Profiles in design: Structural specialist Kristen Strobel

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.

Doggerel spoke with Kristen Strobel, a recent graduate working in Arup’s Seattle office.

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How did you decide to become a structural engineer?

I actually came out of high school wanting to be an architect. Given my aptitude for math and science, my parents pushed me to study engineering. I ended up studying architectural engineering for undergraduate and then pursued two master’s degrees, one in architecture and one in structural engineering.

Rendering of a design for a high-rise school created as a student project

Rendering of a design for a high-rise school created as a student project

My brain works better as an engineer. The logic and the rigor appeal to me. Which isn’t to say architecture isn’t rational. They’re both creative professions, but I would say architecture leans more creative and engineering more logical.

How do you describe structural engineering to people who aren’t in the industry?

A lot of it is just thinking through and understanding construction, designing things and making sure they’re going to perform well over the course of the structure’s life.

Sketches for bridge design

Sketches for bridge design

Your job is to work with the architect and figure out the underlying structure of the building. Is it going to be concrete or steel or something else? How does the architectural design work with the structure and vice versa? You’re designing and sizing and detailing, coordinating with all the other people working on the project to make sure what you’re doing works with what they’re doing. And you’re coming up with drawings and calculations to submit to the City so that the building can get permitted.

During construction, a structural engineer answers contractors’ questions and goes to the building site to make sure that what you drew is what they’re building. If problems come up, as they inevitably do, you work through those with the contractor.

What’s your favorite part of it?

I really like the thinking phase. You have the rough sizes of everything, and you’re thinking through how things get built and how they go together.

Sketch and final photo of desk Strobel designed. The leg folds for ease of movement and creates a taut canvas shelf when locked into place.

Sketch and final photo of desk Strobel designed. The leg folds for ease of movement and creates a taut canvas shelf when locked into place.

What are you working on right now?

I’m just starting to work on a sculpture project, actually. It’s this 25-foot-tall bronze sculpture that’s like a play set. Right now we’re trying to scheme through how the parts get put together. It’s being fabricated in New York and then shipped to Tasmania, so we figure out how it’s built and also how it’s dismantled, shipped, and then put back together, in addition to the normal structural engineering work of making it stand up.

Sketch for sculpture project

Sketch for sculpture project

This is a really one-off project, but I work on all kinds of scales. I’m also working on a giant airport right now.

How did you start working at Arup?

I applied on a whim through their website. I know they must get hundreds of applications that way. I thought I’d never hear anything, then I got a phone interview to intern down in San Francisco. I did that for two summers and then interviewed here in Seattle for a full-time position. I really lucked out — it’s hard to beat Seattle and the Northwest, and Arup was hiring here right when I was looking. I just started in April.

Do you have a different way of experiencing the city from most people, do you think? Walking around and knowing what you know about how the buildings are held up?

Sometimes if you think too hard, it kind of terrifies you. In the Pacific Northwest we have a fairly substantial seismic hazard — our understanding of it has evolved over time as more research has been done. Buildings that were designed 50 years ago weren’t designed to the same standards, so the risk those buildings potentially pose in a large earthquake is definitely concerning.

That’s one of the interesting things about being a structural engineer in Seattle: actually designing for earthquakes. It’s an interesting problem to solve, and one that people are constantly proposing new solutions to. If you go to work and you design the same thing every day, you’re not going to be interested for very long.

Student design for a high-rise building

Student design for a high-rise building

What does innovation mean to you?

I think innovation is taking old technologies and applying them in new ways, testing the boundaries of established practice to see if you can find different ways to serve the needs of a project.

Right now I’m actually digging into digital technologies a lot as a way to innovate. Not so much for the building itself, but the way we deliver projects, how we sort through the often massive amounts of data we have. We have all these different information sources, and I’m thinking how to make sure they’re all saying the same thing so that changes carry all the way through a design.

This airport project, for example, is a huge project. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of structural members in the building that need to get sized. You can’t deal with that much information in Excel; it just stops working. Someone in Arup’s Boston office wrote an app to automate the analysis and optimization of this very complex roof structure and to control all of that information in a database. Because of my interest in software my boss offered me the opportunity to go learn about the program from him so I can apply it to future projects. I picked his brain for two weeks, which was a great opportunity. I’m excited to help people with the program as we move along.

 

Questions or comments for Kristen Strobel? Email kristen.strobel@arup.com.

 

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