What Engineering Is Not, Part 3


Drawing* is important to engineers. It is, generally, our main form of communication with other engineers, with architects, with contractors, and with anyone else. In the simplified form of sketching, it is a tool we commonly use for site investigations.

That said, it’s nowhere near as important to us as it is to architects. The simplest way to tell is to look any our drawings, at any stage from a sketch to a final construction document: architectural drawings all look like the things they represent, whether floorplans, facades, or details. Engineering plans tend to use symbols so heavily that they are unreadable by people who have not learned the symbolic language, and even engineering details often show pieces of buildings that are hidden and therefore are unfamiliar to most people.

The line between drawing and design is blurry for architects. There are portions of architectural design that are not related to drawing (for example, egress calculations) but they are overwhelmed by the bulk of design that is inextricably linked to drawing. Architecture is, among other things, a visual art. The line between drawing and design is much clearer in engineering because most of our design effort is spent with non-visual concepts. In designing a concrete column, for example, we have to have applied loads, geometry, and boundary conditions (Does the column continue up above the level under review? Is it continuous with the floor on all sides or only some? If it’s at the bottom of the building, can its foundation withstand moment? And so on.) which are theoretical concepts. Drawing may help as a tool, but it is not necessary for the design itself. Because of this separation, engineering design has a separate step called detailing, where we turn the design into drawings for the sake of communication.

Yesterday I said that engineering is not math and today I’m saying engineering is not drawing. I seem to be on the verge of saying that we engineers do nothing at all. Rather, I am arguing** that engineering design is its own thing. It’s a conceptual process that uses math and drawing as tools but that is defined by neither. Ultimately, design is the process of engineers picturing the flow of loads/forces/stresses through a structure, using math to determine if the loads and structural capacity are compatible, and using drawing to communicate the results.


* I’m using “drawing” in its widest sense as a verb, to include CAD programs and more complex computer visual creation tools.

** I’m not being particularly original here, but this is the path I took to this particular conclusion.


What Engineering Is Not, Part 1

What Engineering Is Not, Part 2

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