Master of Architectural Engineering: Brendon McNiven on the industry, education and the London Eye

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

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 connections 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, and then the majority who do their work in teams in both professions, good technical people. I am currently conducting research that looks at how professionals in each discipline think, what the differences are, and how this affects the buildings we create."

What is architectural engineering? "It's architecture that brings engineering into the fold as driver behind the process of designing a building. Architectural engineers know enough about the whole process to provide focus and a bigger picture view. They can author a building."

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

"At the outset of the project we realised the most efficient type of wheel we should build is a standard Japanese fairground attraction wheel, which wasn't a wholly exciting prospect. We – Arup – along with the architects, David Marks and Julia Barfield, came up with a project efficiency equation that took into account a range of inputs and outputs, including sustainability, which was a new thing back in the nineties. The equation tried to value everything within the build and output process. It stopped being architecture and it stopped being engineering, it was purely about design in the broadest sense.

"The general public loved it and the Eye has become one of the most successful tourist attractions in the world. Like the Eiffel Tower, the City of London and Londoners love it so much that it now has a planning permit in perpetuity. The penny dropped, for me, with this project – it epitomised what architectural engineering can achieve. In another context, the Melbourne School of Design building is another example of how an architectural engineering approach can achieve something special."

Through your career you develop a way of looking at the world in a whole different way. Your work is part of the skyline of where you live.

This international perspective is being used by Professor McNiven to consider what is possible for MSD students studying the degree.

"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. Architectural engineering is well established as a profession overseas and you commonly see those roles advertised."

As our first group of Master of Architectural Engineering students complete their studies, they are entering an Australian industry with an appetite for their unique skillset. 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. 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, engineers see the value of bringing in an architect to design it. This approach is transforming train stations all over Melbourne. You can see the approach in the design of the Eastlink freeway, the Tullamarine Freeway. It transforms the experience of arriving in or departing from the city."

As an experienced guide supporting the training of young people, how does Professor McNiven view his own career?

"As something that defines my life, 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.

"Through your career you develop a way of looking at the world in a whole different way. Your work is part of the skyline of where you live. We've all got a choice about which part of life we work to understand and make an impact on. Architectural engineering gives you the chance to have a tangible impact on how people live their lives. It's very satisfying."

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