Modern engineering design

- A knowledge-based educational concept of structural design


  • Concrete thin-shell model. Leftmost picture has no edge beams, rightmost has edge beams. Illustration: NTNU/Anders Rønnquist.



  • Concrete thin-shell model. Leftmost picture has beams, rightmost is without beams. Illustration: NTNU/Anders Rønnquist.



  • Beyond simple geometry - force flow in large and small openings, respectively, in a concrete thin-shell model. Illustration: NTNU/Anders Rønnquist.



The form of a structure inspires both architects and engineers, but their educational background have different focus regarding form and functionality. Architects tend to focus on the form of the structure, and are fond of irregular geometries and organic shapes. For most architects the approach as well as the goal is the entire building where load-bearing elements are only one aspect of many. These must be thoughtfully handled to achieve beautiful and meaningful buildings. Structural engineers on the other hand are more concerned with the functionality of the structure. Not surprisingly, the common approach of the structural engineer tends to go towards optimizations, which involves finding the minimum cross section or reinforcement needed.

Can a corner-supported barrel vault be modelled as a simply supported beam? Illustration: NTNU/Anders Rønnquist.

A knowledge-based educational concept for structural design is proposed to highlight the importance for students to further explore structures. To accomplish a creative collaboration, the engineer should be able to assist the architect as to what extent the shape and material can be structurally improved without having to use detailed models or calculations. Thus, the engineer should have knowledge of relevant key buildings, be able to grasp the architectural essence of the architects’ building proposal and be able to interpret complex shapes as combinations of underlying basic shapes. We propose the following methodology for exploring structures:

  • Establish an overall or by-component functionality hypothesis
  • Conduct evaluation and analyses at appropriate levels from calculation via flowcharts to FE-analyses
  • Conclusions of the lesson learned

Studies of structural variations. Cross vault force flow through lobes to groins. The Mises stress pictures represent a pointed overhang, influence of groin beams and influence of edge beams, respectively. Illustration: NTNU/Anders Rønnquist.

The educational background of the two is currently not truly compatible even though there is an interdependence between architectural intended form and structural engineering demands, which makes collaboration inevitable. To address this a platform is provided where students better can discover and understand the structural engineering potential of contemporary architecture. We hope to assist and explore the urge of structural engineers for fulfilling both architectural requests and engineering requirements. That is, to suggest how this urge can be implemented to enhance the current theoretical intensive educational pathway.


This is an ongoing educational project based in the master program.


Rønnquist A., Manum B. (2015) The functionality of form: exploring traditional shell structures to supplement modern engineering design, IABSE Conference, Nara, 2015.