Robert Halvorson, winner of our 2016 Gold Medal, discusses his career, and how structural engineers will help shape the future of tall buildings.

My father was an electrical engineer – he was always taking things apart and fixing them, always had a project. I think he had an influence on me as a kid, because from an early age I wanted to understand how things worked. I also remember being fascinated by my Uncle’s project to build his own house in Wisconsin – I thought it was very cool that he could do that that. Two or three summers spent as a carpenter’s helper gave me a feel for structures and construction as well. Structural engineering was a natural career choice for me.

Most people I run into (outside of construction) still don’t understand what it is that structural engineers do: I normally explain that architects make the building look pretty and we keep it from falling down. Still, there seems to be growing appreciation for engineering, with some good television programmes coming out which celebrate engineering of all kinds.

It’s also a great time to be engineering tall buildings. New tools and ways of working have revolutionised the profession over the last twenty years: Performance Based Design is a tremendously powerful tool, allowing us to model the way buildings could potentially fail, which is of particular importance in seismic design. If we design structures to fail in a “good” way – that is with no snaps, cracks or buckles, we can save lives – which is crucial in structural engineers’ role as the guardians of public safety.

We also work far more closely with architects than we did in the past, helping to address dynamic rather than structural problems – designing the shape of tall buildings to help the building withstand high wind loads, and creating “supplemental dampers” to help the tower react to changing forces – which work like shock absorbers on your car, preventing the structure from vibrating too hard.

Working with architects is the part of my job I enjoy the most - producing ideas that contribute to his or her vision,  but also have structural truth - in other words that are attractive, but not gimmicky. I’ve especially enjoyed working with Foster + Partners over the years – they really approach projects in a unique way, starting with nothing but a blank piece of paper and the client’s aspirations, with no preconceived ideas at all.

Over the last ten years tall building construction has really taken off, particularly in growing economies like China and the Middle East. A few projects strive for accolades like “world’s tallest building”, and tend to dominate news about tall structures as a result - which is unfortunate, as such ‘trophy’ structures don’t really make much economic sense or address existing need - whereas tall, skinny towers of the kind we see in New York are built because they make economic sense for the developers, and meet strong demand.

The fact is that tall buildings in most cases make good environmental sense: communities living in tall buildings near good transport links are considerably more energy efficient than suburban communities using cars. However, society does need to strive to avoid the great arrays of tall buildings we see in some Asian cities that they can be rather repetitive, regimented and machine like in design.

That’s where “structural truths” come into their own, as in concert with great architectural design they can help create better, safer, more attractive tall buildings that future generations will require.

(The tower image is of Hanking Center Tower, Shenzen, China -one of Bob's previous projects. Image by Morphosis)

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