Day in the Life of an Architectural Engineer

There is a huge misconception that architects and architectural engineers do the same thing. In short, an architect creates a building design, and an architectural engineer makes it work. Lauren Boyle talks about her experiences as an architectural engineer.
Lauren Boyle February 2019

architectural engineerI have always wanted to do something with buildings. At first, I wanted to be an architect because I loved drawing floor plans and building with Legos. At the same time, I also loved math so much that I studied new topics on my own all the time.

It was my middle school math teacher who first asked me if I had thought about engineering as a career. I don’t have many engineers in my family, so at the time I didn’t really know what that meant. It stuck with me though, and I soon was changing “I want to be an architect” to “I want to be an architectural engineer.” I took all of the math, engineering and architecture classes that I could in high school to confirm this was what I wanted to do. Years later, I found that my dream school also had Architectural Engineering as a major, and the rest is history.

There is a huge misconception that architects and architectural engineers do the same thing. In short, an architect creates a building design, and an architectural engineer makes it work. Architects focus on the physical space and a lot of what you see - walls, finishes and the form. Architectural engineers focus on a lot of what you don’t see - the structure of the building, construction and how you experience the building with HVAC, lighting and acoustics.

I graduated from Penn State University with my Bachelors and Masters of Architectural Engineering (AE) degree in 2017. The Penn State AE program is five years, with the fourth and fifth year focusing on one of four options: mechanical, lighting & electrical, structural or construction management. During my second and third year I explored these four options to gain a better understanding of a full building design. At the end of the third year, we choose an option to focus on for our final two years. I chose the mechanical option because I loved the idea of working on sustainability, energy and comfort.

All AEs at Penn State also have to do a thesis in their fifth year. I did mine with a team for the Architectural Engineering Institute’s Student Design Competition. This was by far the most impactful part of my college career. It taught me how to work on an integrated team with all building disciplines, how to make decisions and how to communicate effectively. After months of long nights and hard work, we presented at the national competition where we won 4 out of 5 main awards including the overall award – Building Integration. The friendships made on this team are truly invaluable and everything I learned is used in my career.

I also learned a lot outside of the classroom. I spent two summers as a project management intern, one summer as a design intern and one summer studying abroad in China and Hong Kong. I was also very involved in SWE and Engineering Ambassadors. All of these taught me leadership, communication and humility. My design internship got me to where I am now. I started as a design intern for Southland Industries after my fourth year, and I now work there full-time.

I am now an HVAC Design Engineer for Southland Industries, working on industrial manufacturing facilities. The team for this project uses Integrated Project Delivery. This means we’re working very closely with all the project partners to collaborate, innovate and execute a faster schedule under budget with high quality. At the beginning, a lot of my work was sizing and drafting ductwork and piping. Working for a contractor, my next step was to help the coordination team create a constructible design for the field. During construction I spent a lot of time on my project site with all the partners and managing changes on spot. I also created the cleaning plan for the pipes in our building.

The thing I love most about my job is having a direct, tangible product for my work. It’s very exciting to be able to drive by a building you had a hand in designing. I also love that every job is completely different. Even when solving problems, there are so many variables that can go into a building that the same question may have a bunch of answers. Lastly, I love the communication required with my project teams, internally and externally, to impact the cost and schedule of a project. I can only do so much, but by coordinating efficiently with the other companies on the job, we can do so much more.

In my current role I am in the minority as a woman in engineering, and even more of a minority as a woman in construction. I’m fortunate to work for a company that has a lot of female engineers, but the job site is far different. One of my challenges has been PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for when I am on site. All the females are walking around in men’s medium safety vests – talk about feeling out of place on the job site. I brought it up to the right people, and we’re getting women’s safety vests for our office!

My biggest piece of advice is to learn that it’s okay to not know the answers. The important thing is that you learn to ask the right questions to the right people. Architectural Engineering (as well as any engineering) relies so much on effective communication with a team. Internally, ask questions to your team.  It’s guaranteed they’re more than willing to help! Externally, your partners on projects are knowledgeable in different areas of a building, and it’s important to ask questions to understand their role and what they need from you. This also comes into play when working with the field. I may not know how something is built when I’m drawing it in Revit (modeling software), but the guy in the field knows how he is going to build it.

No matter what engineering field you choose, learn to speak up and ask all your questions. It’s true – there really is no such thing as a dumb question!