Jun 2, 2020

The Structural Engineer: Profile of Kate Simonen

The June 2020 issue of The Structural Engineer, monthly publication of the UK’s Institution of Structural Engineers, was themed “Climate Emergency: Adapting to Change.” The issue included articles providing a framework for change,  including guidance on education, low carbon and zero waste design, the business case for minimizing embodied carbon, and how structural engineers can share knowledge, resources, and action.


Profile of Kate Simonen

IN JUNE LAST YEAR, UK structural engineers declared a climate and biodiversity emergency and recognized the active role they have to play in cutting the roughly 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions which building and construction currently contribute to climate change.

Organisations large and small, from multinationals to small practitioners, have signed up to change working practices and advice to clients in order to push that percentage down and help the UK meet its 2050 zero-carbon ambitions.

The UK declaration mirrors a campaign launched in the USA in December 2019, known as the SE 2050 Challenge, which is supported by the Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) of the American Society of Civil Engineers. This also unites a group of structural engineers to ensure ‘substantive embodied carbon reduction in the design and construction of our structural systems by the collective structural engineering profession’. The mission is to reach structural systems with net-zero embodied carbon by 2050.

While there is a great deal of thought and energy from a lot of people going into the charge for net zero with these initiatives, behind them is one woman and her need to gather real data on embodied carbon in structural systems and materials. That woman is Kate Simonen, currently a professor of architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA and founder, a decade ago, of the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF).

kate simonen

The CLF is an industry–academic collaboration hosted at the University of Washington with the goal of eliminating embodied carbon in buildings and infrastructure by inspiring innovation and spurring change through collective action. It is a professional community of manufacturers, designers, builders and academics collaborating to pioneer research, create resources, foster cross-collaboration, and incubate member-led initiatives. SE 2050 was developed and incubated at the CLF.

Eureka moment

Fifteen years ago, Simonen, who trained as an architect and structural engineer, had her own practice and became involved with a group interested in prefabricated energy-efficient homes. ‘We were going to import high-performance curtain wall panels and design homes to bring operational energy down to virtually nothing. But I asked myself, can you really claim to make a great low-energy house if you are importing material from as far away as China, for instance? What is the eco cost and the carbon cost of that journey and how much carbon was emitted in making the materials?’ Simonen remembers.

‘Everyone at the time was focused on reducing energy in operation to affect carbon emissions – for typical buildings the great majority is in building operation, it’s a big number, it’s the obvious to go for first. But I knew that in structural engineering terms, the most impact I could make was in the smaller piece of the pie, the area of embodied carbon – that is, the carbon emitted in extraction, transportation and energy required to make the materials that go into a new building. I wanted to know what the low-embodied-carbon options were of various types of concrete, steel, cladding and so on, in order to make an informed decision as to what was best.’

There was no obvious, unbiased place to source that information, so Simonen decided she had better find out for herself.

‘I decided to move into academia so that I could work it out,’ she says. ‘Is it better to use local wood or import energy-efficient structure? I wanted to spend time answering those questions and I searched for an academic position that would allow me to do that.’

Holistic outlook

Simonen was an attractive proposition for a university. After studying architectural engineering as a degree, she followed it with graduate degrees at the University of California, Berkeley in advanced structures and architecture. Simonen then worked for five years as a structural engineer with a range of practices in San Francisco, on projects including seismic upgrades and new construction.

After working for several years in a mid-sized architectural firm, her next step was to set up and run her own architectural practice. The result was a great understanding of how architects and engineers work together to create structures, insight that undergraduates would find invaluable.

‘I joined the University of Washington to teach architecture to architectural students along with the basics of construction management and structural engineering, so my students can engage with other professions and do good work. It’s what I wished I’d known when I started out,’ she says.

‘When I was practicing as an engineer, it was easy to think that architects were clueless and discombobulated and engineers were on top of it, solving clear problems. Then, as an architect, I realized how many different and complex drivers are happening during the creation of a building and how hard it was to be focused. Engineers concentrate on their particular specialties, architects on everything,’ she says.

‘That’s why, when I ran my own architectural practice, I hired a consultant structural engineer. I found it difficult to wear all the hats. If I was dealing with the client and how they wanted their rooms to look, I needed an engineer to make sure everything was structurally safe.’

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