BUILD Blog


INTERVIEW with PAUL FAGET, structural engineer
December 19, 2007, 11:42 am
Filed under: Architecture, Interviews

Paul Faget Interview graphic

Paul Fagét has been gracious enough to be our inaugural volunteer for our interview series focusing on folks involved in the Architectural profession (who are not Architects- you know, fun and insightful). Paul has many years under his belt as a creative, engaged and inspired engineer, in his quiet unassuming manner. More information about Paul is available at their website, or if you’re sailing, you can see Paul at the helm on your port side tacking and passing you.

Oh, and Paul wants all us Architects out there to know that “all Architects are always great all of the time.”

Tell us a bit about your education in architecture and engineering. I studied Architecture at UW where I received my Bachelor of Arts in Environmental design. Suspecting that I would make a mediocre architect, I simultaneously took engineering courses and at the end of my UW time, put in my request for an engineering degree. Much to everyone’s surprise, I literally snuck up on the School of Engineering and completed the requisite courses- so, I was also awarded my Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering.

What were you thinking about most of the time in studio crits when your fellow architecture classmates were blabbering on about the dialogue between the building and the landscape or the verticality of the structure…? I just didn’t get it. I thought the curriculum was too artsy. I really suspected I would be mediocre in this profession.

When engineers invent new words they come up with terms like “kips” turning the clunky 4 syllable “one-thousand-pounds” into a simple one syllable catch-all. Architects, however invent nebulous words like “tectonics”, many of them not even knowing what it means. Why do you suppose this is? Insecurity.

Do you think it’s possible to be a good architect if you’re not an alcoholic? I’m sure it is, but I just can’t imagine it.

If you don’t mind us saying, you’re looking more and more like Lord Norman Foster every day. If you too had a helicopter on the roof of your office where would you take it (besides the ferry terminal)? I’d fly it out to the wilderness. Back in the day, you could leave Seattle and be in farmland in a half hour and the wilderness in an hour. Now, it takes two hours to get to farmland and I’m not sure how much further beyond that is the wilderness. My helicopter would definitely be useful for that.

What are a couple of buildings/structures/objects in the northwest that should be on every architect’s must-see list? The Rainier Tower- It appears structurally amazing yet is so quietly elegant given that buildings require most of their structural support at the core. It looks like this funky building sitting on a golf tee yet is a clear expression of what is structurally (only) required. And any building under construction, before it gets dressed up.

Rainier Tower, Seattle

When the big earthquake hits Seattle what building or structure would you like to see reduced to rubble? The (old?) WAMU tower. That Post-Modern building dropped into Seattle and was soooo highly touted. Yet, it was clearly a fad and now we’re stuck looking at it. Buildings last too long and are too important to be so short-sighted.

old WAMU Tower, Seattle

How do you suppose that the classic martini glass came to be one of the most difficult shapes to actually hold liquid in? I’ve never really thought about it, or at least, by the bottom of the glass, I’ve forgotten thinking about it…. But, I’d have to say that the inverted cone seems bottomless, yet empties quickly and then begs to be refilled. It is really a cleverly sinister shape isn’t it?!

 

It used to be that engineers informed architects what could and could not be done with built-form. Then in the 50’s and 60’s engineers got really, really good at what they do and now it’s the architects that tell the engineer to make the design work structurally. Did you guys screw yourselves by becoming too smart? Okay, now this is where we get somewhere. I think that we currently suffer from a negative persona or stereotype of being inflexible. Okay, sometimes motivation for a project should come entirely from an architect and this is good and appropriate. But, many times, I’m going to have a creative solution or I’m going to point out that something shouldn’t be done, that way or at all. As soon as I hear something like “I need you to think outside the box” or similar, its obvious that there isn’t the understanding that I’m already doing that. Expressions like this tell me that the designer involved is simply not getting it and doesn’t respect my judgment. I mean, pull your head out.

Swenson Say Faget is a very unique structural engineering firm in that you have a long history of hiring on architects and training them to be structural engineers. It must get tiring to give the same lessons over and over again about how to find the moment of a simple span beam. No, quite the contrary. I think engineering knowledge and the ability to learn engineering is innate. I think anybody can learn it if they have the ability and it is a pleasure to teach people who have this ability. And the converse of the displeasure of teaching those without the ability is also true- and that can pertain to folks who have even received their engineering degree.
What are some of the benefits of bringing on architects?
Architects have had good training and are smart (they have to be to have made it through all that). They are very capable folks. And they work cheap.
And the drawbacks?
None particularly. By the time they come to us, their sense of desperation makes them so eager.
How long does it take before the architects stop wearing black turtle necks to work?
A day or so. They’ve really already given (all of) that up by time they come to us.

What avoidable mistakes do you often see architects making with their designs? No overhangs, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. I say this not really as an engineer but more as a homeowner. I mean, c’mon guys, it rains, buildings wear. I’m not sure if its more arrogant or simply criminal to design buildings without overhangs.

Architects work all the time, therefore they must be rich. But they all drive old Volvos and live in small fixer-upper homes. What do you suppose they’re doing with all that money? Oh I think we both know that they are not doing anything with something they don’t have. Architects suffer from the laws of supply and demand… and from not being able to leave a design alone. The sad part is all that extra work going into something that only that Architect is going to appreciate in the end- it seems so often to get missed by others.

If one of your children told you that they want to study architecture in college how would you explain to them that they are going to be disowned? Oh no, the opposite. I’d accept their choice and accept that I’d probably have to support them financially for the rest of my life.

If you were to teach at the University level what course would you want to teach (aside from stain glass windows)? The Art of Engineering. I think I’d have to create a class that taught the creativity of engineering. I mean, the creative process is certainly not taught, and some might say, doesn’t even exist. This really rubs me, because I assert that the creativity inherent in engineering separates the mediocre from the excellent.

What is your take on the green building movement and all this LEEDs business? Okay, this is just the sort of question that gave me trepidation about doing this interview because I really don’t want to ruffle feathers. But, you’ve asked. I think the green building movement is still a fad and relies too heavily on people’s altruism. I think that people are jumping aboard because the market dictates that they have to. Green building has to become cost-effective and it seems like this would be a good place for government to come in, and offer tax incentives for green practices and/ or additional taxes for buildings that are not environmentally sensible.

In architecture offices the guy with the most red pens on his desk is typically the guy you don’t fuck with. What is the red pen equivalent in engineering? Its the guy with the most red pens in engineering too. Oh, and the guy who has actually read the most recent building code in its entirety- don’t mess with that guy.

Are computers and software allowing you to do anything in engineering that could not have been done in the analog days? Not particularly. They are allowing us to do a lot more a lot faster with greater accuracy. But, the basic laws of physics and basic principles stay the same. The technology isn’t as important to interpreting these laws and principles as creativity is.

What’s new in sailing technology Aluminum and stainless are on their way out. “Fibers” (cut to scene from The Graduate), its all fibers these days.

With us architects, we can sneak out for the occasional bender and tell our wives that we’re working late. How do you sneak out for a 3-day boat race? Is my wife going to read this?! Well, either way, I pretty much just go with the truth in these cases.

What’s the next big race for you? The “3 Bridge Fiasco” in San Francisco bay. Its a beautiful race, a fun race. It uses landmarks like Treasure Island, Red Rock and (near) the Golden Gate Bridge as marks- and the marks can be rounded in any order and in any direction. And it seems like everyone tries everything in this race. There is just a whole other level of strategy and depth to this race- just beautiful.

As the story goes, the Europeans would use cobblestones as ballast in their ships. The same cobblestones would later be used to pave streets in America when the boats were retired. What are you going to do with your ballast when you’re done with it? Well, my crew are my ballasts. I know I’m done with them when they stop showing up and are no longer useful to me. Then I need to find some new friends (and ballasts).

If there were a Paul Faget cup what would the prize be? Not some particle board garbage like they usually hand out…. I would award something useful- like a really good bottle of rum.

Am I leaving anything out? Is there anything else you want to say? Well, let’s see, I got my bit in about the overhangs and respecting the creativity and judgment of the engineer…. Oh yeah, and did I mention that all Architects are always great all of the time… as are all my clients?!….

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