Interact 2012

      As I was sorting out the 14,000 files (90GB) produced during Third Year, I came across Interact - the much talked about, extremely terrifying and exciting project for Architecture, Civil Engineering and Quantity Surveying students in Glasgow. Although it took place in early 2012, I am glad I’ve decided to write about it just now – this is one of the cases where some distance and a chance to analyse things calmly is clearly needed.

So, the Interact project: a collaboration between 4 universities - Mackintosh School of Architecture, University of Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of the West of Scotland - aims to prepare the Construction Industry students for the professional world. As students, we learn what the ‘others’ do – but only in theory; yet we have heard all the clich├ęs and have been brought up with the knowledge that architects and engineers simply cannot co-exist. Interact aims to teach us otherwise, by putting us into mixed teams with a common aim: to deliver a ‘buildable’ building that will be graded by each of the professions/universities. At the end of the project, each team presents what they have achieved, and the best ones are selected to compete in the Final. Sounds great.

In reality, there was quite a bit of drama. The fears, stories and excitement about Interact had started long before the project itself. We remembered the previous years, where several architects had broken down and were seen crying, or instead commanding their scared engineers around. My coursemates were speculating who they would get; whether they preferred a girl/boy engineer; some were sharing winning tactics while others organised a massive Architects+Engineers+QS Party. As soon as our team lists were up, everyone rushed to Facebook to try and find who they will be working with. I tried to get some tips from an engineering friend who had participated in Interact a year before, and he promised to help if there was any trouble with my engineers. In short, the atmosphere was quite tense even before we started.

And then we had our first meeting: architects clutching their models/drawings, engineers walking around the massive hall and looking for their team number, while the small number of QS students seemed lost in the crowd. Soon, both my engineers had joined the table – yet still more and more of their classmates seemed to stop nearby, all staring at my Tower model. I ended up explaining it not only to my new teammates, but to a number of their friends as well, who in turn invited others to look at ‘the crazy building’. I soon realised this collaboration was going to be more challenging than I could expect: my engineers still had a puzzled look, and their classmates reacted by patting them on the back, wishing ‘good luck’ and saying they were now happy with what their own architects had produced.

Using sectional models for development: the one from our first Interact meeting is highlighted

Interact clearly demonstrated how different our thinking and education was. Turns out that my engineers had not seen a sectional model before, so a lot of their original confusion was caused by them thinking the whole building was a massive cantilever. Once that - and the fact the tower typology is not going away – was clear, we had to find a way of sharing information so we could work independently. Two-dimensional CAD drawings were of little help because the spaces were interlocking in numerous ways and difficult to imagine in 3D, I suggested using Rhino to share 3d-models but my engineers had not used it before – so we ended up meeting a lot and using physical models that could be photographed, twisted around and even poked – as a quick way of testing their behaviour when a force is applied. The fact that the design was not finished and I kept changing the dimensions did not help either.

Although all the technical details were really important at the time and I’ve learned a lot about how an engineer understands a building, it’s the human interaction that really made Interact memorable. One of the highlights was the argument with my engineer about how the concrete part of the building was going to be constructed: pre-fabricated or cast in-situ. That night, I took out a pile of books about concrete and spent the night writing a 1,500 word e-mail about this, which started with: “I want to reinforce again that I am not stubborn and uncompromising, but...” Later, we found this episode quite funny and included the screenshot of the email in our presentation - the audience found the image of an angered architect, passionate about his concrete, rather entertaining. The engineers also said I was too obsessed with the building - ‘my baby’, whereas they kept calculating how much Interact meant in terms of their final grade, and whether they should really be investing this much time.

Our building was famous. Once, an engineering student was complaining in a tutorial about how complicated their project was, and their professor (who had not even seen our team’s design) replied: “At least it’s not a 20-meter tower!” Although we were not supposed to really worry about the cost due to the lack of a QS in the team (and enough engineering to keep us busy), we decided to approach one of them for a quick estimate – he escaped as soon as he saw the model. The QS tutor was also terrified, and did not seem to know where to start. The engineering and architecture tutors loved the tower though - so we got a strong response from everyone, whether good or bad it did not matter – the building did what it was supposed to do - it made people think, and feel. An ‘attack’ in the spirit of Ian Hamilton Finlay.

In addition to the complicated design, I was giving my engineers a hard time – an architect with some background in physics/math competitions, I knew that the building could be built, and did not want to accept the ‘easy’ structural solutions without seeing some calculations/analysis proving there was no better way. Usually there was, and so my final project did not get any bracing ‘just in case’. Instead, the structure we developed enhanced the architecture – the engineers did not ruin the building after all!

Click to see the full project

“An architect knows something about everything; an engineer knows everything about one thing.” Once we finished discussing structures, the real fun began. Most of the architecture students found themselves leading a group of people who had almost no experience of presenting. Some engineers were panically afraid of public speaking. Producing images – well, let’s say that architects ended up responsible for the majority of the visual output as well. Sometimes, it felt like I am also directing a play: inventing a story, making a corresponding powerpoint, writing a script, rehearsing until we could speak the words and do the hand pointing choreography with our eyes closed – so that each team member, regardless of their presenting experience, could tell their part of the story to any audience. To make it more fun, some aspects were exaggerated: I was not simply demanding/professional, but an evil dictator; the building became “a Monster Tower”, and the foundations from the original drawings were erased so that the engineers could make fun of the ‘structurally ignorant architects’. What started as a way of boosting my engineers’ public speaking confidence ended up being an entertaining presentation, and we found ourselves in the group of 6 Finalist teams (from a total of 80-something).

The Finalists had a tough week: while everyone else was struggling to meet their Essay deadlines and finish the design project for the Final Review the following week, we also had to significantly improve our presentations, and prepare four A1 boards for an Interact Exhibition. The engineers were freaking out, as this time we were going to present in front of a big lecture hall full of all the tutors and students. The Professional Studies tutor made the presentation even more dramatic, so we had to make a new powerpoint and rehearse the new script which was getting mixed up with the one we had learned before. The pressure was mounting each day – but at least we were in this together, and the other Finalists/ classmates were really supportive when they found us practicing in empty corridors.

The Final was a big blur. The other presentations were great, the audience laughed a lot. Suddenly, it was our turn to stand up. Although my mind was absolutely clear, I found my hands shaking so bad I was afraid I would not hit the ‘next slide’ button on the remote. I hid them behind my back, smiling at the blinding projector, and started speaking. After the first successful joke and laughter from the audience, things were much more relaxed. The engineers were great, we even managed to invent several new jokes on the go, the public reacted positively. I messed up the ending, which was new and added to the presentation only an hour earlier, but the improvised version was as great, and apparently ‘really touching’. This, and lots more positive feedback awaited us in the MASS bar, while the judges were making their decision.

We were awarded a Commendation “for exceptional bravado” – the QS and Engineering judges said the project was brave but crazy - but at that time, the biggest emotion was realising that Interact was finally over, we had done it, and there was finally a stress-free evening. All the Finalists, tutors and judges went to eat pizza, discuss and celebrate together – we heard lots of compliments – but the most important ones came from my teammates with whom we successfully faced this Interact experience.