Have you ever stopped to wonder how the building you’re sitting in or the road your drove on today got there? Whether it’s a renovation or new construction, buildings, structures, and even roadways involve more than just an architect to design and build these projects. There is an entire team of engineers behind the scenes that play such an intricate role in every project. But what do engineers do? Engineers are the pivotal piece of a large puzzle to ensure that traffic plans are logical, and beams are securely placed to withstand heavy loads, and so much more. In architecture we frequently work with civil, structural, mechanical/electrical/plumbing, geotechnical, and security engineers.
RRMM is a purely architectural firm, meaning we do not have our own team of engineers on staff. This allows us to handpick our team for every project that we are a part of. If we are working on a new fire station, we will select a team of engineers whose specialty is public safety, as they will have the best working knowledge of what needs must be met and how to best, and most affordably, meet those needs. By using this business model, we can build a stellar team for our projects and be sure that our clients are always in the best hands.
Since this week is National Engineers Week, we’re taking the chance to explore and show our appreciation for the different disciplines of engineers that we work with on a daily basis! Each day we’ll recognize a different discipline and explain more about what they do, to help give a better idea of how our team works together to design our projects!
Civil engineers, arguably the older engineering discipline, work across the board to design, build and maintain roadways, bridges, buildings, tunnels, dams, water supply and sewage treatment systems, as well as seaports and airports. Civil engineers are entwined in the fabric of our society, making it possible to drink fresh water from our faucets, drive to work each day, and maintain modern sanitation standards.
Civil engineers work in a variety of industries, but in the Architecture/Engineering/Construction industry (commonly referred to as the AEC industry), we work with civil engineers to design efficient buildings that best utilize their site. Civil engineers are often involved in selecting a project site and planning the site in an efficient way that best allows for stormwater management and sustainable/LEED design. For example, civil engineers would help determine the building orientation that best allowed for maximum daylighting, stormwater run-off, and ease of connection with current roadways already in place.
In addition to help plan the site, they can also perform site preparation activities such as excavation, earth moving and grading for large construction projects. Civil engineers can also conduct testing of the performance, reliability and durability of materials and structures. There are many sub-disciplines that have evolved from civil engineering, which we will also highlight throughout the week.
Structural engineering is a sub-discipline of civil engineering that focuses primarily on the framework of structures. They verify the safety of structures by designing them to withstand environmental stresses and physical forces. Structural engineers ensure that a building can handle extreme situations, but also that the buildings are safe for everyday use and are designed for longevity. A structural engineer is used to calculate that the “bones” of the structure are sound.
Structures are subject to vertical, “gravity” loads, and horizontal, “lateral” loads. Gravity loads include permanent and temporary loads. Permanent loads consist of the permanent entities that contribute to the weight of the structure: walls, floors, finishes, and mechanical systems. Temporary loads refer to the weight of a structure’s contents, such as desks and chairs, and occupants, as well as other impermanent weight such as the weight of fallen snow on the roof. Permanent gravity loads are often referred to as “dead” loads, while temporary gravity loads are referred to as “live” loads. Lateral loads refer to wind, earthquakes, or even explosions – forces that are applied parallel to the ground. Structural engineers ensure that structural elements are designed to work within the building system to withstand vertical and horizontal loads, therefore keeping the structure safe and sturdy.
Structural engineers must also work within the context of geographical areas and their associated conditions. In Northern climates, more emphasis is placed on designing a structure that can withstand heavy snow, whereas in a geographical area near fault lines, more emphasis would be given to withstanding seismic forces. Structural engineers are trained to consider these conditions along with other factors, providing invaluable technical advice to the project team.
If it can be said that structural engineers design the bones of the building, MEP engineers design the building’s central nervous system. MEP stands for mechanical, electrical and plumbing. These three disciplines comprise the systems that make buildings suitable and pleasant for human occupancy. Mechanical design includes heating and cooling, which has become quite essential for modern human comfort, especially in hot and cold temperatures. Electrical design makes it possible for us to keep the lights on and our devices running, as well as power other building systems such as temperature control. Plumbing design provides fresh water to buildings and ensures the safe removal of storm water and wastewater. It’s safe to say that without MEP engineers, we would be without the beloved creature comforts of temperature control, power and modern plumbing, resulting in a significantly lower quality of life in these buildings.
MEP disciplines are addressed together because of the high degree of interaction between them. Working together also helps to avoid conflicts in equipment locations, which can become an issue if these systems are designed in isolation. Careful selection and consideration must be made when designing mechanical systems in order to achieve the best building system performance. Mechanical systems operate at their best when the equipment capacity is just right. We can easily predict the effects of under-engineering mechanical systems, but over-engineering these systems can also be problematic. For instance, oversized systems tend to cycle rapidly and consequently create temperature fluctuations and accelerate the wear and tear of equipment.
Electrical engineers are tasked with the challenge of determining the best locations for the routes of conduit and wiring. These engineers must take care to ensure that electrical wiring is laid out efficiently in order to minimize total circuit length and avoid conflicts with mechanical and plumbing installations. Electrical engineers must also make important decisions regarding the lighting aspects of a building, which is a large source of electrical consumption, especially in commercial settings.
Just like with electrical and mechanical engineers, plumbing engineers must also work to ensure that their systems work within the greater MEP building system. Plumbing engineers verify every pipe connection and that every hydro-related design is as efficient as possible. They are the biggest influence on a building’s water efficiency systems. If a building is heated by natural gas, plumbing engineers will also design those delivery systems.
Geotechnical engineers study soil behavior, and design and analyze natural and man-made soil structures and how they apply to the development of human kind. Many constructions are conducted on less than ideal ground conditions that may need to be improved. Construction of infrastructures and residential buildings may encounter problems such as unstable slopes, which will require retaining walls and reinforced soil technologies to stabilize them. Geotechnical engineers design foundations and soil structures that will ensure stability and satisfactory performance under the impact of natural disasters, such as earthquake, and hurricanes with high winds and heavy rainfall.
In a post-9/11 society, security and safety are a top concern and continues to be an active area of discussion with the rising number of mass shootings. Security engineering is a specialized field of engineering that focuses on the security aspects in the design of systems that need to be able to deal robustly with possible sources of disruption, ranging from natural disasters to malicious acts. Some methods of security include improving the method of visitor management (security vestibules), and some new electronic locks take advantage of technologies such as fingerprint scanning and voiceprint identification to authenticate users. Other security systems include active shooter detection, panic alarms, and video surveillance.
While there are many other disciplines of engineering, these are the five that play a vital role in RRMM’s projects. Without them, we would simply have a drawing and a grand idea of what it could be. They are essential pieces of the puzzle that allow these projects to exist safely in society. Be sure to thank an engineer this week (and every week) for making the world a safer place.