Profiles in design: Plumbing engineer Sebastian Lopez

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.

Sebastian Lopez, a Colombia-born plumbing engineer in Arup’s New York office, spoke with us about sustainability, music, and the ethical dimensions of engineering.

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How do you describe plumbing engineering?

What do plumbing engineers do? They deliver water to buildings and they get rid of it after it’s been used. Plumbing engineering includes delivery of potable water to all the plumbing fixtures in the building — and not only plumbing fixtures, but also mechanical equipment, irrigation. It includes the drainage of that water after it’s been used, and also the drainage of stormwater that falls on the roof.

Credit: Arup

Engineers inspecting a drainage pipe installation

Depending on the building type and the level of complexity, we may also design solar thermal heating systems, fuel gas systems, medical gas systems, water purification systems, rainwater harvesting systems — that kind of thing.

Why did you decide to go into engineering?

I’ve always appreciated science. I wanted to learn how things work and put that to use for the benefit of society.

Has your impression of the field changed over time?

Well, for one thing, I’ve learned that engineers don’t always get to choose what they work on but rather have to choose from that which is profitable. Profitability is tied to the value that society gives a certain project or activity. Engineers have no control over that. Engineering is a tool that can be used for positive change — as long as it’s profitable. You can try to align the two.

You’re a musician as well as an engineer. Is there any connection between the two for you?

Music has order and structure, so from that ordered perspective, the Apollonian perspective, there are a lot of parallels with science and engineering. There are scales and harmonies that exist between different frequencies, analogous to laws and empirical equations.

In terms of the more disordered part of music, though — the more creative, Dionysian part — I think it has a lot more in common with architecture. But both sides are part of humans’ recognition of the universe. They both lead to some type of enlightenment, in my opinion.

Building storm drainage system, isometric view

Isometric view of building storm drainage system

What does your average day look like at Arup? Is there a typical day?

I ride my bike to work over the Brooklyn Bridge, which is one of the best scenes you could ever see. Then I get an egg sandwich at the Russian cart and a vegetable juice at the Vietnamese cart.

I get into the office and I continue working on what I was working on the day before, a plumbing design for a big building. I’ll advance the design by doing some calculations, going to meetings, adapting to changes. I meet with a variety of people and make decisions based on the outcome of those meetings, and so forth.

My favorite part of the day is being amazed by learning something new. My colleagues and clients are a great source of amazement.

Sanitary, vent, stormwater, domestic water, hot water, and reclaimed water systems for a typical bathroom

What does innovation mean to you in relation to engineering?

For me innovation starts by looking at something from a different perspective and not sticking to the established standard. Actually, in any science, any art, innovation for me is looking at things from a fresh perspective. Perhaps you look at it from many angles and you decide, “Oh, the way we did this before is actually not bad,” or you say, “We shouldn’t do this at all.” But you’ve still engaged in the process of innovation if you’ve looked at it from as many ways as possible.

Do you think that that’s something the design industry is doing well now?

As an industry, I don’t think we’re innovating enough for what is required of us. There are very serious issues that engineers have the ability to gauge the complexity and seriousness of — I’m referring to climate change. We’re the gatekeepers of the infrastructure. I don’t think we’re allowing ourselves to look enough at the massive changes that could come from global warming. Although we have the ability to see the effect of sea-level rise and rising global temperatures — and although we can see that rising emissions come from rising consumption of goods — we’re tied to the momentum of society, which at this point in history is driven by economic growth and which is not heeding the advice of science.

Innovation in the design industry involves seeing ourselves as part of nature and as part of ecosystems.

We’re not innovating enough in the way we engage our environment. We still perceive ourselves as the masters of our environment, able to control any situation with hard technical solutions.

Fire pump in residential building

Fire pump in residential building

But I think innovation in the design industry involves seeing ourselves as part of nature and as part of ecosystems. If we continue to see things as hard technical problems and don’t look at the earth perspective, we’re just going to continue to compete with each other in a way that ultimately hurts the whole. We’re pitting the human part of the ecosystem against the overall ecosystem.

What do you think would have to happen in the design profession, and in society at large, for the situation to improve?

I don’t know… I’m not very knowledgeable on the macro-level workings of society in general. I think it requires a change in philosophy from indefinite growth to ecosystem balance, from development defined as growth to development defined as balance. Currently the term is overly associated with GDP per capita. This is paradoxical in light of climate change because “developed” and “wasteful” are able to coexist. We need to change our language game. There are no truly developed countries that I know of.

Continuous growth doesn’t work with the reality of limited resources. I think from a society-wide perspective, if we continue to think that we always need to achieve growth and we measure success as growth, that goes against the reality of limited resources. Our society should be measuring success using a metric that’s not tied to consumption or economic growth, because this is the very thing that is slowly reaching a natural boundary called global warming. This metric should be more about increased synergy with the environment — less waste, fewer unsustainable practices.

And only then would we see changes in engineering. Because ultimately, like I said, engineering is a tool that can be used for many purposes, and right now it’s often used for unchecked growth.

So that’s my perspective. I’m not an authority; it’s just my opinion.

 

Questions or comments for Sebastian Lopez? Email sebastian.lopez@arup.com.

Portrait by Charles Aydlett Photography.

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