Profiles in design: Structural engineer Matt Clark

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

Structural engineer Matt Clark, a British transplant now working in Arup’s New York office, shared his thoughts one afternoon in Lower Manhattan.

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What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

As a structural engineer, you take a client’s problem or vision, which may be “I want to build this building, how do I do it?” or “I want to build this tunnel, this roof,” and help them figure out how to do it. We take responsibility for making sure that it actually will stand up.

Engineering has always been about doing less with more, being efficient. These days sustainability (in the sense of using less material) is a buzzword and innovation is a buzzword, but these are things which are at the core of being any type of engineer. It’s always been about taking the materials and technologies available in your environment and using them in the most efficient way possible, to best benefit society.

Canopy concept sketch by Matt Clark

So does the innovation come in terms of always needing to think about what might be the most appropriate response to a particular context — if every context is different you’ll always need to figure out new solutions?

Yeah. Although if you can pull out the same solution you did last time and just build it, that could be an innovative solution for a particular market. If we do it exactly the same as last time the contractor will know exactly what to do, and therefore he’ll be able to do it faster. Say, New York City commercial towers — steel beams, concrete deck, it’s all done in a very specific way. We do them the same again and again and again, and that’s because the market has optimized something down to the bare bones.

With engineering, every building, every structure, is a prototype. Whereas with manufacturing, say, a car, you will prototype something many, many times, and you’ll expect failure until you get it right. Then when you get it right you mass produce. With buildings, the first one you build is the only one you build. So one part of innovation lies in the fact that you have to understand how it’s going to perform before it’s created.

So that’s what we do day-to-day. Lots of talking, lots of communicating. Particularly in multidisciplinary jobs. And then for a smaller percentage of time you get to sit down and scratch your head and think.

There’s a great quote from one of the old Arup guys about allowing time for idle thought. That’s super important. I always find the best ideas come when I was away from my desk, away from people — walking around the city or lying in bed or having a beer. You always generally tend to be by yourself.

Cafe doodle over to-do list

Everybody says collaboration is great for innovation, but there are also arguments that say you don’t actually get good innovation by teamwork; you get groupthink and dilution of ideas — people sat around a table saying, “Please innovate now” to each other. Sometimes somebody being unilateral and saying, “I’ve got an idea,” then pushing it that way through argument and discourse, that’s good. It’s a mix.

Good engineering is partly artistry. You’ve got to be able to draw, not just to make something look pretty, but to have that ability to — along with running a few numbers and understanding the core technical concepts — put pen to paper and draw things that by intuition you know will work.

Concept sketch for outdoor canopy

That’s the real artistry in engineering, and you gain that with experience. And that’s the really enjoyable bit: you don’t always have time or capability to do the analysis, so you have to use your intuition, you have to use judgment. You have to do rough calculations and then guess what the missing pieces are.

There’s an element of risk there. You have to know that it works, but at the end of the day, the math is only going to tell you so much. You’ve got to be able to sleep at night.

If that’s good engineering, what bad engineering?

Good engineering is when you’re achieving a lot with few materials, and bad engineering is when you’re achieving very little with a lot of materials. In any world of engineering, it’s got to be serving its purpose, and then once it’s served its purpose, you ask, what amount of energy expenditure, what amount of entropy did you get through in order to get to that solution? And energy and entropy can relate to materials, to human effort, to social costs… you add up all the positives and negatives of what you built, and you want that balance to be as high as possible.

There’s no real way to look at something and say whether it’s good or bad without understanding the social side of it too. Why was it built that way, in what market was it built that way, and in what social conditions was it built?

There’s no real way to look at something and say whether it’s good or bad without understanding the social side of it too.

It seems that often consultants don’t have much control over that side of things, though.

We don’t have control over everything, that’s very true. You do need the team, you do need the architect and everybody to push and pull all the levers and whatnot. One expects that the job of the architect is very much the same as the job of the engineer, but the architect is swayed much more to the social side. How does the building function for all of the people it affects? Does it benefit the community? You can say that the true role of the engineer is more about how the building interacts with Newton’s laws of motion. But we overlap with the social side.

The best engineer, I think, has that awareness of all the pieces. You can have an argument with an architect over something which is aesthetic. By intuition, you can look at something and see if it looks beautiful or not. And they might judge it by a different set of criteria. An engineer may judge it by how force may flow through it and how it should look to reflect that.

A tall building structure that Clark simulated in GSA, Arup’s in-house general structural analysis software

When did you know you wanted to be an engineer?

My dad ran a family business. My granddad had run it, my great-grandfather had run it. I started working in the factory in the summer when I was 15. My family is just sort of engineers; it’s just what we did. We feel comfortable making things. So it started there.

I was never that good at the academic side. Obviously I did the maths and the physics, but I also studied all the arts in school. According to my grades, I was actually far better in art and drawing than I was in math and physics.

At university, I actually started in mechanical engineering and really didn’t like it. The particular course I had chosen was very theory-heavy without much context early on. I switched to a structural engineering course and found that was much more for me. That course was great, and the professors were very aware of architecture and engineering of the day. A lot of the case studies they would show us were Arup buildings of the ’80s and the ’90s.

At university I met somebody from Arup in Manchester, and I went to visit them for a paper I was writing. While I was in the office I was like, “If you don’t mind me being cheeky, do you have any work?”

I started working in Manchester a day or two a week while I was in my final year of university, drafting all the little concrete steps for the Commonwealth Games Stadium. It was great; I drew them and they built them. The connection between daily effort and physical usefulness made sense, finally, after years of schooling.

I was never the academic. But once I joined Arup, I found that it was a much better learning environment than university. The ability to work on projects, walk around, speak to people… there are all these wonderful people in London at Arup, you can just talk to everybody. I found out that I can pick things up from people much faster than I ever could in lectures.

ArupLondon2_HOR_creditArup

Arup London

It’s been 15 years now, and the stuff that I understand, complex things about structural engineering, is all from the people within Arup. I have since gone back to the theory I should have learned at university, but within the context of real problems it’s clearer and it can be leveraged so much further.

I would still always err on the side of starting from practical solutions: getting a piece of paper and drawing a solution rather than cracking open a theory or typing into a computer. Working with a lot of people doing analysis, my role is to try to look at all this analysis, understand the underlying theory, pull it all together, and get stuff drawn, make decisions, regardless of how finished or how polished the analysis is. On difficult sites there are things we will never know, and you just have to make decisions.

Sketch for a 2014 installation at New York’s MoMA PS1

Does that get more difficult as the pace of change increases? Globalization and technological change in particular seem make everything more complicated every year.

I think you’re right in that the complexity of what we do is exponentially increasing. And that actually comes down to what society demands of construction, of buildings.

When you think about a building that was built in the ’80s, it may have been totally reasonable to decide, “Okay, we’re going to do this with a standard column grid, and the structure’s going to be this way as a result, and the architect is going to have to plan around that.” You don’t have to think very far to find examples of buildings where that just didn’t work very well only 10 or 20 years later: the rooms are too small, corridors are not right. And every time a new building is done now, there’s an increasing demand that those things are not compromised by any of the engineering or the science. The flow of the architecture, the planning, the operationality of the building should be much, much better than it was.

Floor plate concept sketch

Society expects a better a product, and that’s where our buildings get more and more complicated. Every time you design a building, year to year, the building is always better. And you rarely notice how much better it is; we take it for granted. Our mobile phones get better every generation; buildings are getting better every generation. Even today’s crappiest buildings are far superior to buildings of the past. There’s this romantic idea of the Brooklyn brownstone, this amazing, beautiful house. Then you really look at it: weak, noisy floors; bad light; terrible aspect ratio; the insulation’s terrible. The romanticism of old buildings stays, but technically they’re not very good at all. Even a 1980s office building can be, by today’s standards, awful.

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Every year, every generation advances. So our drawing sets get thicker and thicker. You used to be able to do a 10-story building on five sheets of paper; now it takes 200. And with the increase in complexity, the cost of the projects also rises, the cost of all the things which aren’t quite known. Whenever you build a building, there are always unknowns which the contractor will sort out. And in the past, those things may not have cost very much money; the contractor would just get on and do it. These days those things cost so much money, the consultant’s got to know as much as possible from the outset. As we produce more and more details, we need to understand more about everything as we draw it.

 

Portrait by Charles Aydlett Photography.

 

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