Engineers at Connell Mott MacDonald are honing their technical drawing skills at life drawing classes. Alan Sparks reports.
These days technical drawing is often consigned to the precise, if artless, hand of the computer. Today's engineering students often leave university with a head full of facts and numbers - but with little if any drawing experience.
For Connell Mott MacDonald this became a significant omission. 'When we needed to sketch details it was embarrassing, due to the sheer lack of drawing ability of our younger guys, ' says managing director John Leuchars.
His answer was to send some of his graduates to life drawing classes. 'We wanted to develop our young engineers' artistic understanding and I thought that this was more interesting than learning how to draw a bowl of fruit, ' says Leuchars.
The difference was unbelievable, he says. 'After just a handful of lessons one of our graduates had to sketch a set of stairs before a team of architects.
Scratchy lines were replaced by smooth strokes - impressing the architects no end.'
This renaissance of engineering artistry at the consultant serves not only to impress. 'He who controls the pencil - controls the meeting, ' explains Leuchars. 'Beforehand, some of our graduate engineers lacked the confidence to grab the pencil and thrust their ideas forward on paper - now they can really make themselves heard.'
The life drawing classes at Kensington & Chelsea College taught the engineers how each part of the human form interacts and how to understand its shape, depth and texture. The theory runs that if you can draw something as acutely complicated as the human form, then a simple building should cause too many problems.
'The classes certainly helped me to see whole structures in my mind's eye. Being able to visualise how a building relates to itself really develops your understanding, ' says chartered engineer Jim Bell.
Tutor for the drawing course, Parry Rayat is also very impressed. 'They have really got stuck into it, and some are now producing very promising pieces of work.'
Connell Mott MacDonald was formed in 2000 when Mott MacDonald merged with Australasian building specialist Connell Wagner, becoming effectively the building arm.
Understanding the architectural perspective is key to its design philosophy. Connell Mott MacDonald recently replaced another consultant on a job after a clash with the architect over the design concept.
'A complicated connection detail was one of the main disputes. Drawn on a CAD package the result was quite harsh. But when drawn by hand in a more realistic representation, the results could be more accurately envisaged, ' says engineer Steve Giblett.
'By understanding where the architect was coming from and what they were trying to achieve, it was possible for us to make a real contribution and I think create a beautiful building.'
Since then more work has been won with the same firm of architects. 'Now that they have worked with engineers sympathetic to their designs, they refuse to go back to how they had to operate in the past, ' adds Giblett.
The value of this artistic ability can not be overestimated, according to both Giblett and Leuchars. They tell of a recently retired engineer in Sydney from the old school who never used a computer, but had a priceless blend of artistic skills allied to a complete understanding of how a structure knits together.
'In fact he designed the new Wembley Stadium roof through a series of sketches on the back of an envelope, ' says Giblett.
'Making buildings aesthetically pleasing yet still fulfil their purpose is a key aspect of real engineering. Unfortunately this fundamental skill is a stranger in many parts of the industry today, ' says Leuchars.
The reason for this, goes Leuchars' familiar gripe: 'Architects are chosen for their quality while engineers are still selected on price - yet arguably a little more quality engineering could generate greater savings than good architecture.'