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Why did Ted Happold’s combined course in architecture and engineering fail?

A new programme for architectural-engineering collaboration is waiting to be written, says Paul Finch

Bath University was host to an intriguing reunion of environmental engineering alumni last week, all of whom had undertaken the combined course in architecture and engineering invented by Ted Happold.

The engineers each presented some thoughts on where environmental engineering is going, through case studies of their recent work, and reflected on the influence of their student days and teachers, including Max Fordham and Derek Croome (both present and presented with awards by their protégés).

I had the pleasure of chairing the event, devised by Patrick Bellew of Atelier Ten and Peter Clegg, himself a Bath architect alumnus. A pleasure because of the truly impressive range of work and the thoughtful panel discussions which took place over a four-hour event. The other speakers comprised Neil Billett of Buro Happold, Klaus Bode of BDSP, Dave Richards of Arup, Guy Battle of Deloitte (previously Battle McCarthy), Ant Wilson of Aecom, Andy Ford of Mott McDonald (previously Fulcrum), two other Bath-trained architects, Selçuk Avci and Keith Bradley, plus low-carbon design professor David Coley, whose original speciality is nuclear physics.

The longer the afternoon went on, the more the question loomed as to why the Happold course failed to survive. After all, it resulted in brilliant individuals carrying out wonderful work across the world. The answer seemed to be that for many engineers, the architectural element in the course was simply not to their liking - an aptitude for numbers not supplemented by an interest nor desire to write essays about the Baroque, for example. Drop-out rates were high.

With the premature death of Ted, there was a feeling that the course, always understood to be something of an academic curiosity, ceased to have the champion it needed. On the other hand, in conversation afterwards, it was apparent that engineering at the university is doing very well, even if environmental engineering still has a long way to go before it jumps up the engineering status pecking order. That seems curious, given the importance of this branch of engineering to the built environment. Perhaps CIBSE, the building services professional body, should call in some Wolff Olins types to think about its own name, and indeed an updated name for environmental engineers, since few in the outside world have any idea what they do.

But, by the end of the day, a sense of optimism was apparent in a room packed with engineers and students. That the Bath course no longer exists didn’t mean an insoluble problem had arisen: the University of the West of England now runs an accredited undergraduate course, Architecture and Environmental Engineering, similar to the old Bath model. The concept has made a comeback.

For another, professional relationships have matured, compared with the bad old days, and it may well be that the lack of integrated teaching should be regarded as a condition rather than a problem, acknowledged and addressed in practical ways when it comes to the making of buildings. A good example is the Gardens by the Bay project in Singapore, which won the completed building category of the World Architecture Festival; it was a seamless collaboration between a range of professionals.

If we want students of construction in its broadest sense, including surveying, planning, engineering, architecture and so on, to have some common frame of reference, there is an approach that could do the trick: a first-year course of construction history, explaining who built what, where, when, how and why, across the world - an introduction to the cultural, technical and, of course, climatic explanations for the built environment we have made across the world. It is there to be written.

Readers' comments (3)

  • I speak as a recent graduate of an undergraduate degree in architecture.

    I think Paul presents one of those situations where it seems so obvious that such a set up must exist in some form that it goes without saying. It isn't until someone actually mentions its non-existence that it seems a given such a thing should indeed be taught somewhere, given the inherent integration of both disciplines.

    The reason Paul gives for the first attempts failure jumps out to me as most likely true.

    From my knowledge, the people who enter straight engineering are, I think, differently minded to those entering straight architecture; and it is much easier to push an architect to think in engineering terms than to push an engineer to think in architecture's terms.

    Dressing these things up any other way would not, I think, strip the two areas of their current connotations so the professions could dress them up differently. People will always choose engineering because they know what it involves, and likewise architecture. I think it would require significant effort to combine the two.

    Architecture is inherently a very broad subject encompassing art and design, law and management, history, as well as the structural and engineering elements. What do engineers currently do in comparison?

    Well, in short, they have to work with numbers, it's really as simple as that. I can not comment specifically because I didn't do an engineering degree, but I'd like to bet that they most certainly do not sit through world architectural and art history lectures, or landscaping lectures, nor would they be required to learn of the theoretical and psychological significance of a column's position within open space, or what turning a corner means, for instance. And likewise, there are strong elements of graphic presentation within architectural training that I'd doubt would arise in engineering training. In short, the two disciplines attract very differently-minded individuals.

    That said, I still think there is a massive gap here. I know, for instance, that on my architecture course and I'm sure many others, there were of course those who were very arty-minded, those who threw themselves into the theories and principles, those who were good with graphics, those who were good with computer or physical models, and so on. Those things classically associated with architectural training.

    But among them, were people who shone at an opportunity to display their maths skills, those who just got engineering principles better than others. And there was always this separation; there were very few who could be incredibly arty but also so grounded and well reasoned as is required to make the designs stand up and work. Of course, we all got there in the end whatever our skill sets, and it was a credit to the mix of modules we undertook.

    We did a module in second year specifically aimed at basic engineering and structural principles; we did separate history and theory modules; the marking of design projects was in two weighted parts, one design and one environmental and technical - both needing to be passed to pass the module - so we were forced to think of basic structural and engineering principles, materials, construction details, and various calculations; a technical report was required in the final project to demonstrate an understanding of such things also.

    But basic I think is the key word here. Can we really merge the two subjects? Well, in principle, yes.

    An idea is simple; it's people who complicate it.

    But something will have to give; a basic understanding only is what I think any such course could offer.

    This could be done by stratifying each of the three years of an undergraduate degree into a specific and focused topic; through a whole mix of modules throughout the degree without any year having any particular weighting; through the marking of such modules - ie, requiring specific architectural and engineering thinking; or though an options system whereby certain modules dealing with the basics of both worlds are offered as standard, but options must be selected to top this up - this route may well cater for those, like on my course and within the two separate fields as a whole, allowing for the differently minded to still be challenged to think about both subjects but not holding them back altogether but allowing them to flourish in whatever they are most naturally good at.

    The simple fact is people on the courses are differently minded, and I will repeat that it is easier to push an architect to think in engineering terms than for the opposite to happen.

    This is seriously a very worthwhile idea, and if I was experienced enough I'd probably try and create this movement myself!

    A very good article dealing with a very good idea.

    Shane Young

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • A very good article by Paul about one of the most inspiring events I have been to in ages.
    For the record I did not attend Teds course. I did pure Mechanical Engineering at Bath. I came to the same conclusions as him via a route of working for Max Fordham, setting up my own company Fulcrum and teaching architects at diploma level at UNL with Mark Hewitt.
    Shanes contribution is also both thoughtfull and thought provoking.
    What is the difference between engineering and architecture in the field of the built environment ? How can we benefit from those differences rather than suffer their consequences?

    I entered my course wanting to be a designer. On my course I met few engineers who wanted to do this in the way I meant - true holistic design. I met a few but not many. So perhaps when you enter a course you dont realy know what it is . I could have entered architecture and indeed I considered it. But I did not want to design things that stood still and were stuck to the ground. ( life is odd is it not)
    How many architects also entered their course to learn to design rather than for a love of buildings.
    I visited Thomas Heatherwicks exhibition at the V and A the other day and realised that this is what I mean by design.
    Not just buildings, not graphics, not pipes , but something deeper. Long term I have found the complex relationship between people and buildings very rewarding.
    I think the routes between architecture and engineering need to be opened up to allow more cross fertilisation and movement.
    I think many engineers would welcome this not all want the years of Maths involved and some of the most creative are probably shocked and ultimately crushed by it.
    The future built environment desperatly needs understanding of the 'numbers' but its a matter of teaching those who struggle with them not to fear them and those who 'get' numbers to communicate them helpfully. It is possible to be creative and grasp numbers and this is the task. I feel architects need their intuition training so that they grasp 'the scale of things' enough to interacts creatively with an engineer.
    The Royal Academy of Engineering has launched a push for 'centres of excellence in sustainable building design'. Championed by Doug King. I agree that the lack of integrated teaching should be regarded as a condition rather than a problem, acknowledged and addressed in practical ways when it comes to the making of buildings. This idea of centres of excellence should be the way forward.

    finaly if indeed it is ' much easier to push an architect to think in engineering terms than to push an engineer to think in architecture's terms' then the routes must be opened up to allow and encourage flow this way.

    We all have to work with numbers, but not all to the same depth. I believe we must from the first day on both architecture and engineering courses stress the uniquely interactive nature of building design.
    Celebrate this as an opportunity for those who love to design. Proactively promote respect between the professions from the moment a student starts and in Shanes words 'allowing for the differently minded to still be challenged to think about both subjects but not holding them back altogether but allowing them to flourish in whatever they are most naturally good at.'

    CIBSE has often thought of changing its name but I dont think we need to .CIBSE is what CIBSE does is my current motto. I agree nobody knows what we do. When they do then we change the name.
    If you are interested in the the art and science of the greater comfort of mankind, in the causes of 'delight 'in building design. Join us and debate how we take this forward. If your a student its free just go to www.cibse.org. Join the young engineers make them aware of young architects now.
    Andy Ford
    PPCIBSE



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  • John Kellett

    Being a Bath graduate of the 'combined' course (but not invited to the event) I believe the course provided exactly what the profession needed of it's architects back then. If it ran today it would still be providing the truly rounded architects that are needed in the C21. The problem with many courses today is that they are run by academics turning out 'artists' rather than architecture students and expecting students to 'pick up' the useful stuff in an office before Part 3. Any architecture course today needs to provide a structure to the knowledge learnt in an office, to provide the tools / skills needed in BIM (all flavours) and to provide experience of true integrated working.

    Producing architecture is a team effort, learning to work with engineers and others in a team environment is paramount. Is the Bath course the only one to have done that, surely not?

    If the profession wants to produce pointless 'artists' by all means shorten the courses but if the profession wants architects then, if anything, the architecture courses need to be harder and have more content. I'm not particularly impressed by students who cannot read drawings or whose portfolio is full of pretty drawings. The profession needs architects in the Vitruvian sense, and his guidance on the education of an architect is surprisingly relevant, even today, 2000 years later!

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