Strength and Structures

Earn a degree in architectural engineering and help buildings stand tall for decades to come.

By Michael Gallant

July 2019

Strength and Structures

Architectural engineering students at Illinois Institute of Technology use standardized concrete cylinders to test the strength of concrete during a laboratory course. Photograph courtesy Illinois Institute of Technology


The creation of a new building may begin with an architect’s dream and finish with a builder’s hammer, but many important, and largely invisible, steps happen before an inspired design becomes a permanent manifestation of wood, metal or stone. 

For instance, floors and walls are planned to hold adequate weight, while roofs are designed to withstand the weather. Electrical and plumbing systems are woven into a building’s DNA and fire safety provisions are effectively integrated. Construction materials are sifted through and chosen for durability, safety, efficiency and practicality. And that’s just the beginning.

For every modern building erected, who handles these disparate but vital calculations? “Most people understand that architects determine a building’s form and function,” says Kansas State University (K-State) Associate Professor Ray Buyle, “but architectural engineers are the ones who make a building work.” Buyle is the head of K-State’s GE Johnson Department of Architectural Engineering and Construction Science. 

Also known as ARE, architectural engineering is a little-known but hugely important discipline that keeps buildings standing and functioning, safely and correctly, in every aspect. Think of it as “a hybrid of civil engineering, mechanical engineering and environmental engineering, with a splash of architecture,” says Brent Stephens, chair of the department of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). “In addition to taking classes in core civil engineering areas and learning key aspects of structural engineering, students blend in mechanical engineering courses to prepare them for designing energy, electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilation systems.”

The multidisciplinary education of architectural engineering students doesn’t stop there. They can also expect to study topics like differential equations, physics and thermodynamics, says Stephens. Students can further benefit from studies associated with building science, including construction management, fire safety systems, energy modeling and beyond.

It’s all in the service of making sure that the conceptual designs provided by an architect are built properly and can stand as permanent structures, says Michael Rich, a New York-based designer, with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

Since architectural engineering is such a technically rigorous field, students with a passion for STEM subjects are well positioned to thrive, says Rich. STEM is the commonly-used acronym for the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Buyle sees architectural engineering as a choice major for students “who are disciplined, who have an analytical thought process and who have an ability for creative problem-solving.” Stephens adds that ideal students are those “who want to make buildings, and the world, better places, whether it be by reducing their impact on energy and the environment, or improving the indoor environment, or advancing structures to do things we haven’t done before.”

A knack for communication and collaboration can also help architectural engineers thrive, says Rich. “Architects may push for radical or physically difficult designs, while engineers often want the simplest, most logical solution to a problem,” he continues. “It can be the engineer’s job to bring an architect back to reality.”

In practice, architectural engineers are uniquely positioned to bridge that gap between artistic visions and physical realities. “Architectural engineers know that to make truly sustainable and high-performance buildings, everyone has to be at the table at the beginning of the design process, working in an integrated manner, acknowledging each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and trying to work toward a common goal,” says Stephens. “That, to me, is what architectural engineering is all about, and why I think it has a bright future.”

K-State and IIT each offer dedicated architectural engineering programs. And, both institutions welcome international students into their classrooms and laboratories. If you’re interested in studying at either, be sure to check out their special offerings, including IIT’s multifaceted International Center and K-State’s scholarship and internship opportunities for engineers-in-training. 

Job opportunities can be plentiful and profitable for program graduates. But, before you begin dreaming about a future salary, Buyle advises selecting your educational institution wisely. “Make sure to choose an ABET [Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology]-accredited program that is teaching-focused, rather than research-focused. The architectural engineering courses should preferably be taught by faculty members with extensive industry experience in the design profession, rather than by faculty or graduate teaching assistants with little or no industry design experience,” he says. “Inquire as to the program’s level of involvement with the ARE industry consulting firms that regularly hire the program graduates, and ask what the program’s job placement rate is upon graduation.” 

Regardless of the institution you choose or your first job after graduating, a career in architectural engineering can be both wonderfully challenging and hugely rewarding. “The greatest joy of the discipline is walking through or driving past a completed structure and knowing that you were an integral part of the design of something that will be serving the community for the next 50 years or more,” says Buyle.

Rich echoes the sentiment: “To have an influence on the built world, to see that project realized and to actually walk through a space that only previously existed on paper, is an incredible feeling and a massively rewarding experience.”

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.


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