Concept, computation and innovation – inspired by art in Structural Engineering

Author: Ashley Kacha

Date published

20 February 2023

Concept, computation and innovation – inspired by art in Structural Engineering
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Concept, computation and innovation – inspired by art in Structural Engineering

Date published

Ashley Kacha

Date published

20 February 2023


Ashley Kacha

Ashley Kacha, IStructE’s Senior engineer for Digital Workflows and Computational Design, shares how art can inspire innovation in structural engineering.

A constant reminder that I and others face, working in the digital engineering field is to ‘keep your head up’ and avoid getting mired in the deep digital realm, and to focus on the bigger picture. At the same time, innovation in the industry can be slow when compared to other sectors, and creativity in structural design is often hidden from view beneath the architectural vision. 

Yet the world, the environment - and thus the challenges for us as engineers - keep evolving. So why then does the industry often struggle to retain and capitalise on its native digital talent? 

The rapid digitisation of the industry offers incredible opportunity for those interested in pursuing digital engineering as a full-time vocation – both in terms of impact and as an expression of creativity. An approach from the perspective of artists offers an enticing new frontier for design and construction. 


I was about 5 years old when I discovered a folio full of posters whilst rummaging through my dad’s collection of ‘stuff’. By the time he came back from work, I had managed to spread out the posters on the living room floor in a neat pattern and had fallen asleep on one of them, creasing it in the process. 

These posters weren’t of bands, or adverts, they were a set of sci-fi art posters by the famous sci-fi artist Chris Foss. That day, the iconic airbrushed style of Chris’ work etched itself into my mind and thus began my love of concept art.   

Whilst I was never ‘tuned-in’ enough to really grasp the meaning and depth of renaissance painters or other great artists that you might see in a collection or gallery, science fiction art and concept artwork of vast cities, starships and machines became the focus of my personal journey into the world of art. 

Chris Foss’s work had adorned the covers of sci-fi books in bookshops in the 1970’s and 1980’s but by the 1990’s a less optimistic vision of the future had gripped the genre, and darker stories emerged, echoing the grim realisation of humanity’s impact on the world. By the time I became fully aware of the world around me, these depictions of the world resonated with me more and more. 

Visions of sci-fi futures can inspire two ways, the realisation of projects that could take us into the future and all the things that we could achieve for humanity. Alongside this is the desire to avoid some of the less desirable consequences of rapid industrialisation and digitisation: harm to the world and a dystopian future.

Concept art as a vehicle for structural design

A turning point in my own career was the realisation that technology is converging at an ever-increasing rate. I began thinking about buildings that replicate or repair themselves. Structures that moved or changed shape as needed to accommodate their occupants or functions. Building for environments we’ve never encountered here on Earth and so on. 

What then, would such a structure look like?   
What problem would it solve? 
How would you even design something like that? 

Thus began a journey to mesh together the worlds of computing, structural engineering, electronics, and robotics. Breaking down the steps to achieve the vision of the future I had seen through the eyes of artists such as Paul Chadeisson,  Simon Stålenhag, and John Harris.

This exploration of computational design resulted in an attempt to create a roadmap to this better future in the built environment. Can we use technology to tackle structural challenges and create robust systems, in a smart way?

The realisation of these concepts requires design innovation. It requires technology and it requires motivated designers of all kinds to be involved in developing and shaping the structures around us. With that, the computational design and broader digital engineering sphere presents an alternative path for aspiring engineers.  
The landscape of digital engineering is ever increasing in complexity and scope, steadily bringing in aspects of other professions into the built environment and structural engineering in particular. We as engineers must evolve to incorporate and integrate this wealth of expertise whilst encouraging the latent abilities that already exist within the sector. 

Inspiration however is key. A vision for a better future, something that is often overshadowed by looming deadlines. Inspirational artwork has provided me a vision of a more intelligent and adaptive ecosystem within buildings, and a goal to strive for, a way to keep my head up, and look towards the future. And these changes are happening: The Falkirk Wheel is a real world structure that meshes the principles of mechanics, electronics and beautiful structural design.


As we progress, I hope that much of these ideas and concepts will be incorporated in the corpus of knowledge shared by the Institution, steering us into the 22nd century.

Chris Foss’s work can be seen on his website. If you’re interested in some of the things, I find inspiring or the artists I follow, I curate a collection of artwork I draw inspiration from on Artstation. 

Image credits
Banner image - GRID001 by Paul Chadeisson
Abandoned city, City Printer - Courtesy of Paul Chadeisson
Falkirk Wheel - Adobe Stock
Active building Sketch - Ashley Kacha


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