Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chat with Christopher O'Hara

I finished my master's degree in structural engineering in December and the lack of "green" oriented jobs in the field is one of the reasons I'm on this cross country trek. It was with great surprise and delight that I stumbled across Studio NYL Structural Engineers in Boulder, Colorado.

Studio NYL is a small firm that specializes in sustainable structural design. None of my coursework even touched on the subject so I knew I had to find out more. I was fortunate enough to speak with Studio NYL co-founder, Christopher O'Hara, to get a bit of illumination on the subject.

Structural engineers are typically brought into the design process after the global decisions about a building are already made. We are compelled to follow a building code that sets design requirements for the parts of the building that keep it standing. We don't typically have much say beyond the structural details of a project and even then, it's a crap-shoot.

From the Studio NYL point of view, structural engineers can't do much, but they can do something. They focus on reducing material use. Christopher told me, "Using 10% recycled materials is great, but reducing material use by 20% is even better." Achieving that reduction means designing with modular materials in their natural increments, utilizing the most efficient structural systems and creating elegant structural forms that don't need to be covered up. Much of this takes early coordination with architects and the monetary savings from reduced material usage is mostly erased by increased labor costs.

Studio NYL is in an interesting position. There is no incentive (such as LEED certification) to reduce structural material use so the market is in no way crowded with sustainable structural design firms. Only builders who are genuinely interested in being sustainable will take the time to hire Studio NYL. That means the builder will have certainly hired a "green-minded" architect who is willing to cooperate. Breaking down the barrier between architects and engineers--or form and function--is what gives Studio NYL the ability to affect critical design decisions.

For a structural engineering office, operating as a sustainable firm makes a whole lot of sense. It means playing a greater role in the design process and locking in a more receptive clientele. For some reason, this hasn't really caught on. Christopher couldn't name another small firm doing the same sort of work.

I think this sort of firm will begin to multiply in the very near future. Green building is arguably (I'll prove it in the next post) the most advanced branch of the "green" movement and all of the green builders will soon be looking for ways to green the gaps in the design process.

As an added perk, the folks at Studio NYL were very well abreast with the most advanced developments in the structural engineering world. If you're interested in some cutting edge stuff, check out these links on carbon fiber retro-fits and bio-mimicking 3-D trusses.


  1. So, Jon, the field is WIDE OPEN to create such a service in Detroit! Though I guess you can work anywhere, no matter where your office is.

  2. I'd take Denver over detroit any day. Gotta love that rocky mountain high. and of course the presence of people and buildings...

  3. you wouldn't be alone, check out the recent pew survey...

  4. just out of curiosity, what's your take on this:

  5. It's a weird sort of question to answer. Different people want different things. Good public schools are really important for those with children. The young and old don't care so much.

    In general, I'd say most American are content with mediocrity. You'll note that there isn't a single big city on the list, that probably has to do with the school issue.