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The arts-engineering edge

Venerable program is a career enhancer

Kim Gagnon’s ideal house of worship elicits reverence through natural light, using a high ceiling made of crisscrossing beams and glass to cast sunlight and shadows in geometric patterns.

Gagnon, a junior majoring in civil engineering and architecture, built her model “sanctuary of light” as an assignment for her architecture studio. Besides its visual appeal, the building has a novel structural feature: its ceiling rests not on walls but on concrete columns.

“I think it’s really important in architecture to show structure,” says Gagnon, whose father and grandfather worked in construction and taught her to appreciate well-made buildings.

In high school, Gagnon’s aptitude for math and science seemed well-suited for an engineering career, but her interest in design pointed toward architecture. She applied to several technical schools and chose Lehigh because it alone offered an in-depth study of both engineering and architecture through the Arts and Engineering (AE) Program.

Established more than 60 years ago, AE requires students to complete two bachelor’s degree programs in five years. Students may select any combination of majors from the College of Arts and Sciences and the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. Although they may combine any two majors, such as mechanical engineering and music or electrical engineering and philosophy, almost half of AE majors select civil engineering and architecture.

“It makes sense. There’s an affinity between the two disciplines,” says Bruce Thomas, associate professor of art and architecture and faculty adviser to AE students.

Architects and civil engineers work together to design bridges, buildings and other structures, Thomas says, but they approach their problems from different points of view. Architects manipulate a structure’s form and function to suit an owner’s needs, while civil engineers tend to the building’s infrastructure.

“Students who obtain the dual degree have a unique insight into the design and construction of buildings,” says Stephen Pessiki, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering and the academic adviser for AE students from that department.

“Not coincidentally,” Thomas adds, “it’s a very nice credential to have in the job market, whichever direction you want to go.”

Students gain a greater sense of structure through the dual degree program than they would in the architecture program alone, which emphasizes history and design. Many AE alumni enroll in graduate architecture programs or start careers as engineers.

Civil engineers who complete the dual degree acquire an architect’s concerns – a trait that made Geoff Brunn ’07 an attractive candidate to the international design firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP (SOM).

Brunn, now a structural engineer with SOM, spent much of his interview with the firm discussing his Lehigh degrees and his undergraduate research project in concrete. As a student, he had helped Clay Naito, associate professor of structural engineering, determine that self-consolidating concrete was worth its high price tag because it reduced labor costs and resulted in a higher-quality product.

“It’s really important in architecture to show structure.” —Kim Gagnon

“My research was particularly important in helping me get this job,” says Brunn, who also holds an M.S. in structural engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. “It demonstrated that I have the ability to think unconventionally and to analyze a situation.”

Today, Brunn draws from both his Lehigh degrees. His engineering courses provide him with the skills his job requires, but his ability to draw and visualize in 3-D helps him communicate his designs to coworkers.

Brunn transferred from Lehigh’s traditional engineering track to the AE program his sophomore year when he found himself drawn to architecture.

“To me, there’s something fantastic – it’s romantic – to see what you’ve drawn and designed actually built and lived in.”

Brunn agrees with Pessiki that the AE program demands extensive time and commitment. “It is not for everyone, but for me it was a great match,” he says.

His sentiments are echoed by Sean Dooley ’98, a civil engineering and architecture graduate who works as a civil engineer at Keystone Consulting Engineers.

“The breadth of education from the AE program and the academic rigor imposed on me at Lehigh prepared me to become a better civil engineer,” Dooley says.

One of Dooley’s Lehigh professors secured an internship for him at an engineering firm in Switzerland and later recommended him for a doctoral program at the Swiss École Polytechique Fédérale de Lausanne. When Dooley returned to the Lehigh Valley, Lehigh’s department of art and architecture offered him an adjunct position teaching a course on the technology of building.

Gagnon, who will take the building technology course next year, worked with her professors to fit her courses around several internships at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. After graduation, she hopes to use her engineering skills to restore dilapidated buildings.

“Knowing how architects think,” she says, “will allow me to maintain the ideas of the architect who first designed the building.”

The arts-engineering program confers two bachelor’s degrees. Students pursuing architecture and civil engineering gain unique insights into the design and construction of buildings.
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