A wide-ranging discussion between two highly-experienced engineers.
Giovanni Battista Furlan, Chairman of NET Lab and NET Engineering International, and Javier Manterola, full professor of the Escuela Superior de Ingenieros, Madrid, and director of Carlos Fernandez Casado S.L. Oficina de Proyectos, discuss design, skills, the valorisation of works and the areas hosting them but, in particular, the exchange, increasingly necessary today, between specialists and specialisms.
What does including the structure of an area in the design of infrastructures for transport mean?
G.B. Furlan: Large infrastructures for transport or hydraulic ones for the creation of artificial reservoirs are operations which have an indelible effect on an area. These are works which last for centuries, and sometimes thousands of years. If you make a mistake, it’s a permanent offence that devastates the area. Roman centuriations can be seen from a satellite; the ordering of the area can still be seen because it wasn’t the simple opening of a road but a work of integral reclamation as the construction of roads required the creation of works for the disposal of water and turning uncultivated land into areas that could be cultivated.
J. Manterola: I agree with Giovanni Battista. However, the chances of making a mistake in the interpretation of the place where the work is constructed are high and vary with the passage of time. In favour, there is the fact that, as time passes, the place incorporates the work and ends up transforming it into something natural. In time, nature corrects many of our errors, even if there are always some that can’t be corrected, and these are the ones to avoid with excessive interpretations of what has been done.
Individual specialist skills are unable to give adequate answers to the complex problems generated by the environment that man has built. What features should the next generations of engineers develop to be able to manage design groups which will be more and more extended?
GBF: We can’t all be directors – after the bridge it has to be done and done well! There’s a place for all. When someone puts themselves forward to become an engineer co-ordinator, and so able to integrate and optimise the contribution of the different specialists, they know they must be able to talk to skills different from their own so the starting point is general culture. They must have a high level of cultural sensitivity to be able to manage a wider vision that must be inextricably linked to humility, because if you’re not humble, you’re unable to listen. I had a humanities-based education; I’m proud of this education which gave me a series of stimuli and infinite curiosity, there’s nothing that I’m not interested in and this allows me to listen to anyone and, when you don’t know something, you’re still able to find interconnecting elements which enable you to keep the conversation going. Nevertheless, someone with a purely humanities education can’t be the leader of an engineering design group because they need the technical knowledge to understand fully the work they’re co-ordinating. All this must be accompanied by solid project management skills as co-ordinating a project also means managing very real things like costs and the time necessary to achieve the objectives. In conclusion, the director can’t be a poet but he or she must understand poets.
JM: It’s very difficult to know a priori how to train future engineers. Co-operation between different people, whether engineers or not, is very positive, as they can give a unitary version of what has to be done. I’ve got some doubts about the effectiveness of decisions taken by different groups. I quite believe in talented people but being able to conceive a design proposal on their own is difficult because there is an enormous number of variables that a person has to manage so that they can give an ordered and organised constructive response. I think that we can’t know what the best path is; although this knowledge is universal and sensitive, it will always be unpredictable.
How can we use Building Information Modelling (BIM) to facilitate discussion between the different specialists involved in the project so that there can be a constructive and dynamic exchange?
GBF: Strictly speaking, BIM in itself is neither necessary nor sufficient but it is a tool that, if applied using its extraordinary potential to the full, is able to produce an authentic paradigm shift in the management of complex projects. BIM is a protocol for the management of design elements which must have their own qualities. BIM incorporates different contributions into a system that enables the design process to be followed from the start to the finish without losing any information on the way but BIM doesn’t design! It’s important to be aware that you don’t design under a glass dome isolated from the world but are part of a complex whole so you need a great variety and wealth of skills as the problems posed by the design of the infrastructure can’t be solved by an individual designer. BIM is the environment that enables an exchange with all these new people who become players in the co-design. In this way, it can promote an organic group vision in a wider, more complex context which means that the infrastructure project is able to contribute to the growth and valorisation of the area.
JM: I believe that this question continues the previous answer. Thinking that there are systems like BIM that will solve all the problems for us with precision and elegance is nothing more than the reflection of a desire whose aim is perfection, and this is impossible. It’s obvious that the complexity of the problem is enormous and BIM is just another of the procedures that we tend to believe will lead us to a good result. And that’s nothing more than an intention.
Bari bridge was recently inaugurated; as the result of its shape, obtained by applying a futuristic technical solution, it will have a significant symbolic value for the city. How can the aesthetic-artistic quality of the engineering artefact be valorised in group design? Are we perhaps leaving behind the cultural dimension, which started in the Renaissance and brings together artistic production and individual genius?
GBF: We’re only partly leaving it because we have to try and reinterpret the individual genius that was a feature of that golden age in a modern way. At that time, the humanist artist, having understood the limits set by his customer, produced the work finding all the resources necessary within himself or at most, by making use of the purely ancillary support of the labourers in his workshop (his glass dome). It’s no longer like that. The designer/artist/creator certainly creates the work with the primary aim of satisfying their customer’s mandate with their ability and talent using, however, all the contributions of all the stakeholders involved, harmonising them with their ‘genius’. The new that moves forward not only doesn’t compress the qualities of the designer/artist/creator but, on the contrary, it enhances them, raising the bar of commitment to levels not previously attempted, taking account of the vast, multi-form audience from whom agreement and sharing must be obtained. Their glass dome expands, breaking down the walls of the workshop and including all the physical, environmental, social, economic and political world involved.
JM: I think that the beauty of an engineering work is exclusively based in engineering and its history. Today, everything that is considered beautiful depends on the position taken by engineers during the second industrial revolution in the 19th century. The engineers did well, they didn’t start by looking at the stone works of the architects but they started from scratch, without looking back and imitating places obtained with other materials. The beauty that engineering gave to the 20th and subsequent centuries starts from the questions the engineers asked themselves and which they answered according to how they were carrying out their work. The Renaissance did the same. It eliminated what had come from Gothic and, helped by history, started to think independently. And I believe that is what must be done. Move completely into your own history with the hope that what is done will be good and it will adapt to the good in it. What seems more difficult to me is what the result of a group action can be.