Architectural Engineering: Saving Lives, Protecting the Earth, Building Our Future

I recently tweeted that if I could do it all over again I might just have studied architectural engineering. In fact, I think that a dual degree in architectural engineering and environmental engineering (my undergraduate degree) or a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering and master’s degree in environmental engineering would have given me the tools that I have strived to learn later in my career. That combination of degrees is rarely discussed, but provides a powerful skillset to advance an important educational frontier that I refer to as indoor environmental science and engineering.  For two decades I have promoted this frontier as one of great societal value that we ought to be teaching in universities as an actual degree program. We have not gotten very far along that path, but I am optimistic that we should and can still get there. Until then, I will continue to promote architectural engineering as a discipline critical to a broader degree in indoor environmental science and engineering.

In this blog I describe why I believe architectural engineering is such an exciting and important field.

Stand on any street corner in any city in the world and you will witness the work of architectural engineers. Whether you see office complexes, homes, schools, high rise apartments, hospitals, sports stadiums, museums, industrial facilities, or buildings of worship, you are seeing the work of architectural engineers. Buildings are their domain. And while architects address the form, shape, and aesthetics of buildings, architectural engineers design, construct, and maintain the highly integrated systems of buildings. These systems make up the “anatomy” of buildings. And just like with the human anatomy, building anatomies, and the integrated sub-systems that make them, define the overall health of the system. It is not a stretch to equate architectural engineers to medial doctors, each working on different but complex anatomical systems.

Consider the following facts and ways that architectural engineers benefit mankind and the global environment.

Architectural engineers save lives. There are over 7 billion people on earth who at any given time of day occupy between one and two billion buildings across areas with very different climates and hazards. Architectural engineers assure that buildings are structurally sound and resilient in the face of natural hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, and more. This requires knowledge of structural engineering, building materials, and sound construction practices. And architectural engineers also design, operate and maintain heating, cooling and ventilation systems that save lives during extreme heat waves and freezing conditions outdoors. We often take for granted that the buildings we occupy do not collapse on us, and provide us with a comfortable environment even when outdoor conditions can be deadly. You can thank an architectural engineer for keeping human anatomies safe inside the building anatomy!

Architectural engineers have a greater impact on a sustainable future than almost any other profession. Buildings consume 40% of all energy generated in the U.S., more than all industries and all motor vehicles. As such, they are responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions that affect the world’s climate. Buildings also consume 74% of all electricity, 14% of all potable water, and 40% of all raw materials used in the U.S. And many of the materials used in buildings require significant energy and water for production, and exert penalties on the natural environment. Architectural engineers are at the forefront of finding new ways to design sustainable buildings that reduce energy and water consumption, and that also utilize more environmentally friendly materials.

Architectural engineers keep people healthy. The average life expectancy of an American is 79 years. Remarkably, we spend 70 of those 79 years inside of buildings, a greater percentage of time than whales spend submerged below the surface of the ocean! Our lifetime exposure to air pollution, toxic chemicals, and harmful or irritating microbes is generally dominated by what we inhale and touch inside of buildings. Architectural engineers design, operate and maintain building systems to remove harmful pollution that enters buildings from outdoors or that is generated indoors.

Architectural engineers apply cutting-edge tools to make buildings safer, healthier, and more sustainable. These tools include a wide range of wireless sensors and (increasingly) robotic and micro-robotic systems that collect vast amounts of information about building, outdoor, and even occupant conditions. These data are incorporated into sophisticated data visualization tools to conduct building information modeling (BIM), energy analysis, and more. And with these modern technologies has come the ability to rapidly change the internal and external anatomies of buildings to optimize comfort, health, worker productivity, and energy consumption. Architectural engineers are defining the future of buildings around the world.

Architectural engineering is an exciting and important career. Architectural engineers combine good problem solving and mathematical skills with significant ingenuity and creativity. By virtue of the complexity of buildings and building inhabitants, architectural engineers work closely with those in many other disciplines. And there are few other engineering fields so directly linked to people.

And now a gratuitous plug for the architectural engineering program at UT Austin. For more about our undergraduate program and the field of architectural engineering in general, please visit http://www.caee.utexas.edu/architectural . It’s a great read.

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6 thoughts on “Architectural Engineering: Saving Lives, Protecting the Earth, Building Our Future

  1. Alex Trodder

    I’ve known a number a civil engineers in my day. Some of the architectural work they can do is quite technical and intricate. It amazes me about how much our world’s economy and society relies on general engineering. There are structural, mechanical, chemical, electrical, and nuclear engineers. They design the homes we live in and the products we use. Thanks for your post about architectural engineering. I’m sure could be a very rewarding career.

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