Combining Architectural and Engineering Expertise

By Sara Brocklesby

After making an international engineering career at global multinational Arup, Enterprise Professor Brendon McNiven is shaping our Architectural Engineering curriculum.

Some of the most loved and admired buildings in the world were created when both architects and engineers wove their expertise together in brilliant ways. The Sydney Opera House, the Centre Pompidou and the Labyrinth thermal system at Federation Square are just a few examples where an ingenious coupling of the professions has delivered innovation. The future holds exciting possibilities for designing with sustainability, environmental engineering and passive systems just some areas where this marriage is and will be critical.

Architectural engineering is relatively new in the Australian higher education landscape. Both architecture and engineering have been taught for decades – in the University of Melbourne’s case, for more than a century – but combining them into one program is more commonly seen in Europe.

Part of introducing this new program was finding the right person to ensure we are on the right track, meeting the needs of industry and our students.

This is where Professor Brendon McNiven comes in.

“Right from day one of my career at Arup I was aware of the interplay between architecture and engineering – how a job is authored, makes it onto paper, and is then built. The relationship between the disciplines is quite complex. There are both rockstar engineers and architects: sometimes the power of an individual designer carries through to a good result; other times it requires people to come together as a champion team and build off each other. I am currently conducting research that looks at how professionals in each discipline think, what the differences are, and how this plays out in the buildings we create.”

The potential of combining the professions became obvious to Professor McNiven when he worked on the London Eye as a young engineer.

“We – Arup – along with the architects, David Marks and Julia Barfield, came up with a ‘whole of project’ design statement that took into account a range of inputs and outputs, including sustainability, which was in its early days in the nineties. The approach valued everything within the build and output process including architecture and community sentiment. It stopped being architecture and it stopped being engineering, it was purely about design in the broadest sense.

“The penny dropped, for me, with this project – it epitomised what architectural engineering can achieve. In another context, I have really enjoyed working in the Melbourne School of Design building, it is another good example of how an architectural engineering approach can achieve something special.”

This international perspective is also important. “Part of my role at the Melbourne School of Design is researching what is happening overseas, in terms of architectural engineering education, and ensuring that our curriculum is a pre-eminent benchmark in Australia, but also an exemplar internationally.”

As our first group of Master of Architectural Engineering students completes their studies, they are entering an Australian industry with an appetite for their unique skillset. The masters program is unusual in the Australian context, in that it is designed to achieve dual accreditation – from both the Architectural Accreditation Council of Australia, and Engineers Australia. Students will have the choice to practice as either architects or engineers once they graduate. Professor McNiven explains, “It’s the right time in the industry for architectural engineering. Clients understand it and industry is really calling out for architectural engineers. The infrastructure industry is much more on the front foot here, more so than the building industry, although that will change very soon.

“When you build a new train line or a new train station, it’s the engineering considerations driving and motivating the project. These days however, clients and engineers see the value of bringing in an architect to help design it.”

Professor McNiven is an advocate for the architectural profession and the ways in which it embraces its fellow built environment disciplines. “I think it’s only natural that we will see more multidisciplinary teams and projects, particularly as sustainability considerations drive our work. The Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, with its unusual mix of disciplines, is a great place for an architectural engineering program to develop.

“I believe your work has a large part to play in defining how you see the world, and I feel strongly that engineering and architecture are great professions to commit to. You get to understand nature, how the world functions – physics, motion, forces; you get to understand how society works – you’re building for people.”

If you would like more detail about the Master of Architectural Engineering or have questions about the program, Professor McNiven would like to hear from you