Architect’s Corner: Intentional Collaboration

The Possibilities of Integrating Interior Design & Structural Engineering

by Lynne Ingram, design director, Mackenzie

(Editor’s Notes:  Lynne Ingram is design director at Mackenzie, an integrated design firm for the built environment with a 60-year legacy, headquartered in Portland, Oregon.  Ingram has more than 30 years of design and project management experience, with a broad portfolio of corporate office, tenant improvement, and high-tech projects.)

In building design, there are countless considerations to ensure ultimate function, style, and usability, including how design fits into structure.  Often, it’s in this order, establishing the framework for what’s possible before designing the details that structure will support.  However, through an integrated firm approach, the process is less linear and more of an intentional collaboration. 

         When structural engineers and interior designers work alongside each other, they’re able to create unique and varied works together.  Rather than have a first and then next-step approach, they work in tandem, iterating and adjusting based on the other’s ideas.  Furthermore, as businesses are looking for alternative methods to build spaces, especially in workplace design, repositioning projects, adaptive reuse, and new tenant improvements, leveraging an integrated approach allows for more efficient creative strategies and solutions.  It also speeds up the process by getting clients’ answers faster. 

         Similarly, interior designers are working through ideas faster, envisioning a space and then talking to a structural engineer to make it achievable.  There are fewer what-if scenarios, as this vetting happens in real-time, which means there are better opportunities to find solutions to the client’s challenges and then actually seeing those ideas in effect later.  Meanwhile, engineers are able to develop effective solutions that support the outcome. 

         The success of this collaboration between an interior designer and a structural engineer begins with a conceptual design of what the designer is trying to achieve for the client.  By first proposing design elements, and then sitting down with the engineer, the designer can explain their creative goals while the engineer details what’s structurally possible and suggests alternate means as necessary.  Together, they outline the project components required by both disciplines, such as materials and design features, and then interact regularly to check on the design as the project progresses. 

         As it always feels like there’s less time at the end of a project, front-loading the elements that will need the most attention, as well as the bulk of the problem-solving, ensures an original vision maintains its integrity, and the space as a whole is created with cohesion and the goals top of mind. 

         While partnership always makes for a stronger project, an interior designer and structural engineering team is especially suited for work that requires creative manipulation of the environment.  Whether planning for a show-stopping suspended piece, a structure within a structure, or an abundance of glass, by working together, both disciplines’ solutions for the client are made stronger as they become a partner for scale and proportion.  For engineers, this open communication allows them the upfront opportunity to strategize more tailored solutions than they may otherwise design with only the building code to inform them.  Similarly, designers are given freedom to their ideas, as structural solutions are integral for safety and usability while making the aesthetic vision a reality.  Both disciplines rely on and support each other, and the integrated approach ultimately has a dramatic impact on the outcome of the project. 

         As designers, it’s important to remember engineers embrace the challenge of helping execute the details to bring an idea to fruition.  If designers communicate their goals, engineers will help find a solution.  A project can still be pushed and big ideas can be explored, but asking how things could work if told they can’t is an important follow-up step. 

         Ultimately, designers seek possibilities, just as engineers do.  While they may at first look a little different for each discipline, the two perspectives come together to achieve the common client goals for function, safety, aesthetics, cost, and schedule.  Together, designers and engineers can accommodate so much more while creating complex spaces that feel natural to navigate, are high functioning, and provide a visual perspective.

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