The Engineering Behind Modern Superstructures

Human talent, drive and innovation can achieve incredible feats - and what more tangible example than modern superstructures? Let’s take a look at some of the drivers behind building bigger and better buildings worldwide, from improved materials, to cross-sector collaboration and beyond.

The human race has always had a desire to outdo itself. From our earliest constructions, this has been the case. If someone built a barn big enough for 50 cattle, somebody else had to build one that would hold 100. It’s just in our nature.

So it stands to reason that modern engineering and design would exhibit this same competitive nature. Whether it’s countries competing against each other, engineers trying to out-build their colleagues, or someone just trying to beat a personal best, there is always some high mark that we want to beat.

The result has been some phenomenal projects that our ancestors would have called the stuff of daydreams. Around the world, human talent and determination have resulted in some unbelievable things.

What has made it possible for us to continually go far beyond what anyone else has accomplished? We can find the answer in the innovations that have enabled us to build some of the world’s (current) biggest things.

Improved Materials

The wonders of the ancient world are all the more impressive when one considers the materials their designers had access to. With that hurdle overcome, the bar is ever higher for their modern competitors.

It hasn’t been just the advent of new materials that has made such projects possible, it’s also been the improvement of existing materials. When the Burj Khalifa tower was built in Dubai, engineers used specialized forms of concrete to tolerate the massive weight of the building. Its half-mile height created such pressure that the mixtures were tested before being produced as part of the half-million-ton building. Concrete has been around for decades, but not concrete like that.

Such a project requires judicious use of these materials as well. While there’s always a significant component of steel in huge structures, there are areas that require extra attention from specialized steel alloy components. Wear blocks designed to combat fatigue and friction are placed in strategic locations with common steel used elsewhere. This permits lowered cost and modular repairs while still getting high performance.

New Applications

Engineers no longer operate in a bubble. The aerospace people talk to the marine people, and the civil people talk with the chemical people. There is unprecedented interaction between these experts, largely due to the ease of communication via the Internet.

Sweden is home to a good example. It’s being built as the intersection between architecture and agriculture, a 17-story building designed to produce food for urban dwellers. It was born out of an understanding of changing demographics, specifically the movement toward cities of much of the world’s population. As farmland is lost, food must be generated elsewhere, so the Hanging Gardens were conceived and brought to life.

How might this have happened if the building’s designers didn’t work with agriculture experts? The simple answer is that it wouldn’t have happened, which is why communication across disciplines is key. And the cooperation must begin at the earliest moments of the project’s conception in order for the various disciplines to accommodate one another.

Another example of cross-disciplinary engineering is the Harmony of the Seas cruise ship. This massive vessel plunges 74 feet into the water and stretches almost 1,200 feet from stem to stern. Getting such a huge vehicle not only to float but to move and maneuver required all the best in maritime engineering, but also making it livable and fun to be aboard took the input of electrical, structural, and computer engineers. This multi-pronged approach puts the world’s largest cruise ship safely to sea with as many as 6,800 souls aboard.

Bigger Dreams

It’s one thing to try to build a better version of something that’s been built before. It’s quite another to do something that’s never been attempted.

The famous “Chunnel” connecting England and France is a good example. No one had previously made a serious plan to connect these two countries with a roadway, but the growing field of engineering had already made the dream possible. Once someone dared to dream it, it became reality.

And once a dream like that becomes reality, it spurs the development of other smaller projects, which suddenly seem easy in comparison. Boston’s Ted Williams Tunnel drops to 100 feet below sea level during its 1.6-mile trek beneath Boston Harbor–a feat quite impressive until you realize the Chunnel is about 15 times longer.

When a large company or government executes a mega-project, smaller counterparts begin to realize they can scale down and still accomplish major projects.

Engineering and construction are all about dreaming big, about accomplishing more than the conventional wisdom states you should. As the world changes, technology will continue to change with it, and that combined evolution will produce some of the most amazing human constructions that can be imagined. The success of those designing the projects is dependent more on their determination than the limitations of technology.

By Rebecca Wilcox

About the author

Becky Wilcox is a mother and entrepreneur. Originally from the east, she now lives on the west coast. Becky enjoys writing about business, health, tech, and anything else that sparks her interest!