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Architecture, engineering students collaborate on shell structures on Quad

February 17, 2011

Mukta Phatak

Students of the special topics course “Shell Structures” conducted an experiment building ‘hanging forms’ in the Kenneth A. Shaw Quad outside the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, on Tuesday, Feb. 15. “Shell structures,” ACR 500-6/ECS 500-3, is an interdisciplinary course funded by the National Science Foundation, aimed at fostering dialogue and collaboration between architecture and engineering students. And ‘hanging forms’ is but one of a series of experiments conducted by the students.

The course studies shell structures as an instance where architecture aesthetics and engineering solutions converge perfectly. “In shells, the thing you see and the thing that holds the building are one and the same. And you need both engineering and architecture to make them work,” says Sinead MacNamara, assistant professor of structural engineering in the School of Architecture, instructor for the course and an engineer herself.

Under the guidance of MacNamara and assistant professor Clare Olsen, students created hanging forms, the idea being that a form that works in pure tension, when flipped over and inverted, results in a form that works in pure compression. Six teams of three students each used a rudimentary combination of fabric, water, wood and nails to build the forms.

For participating students, the interdisciplinary nature of the project was especially appealing. “Architecture and engineering can’t be separated in a real career. So it is very important to have the ability to have a conversation between engineering and architecture people,” says participant Jaehyun Kim, a second-year architecture student.

Moreover, the experiment was an exercise in promoting collaboration between the two disciplines. For MacNamara, collaboration entails more than simply working in groups. “The idea behind this course is that when you collaborate with a team member from another discipline, they are bringing something to the table that you don’t have and vice versa. That actually requires a lot of trust on part of the students,” she says.

For the students, the experiment was an opportunity to gain exposure to the manner in which both disciplines approach design. “The architecture students have been trained to think creatively, whereas we have been trained to get the answer to the problem,” says Rachael Ashton, a participating civil engineering student. Ashton also believes that team members from both the disciplines made an equal contribution to the experiment. “It’s not like one person is bringing more to the table. It’s a collaboration of knowledge,” she adds.

Students of both disciplines walk away with a richer perspective as a result of such experiments. On one hand, engineering education benefits from enhanced innovation and creativity. On the other hand, architecture students understand the significance of what MacNamara terms the “importance of technical rigor in design creativity.” “Architecture students could come up with shapes. But the trick is to come up with a shape you can build. And that’s where engineering comes in,” she says.

For the students, the hanging forms experiment was more than a tedious academic project. “It was a fun project. It is not like you had to memorize things or do calculations. We are figuring out things by experimenting ourselves. That’s the most fun part of this project,” says Kim.

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