Keep it simple

Jul 11, 2021

Explaining things in overly technical terms could result in your message getting lost, so find ways to simplify so the most important ideas are grasped by everyone.

When I first started working as a structural engineer, I was fortunate to live only three blocks away from our office in downtown Dallas. Being so close to work was great, but one of my favorite things to do during those early years was take long aimless walks through downtown on the weekends.

Sunday mornings were best because the streets were empty. It gave me ample space to stop and admire the details in so many of the beautiful buildings that make up the cityscape. Some of my favorites are the Adolphus, Magnolia, and Dallas Power and Lights buildings, all within close proximity to each other. Their ornamental facades are each unique and have stood proud for decades. As a young engineer I was in awe of how complex these buildings appeared to be. I wondered how long it would take before I “got it” and could wrap my head around the design of a building.

Fast forward a few years and I had learned a thing or two about design, but was less experienced with the detailing and coordination required to put a set of construction documents together. The problem had only grown more complex once I started working with other disciplines, trying to understand their systems and how they would interact with my design. I remember my boss telling me over and over to just “draw what you know,” which was great advice. When doing this, not only does the complexity of the problem melt away, but it also becomes clear what information is lacking. That becomes a jumping off point for asking questions, seeking answers, and not overcomplicating the design.

Buildings these days are documented with thousands of details across a construction set that is often hundreds of pages long. I think back to those old buildings I admired on my Sunday walks and wonder how they turned out so well when their drawings were much simpler. In fact, I have worked on some existing buildings where the structural drawings consisted of fewer sheets than the number of floors in the building. Instead of adding countless details and pages, architects and engineers in those days had the discipline to communicate their designs succinctly. When reviewing those old drawings, I am often amazed at how comprehensive the designs were compared to today’s standards. Today, our tools make it easier to change things on a whim and keep adding more information, which often serves to make the project overly complicated and introduce more contradictions. Ultimately, we miss the forest for the trees.

Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

When working on a multi-disciplinary team, simplifying ideas is critical to effective communication. Explaining things in overly technical terms may mean the message is lost, so it’s better to find ways to simplify and ensure the most important ideas are clearly grasped by everyone. It is also important to make sure the team is on the same page from the start. Clearly communicating the core design goals and expectations establishes guideposts that can be referred to later when things become unclear or roadblocks are encountered. As a structural engineer working for architects, early sketches and renderings are invaluable to understanding the look and feel of a space. So, when it’s months later and the design isn’t coming together quite as planned, I go back to those simple ideas and images and reevaluate. Don’t be afraid to walk a design back a bit if it leads to a better solution.

This happened recently on a project with dramatic, 30-foot cantilevers on all sides of the building. Roof slopes were established early in design development and the structural framing was laid out to suit the slopes. As design progressed and the framing was more accurately sized, it became clear there were multiple locations where structural depth at these cantilevers was going to be an issue. Faced with the uncomfortable choice between sticking with the current roof design or scrapping it and starting over, we chose the latter. Had we stuck with the original layout, it would have required lots of custom designs and details that would still struggle to fit within the architectural envelope. Even though the redesign affected more disciplines, it was the right choice for the project. Ultimately, the redesign led to fewer and simpler details as well as a decent reduction in steel tonnage. I would wager that the time lost to rework will be saved many times over since a simpler and more elegant design was ultimately achieved. The reason the redesign was successful was because we had done enough work to know what wouldn’t work and we chose to honor the original design intent rather than force a square peg into a round hole.

The design process is non-linear and meanders from here to there, not unlike those Sunday walks in downtown Dallas. Complex systems are built of simple components and elegant designs are built of simple ideas, layered and interacting in unique ways. Keeping things simple and focusing on the core ideas is the best way to get back on track when the design starts to become convoluted. If you find yourself off track, remember where you started and remind yourself what matters most to the design. Draw what you know and find ways to simplify.

Seth Carlton, PE, is a project manager and team lead for JQ Engineering. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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