 350 N (Gordon).  Therefore, the available muscular energy is 0.6m*350N= 210 Joules.  Assuming an unstrung bow has zero energy, we can linearly plot the force from the archer’s pull against the maximum extension of the string in Figure 1.  The energy stored in the long bow is equal to the area under this plot (triangle ABC): ½*0.6m*350N=105 Joules.  This stored energy due to deformation is known as strain energy.

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Sketches of traditional long bow in unstrung, strung and extended conditions
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Figure 1: The archer’s maximum pull on the string plotted against the distance of arm extension.  The area under the curve is equal to the total stored energy in Joules.

Continue reading “Bending Active Systems in Antiquity: What was so special about the bow of Odysseus?”