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Benaim urges engineers to embrace wider design skills

Civil engineering designers were urged to augment their technical knowledge by training their imaginations and learning about the history of structures at two recent local association meetings.

CIVIL ENGINEERS should use their imaginations as well as technical training to form their design remit, said design consultant Robert Benaim at the ICE last week.

Benaim advised a packed gathering of London association graduates and students to acquire a wider range of design knowledge and responsibility to obviate the need for architects on certain structural projects.

Presenting 'The need for design in engineering', the chairman of Robert Benaim Associates said: 'It's a pity that engineering education is not more open to the arts and the training of the imagination.' Engineers' ability to work without an architect currently depended on the native skill - or lack of it - of individuals, he said. 'Some engineers have an intuitive feel for good appearance and others do not,' he added.

Benaim referred to the relationship between architectural and civil engineering design as an 'ever-changing debate'.

'On an urban structure it's normal for even the most competent engineer to collaborate with an architect. If one doesn't have aesthetic training it would be irresponsible not to.'

But the relationship deteriorated when architects developed their own ideas about the actual structure. 'We must not let our engineering design role be swamped,' he said.

Benaim cited Brunel's Saltash Bridge in Cornwall as an exemplar of pure engineering design which simply showed how the structure stands up. Engineering design could be beautiful without aesthetic embellishment and make architects redundant. He said: 'Saltash Bridge demonstrates resistance against buckling so well that it needed no other form of design and it didn't get any.'

On a conciliatory note he added: 'There are architects who are very attuned to civil engineering structures and can initiate a constructive debate to make the engineer think again about a structure. It's an ongoing debate that can never be finalised.'

But Benaim urged civil engineering designers never to let the debate deter them from their principal function. 'We are in grave danger of getting engineering and architectural design confused and losing sight of the specifics of engineering design. A civil engineers' design is not intended to be beautiful and they should not start by worrying about what a structure is going to look like. Beauty comes from a feeling of absolute inevitability in each detail.'

The function of the structure, its relationship with the surrounding urban landscape, and decoration were identified by Benaim as the three main principles of structural design for civil engineers. Designers were primarily concerned with the function of the structure but should ideally have the skills to includethe other two criteria in their designs.

Awareness of urban landscape and decorative details tended to be outside the experience of engineers, but that didn't mean engineers couldn't do it, said Benaim. 'We have a responsibility to make certain structures good looking. Some of the retaining walls from the 60's and 70's would just not be acceptable today.

'Structures must be public- friendly. A great deal of care and attention is needed on all the elements that the public comes into contact with. Surface, parapets and hand rails of a bridge, for example, are all very important to make a structure liked by the people who use it.'

Benaim, whose design portfolio includes the Ak Kai Sha Bridge in China, encouraged young engineers to be courageous and persevering as designers: 'To design a structure one has to have a great deal of courage because you have to go over the design many times. It's a very repetitive process to refine and eliminate any prejudices and unnecessary materials. Engineers need a long apprenticeship, starting off by designing simple things,' he said.

He lamented the occasions when commercial restraint took the craft out of design. 'Everything I've said assumes that you are good at design and that you have the time to keep refining your design. It's really sad when you see standard designs repeated again and again, but it's imposed on you sometimes.'

Benaim communicated his 'passion' for design and its importance for even the smallest components. He said: 'Just because a component fits inside a jet engine that doesn't mean it has no element of design. It has to fit in with methods of production and machinery, and be perfectly sized. There is an enormous thrill when you've designed something that is as good as it can be. Although that is a personal thing of course.'

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