Elegant Simplicity in Engineering: A mechanical engineer’s view of the architectural design world

By: Spencer Shepard
1 June 2017
“Elegant Simplicity in Engineering” is a recurring feature wherein engineering-
focused team members discuss the relevance of design in their work.

Elegant simplicity.

It’s CTA’s design ethos, but what is that, exactly? What does it even mean? Well, it’s a bit complicated, but I’ll try my best to explain. They’re not actually curse words, but some engineers may have used them as such. It’s a term misunderstood in the engineering field. It’s naturally imperfect, it’s beauty by being understated, it’s… yada, yada, yada. It’s a term our architectural colleagues have been using for several years as part of their lifelong quests for enlightenment. It’s their lingo for creating fancy, harmonious designs. But why do they use it? Why would anyone want to base designs on such a funny-sounding term? Elegant simplicity!? Really?

Well, I know I previously had some of these same opinions, but I decided to open myself up to understanding the concept of elegant simplicity.

I first heard the term years ago when CTA Director of Design Jim Beal began discussing it in monthly all staff meetings. Even though it was discussed for years, I don’t think the meaning of the term really stuck with me until I was fortunate enough to participate in the CTA Design Forum in Denver last October. I witnessed firsthand the value and weight our architectural designers put on that term — and more importantly, its meaning.

It became apparent elegant simplicity can represent different things to everyone. There is no strictly-defined explanation for the term and I think that’s why it has been a struggle for engineers — like me — to grasp the concept. Engineers like boundaries and rules; don’t even talk to us unless you have a floor plan, or you will be wasting our time. We need those parameters to do our jobs. Or do we? Can we have our own form of elegant simplicity in the engineering world?

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Blasphemy! Take away his license! You’ve made my bin mate cry!

But, wait, before all of you engineers throw me under the bus, hear me out. I think we CAN practice design with elegant simplicity, and it will be easier than you think. In fact, some of you do it now.

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What? Gasp!

It’s true. I’ve been practicing and designing with elegant simplicity without even knowing it (I’ll explain more on that later). So, how is it possible and what do we need to do as engineers? To help with that solution, I’ve attempted to create my own “engineering-friendly” definition of the term:

Elegant simplicity is the process of incorporating all required engineering elements while not sacrificing the finished design integrity and appearance of the building.

That’s not so bad, is it? It sounds easy enough. We, as engineers, do that all the time, right? Wrong. We don’t. We generally don’t get involved in projects until they have “a defined floor plan.” What’s wrong with that? Well, that’s too late! There may still be time to cram everything we need into the building, but by that point, the façade and layout have been determined, changes can reduce efficiencies within the space, and the exterior architectural look of the building could be impacted.

Engineers need to be involved during the initial stages, when design concepts are being produced. Engineers should give input on where to locate mechanical rooms, louvers, and equipment up-front, before trying to “fit” them into an already-defined building. I know to some that may sound like putting the cart before the horse, but it’s really not. Sure, we don’t necessarily have all the information to make complete and concrete, final decisions, but most of us have the ability to make educated assumptions and provide some guidelines. Those will, at a minimum, help our architectural designers “design” the louvers into the facade, more efficiently locate mechanical rooms, and create proper equipment clearances and appearances. I guarantee all participants involved will be more satisfied with the end-product when the entire team has input from the start.

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Well shoot, Spencer, my project has already started and I didn’t get any input prior to the architect providing me some floor plans. How am I supposed to help now?

I’ve got an idea for you, Mr. or Mrs. Engineer. Be proactive! So often, we wait and react to changes that come our way. We complain about minimal mechanical space or a place to put louvers on the wall. Instead, we should be reviewing the floor plan and looking for solutions to the problem. Offer up ideas to the architects that may simplify problems or even kill two birds with one stone.

We know what we need. Yet they don’t know what they don’t know. Very profound, I know. They can’t read our minds, and they don’t know mechanical designs as well as engineers. It’s possible slight floor plan changes can solve major engineering problems. Perhaps not always, but by asking and offering up information, you will learn more about the building and function of the space than by waiting and reacting.

Remember I said I’d been doing this without even knowing? Well, back in 2011, I began work on the Scentsy office tower design, for which Jason Yates was the architectural designer. He grabbed me at the beginning of the project to discuss mechanical equipment locations, louvers, etc. – and thus began our own process of designing with elegant simplicity. The owner of the project had an office overlooking the construction of this new six-story building and he did not want to see any mechanical equipment on the roof. He didn’t want to see any equipment on the exterior, period.

Jason and I worked through various scenarios and ideas, and finally settled on a design which included adding a mechanical penthouse for all of the rooftop equipment. The penthouse added an architectural feature to the building while simultaneously providing needed mechanical space. We also discussed louvers and locations, and worked them into the facade in dedicated locations that harmonized with the colors and overall scheme of the exterior. It took some work, but I believe it was well worth the early design effort and created a sense of satisfaction for both of us.

Another project I feel represents elegant simplicity in engineering is the new Mountain West Bank branch at the intersection of Fairview and Eagle in Meridian, ID. This is the busiest intersection in the state of Idaho, so our overall design needed to be perfect. Tim Johnson (mechanical engineer) worked with our architectural team to incorporate a VRV system into the building. From both the exterior and the interior, the amount of visible mechanical equipment is minimal. Through many iterations, they decided to use a mechanical roof well for exterior equipment and precisely placed fan coils on the interior to minimize the appearance of the mechanical system. This is another great example of coordination and involvement — both early and often — that greatly affected the overall outcome of the project.

To wrap up this post, I’d like to encourage all engineers to get involved early. I’d also like to encourage architects to invite engineers into the process in the beginning stages. In fact, don’t invite, but insist on participation from everyone. If you are an engineer and don’t get invited, force the issue. Ask questions. Provide comments. Don’t wait until it’s too late to have an impact on the design. Don’t create obstacles; provide solutions. Be proactive, not reactive.

In the end, it takes all of us to create an efficient and effective building. Elegant simplicity is a positive term and should be represented as such. If you don’t like my definition of elegant simplicity, write your own. Empower yourselves. Every single person in a firm — ours and all the rest — has the ability to create a positive impact on any given project. Do not wait to get started; you can make a difference right now!

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