Syracuse University Magazine


Sinéad Mac Namara

Collaborative Building

Architecture and engineering professor Sinéad Mac Namara was quite clear about her career goals after earning a bachelor’s degree in civil, structural, and environmental engineering at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. “I was going to practice as an engineer,” she says. “That was my plan. I wanted to build things.” But a new possibility emerged when she decided to pursue graduate studies in the United States and was accepted to Princeton. Her advisor there was David Billington—a “legend in engineering education circles,” she says—whose insights inspired her to also become a teacher. “He has an interesting take on how to teach engineering—that engineering is an art in itself, and that caring about how the objects they create look and function in the world is important for engineers,” says Mac Namara, who holds master’s and doctoral degrees in civil and environmental engineering from Prince­ton. “It’s not just the math of making sure it doesn’t fall over.”

Mac Namara joined the School of Architecture faculty in 2006 to teach courses in structural engineering, a specialty she was prepared for by her work at Princeton, including her dissertation research examining how the shell of a nuclear containment structure works. Specifically, she studied what would happen if an entry were created in the structure so aging equipment could be replaced. “They didn’t build these things with giant doors in them, because they are containment structures,” says Mac Namara, an award-winning educator who also teaches mechanics courses in the College of Engineering and Computer Science and electives in both schools, as well as an honors seminar on U.S. engineering history. “So they were having to put these openings in them to, say, take out a steam generator and put something new in. I was establishing whether or not that would create a structural issue.”

Her interdisciplinary teaching role allowed Mac Namara a fresh opportunity to explore innovative engineering education methods. She was awarded a National Science Foundation grant in 2009 to support her research in that area. The project examined how methods used in teaching architecture can be useful in an engineering context and included a design seminar on shell structures for students from both disciplines. “In a shell structure, the thing you look at is also the thing that holds the building up and keeps the rain out. You need both engineering and architecture to make it work,” says Mac Namara, who joined with architecture colleague Clare Olsen on the project. “We wanted students to do design work that integrated aesthetics and technology. And we had a lot of fun. Students learned a lot from each other and built really beautiful stuff.”

She and Olsen also partnered on a book, Collaborations in Architecture and Engineering (Routledge, 2014), which explores the ways the two disciplines intersect professionally. They interviewed engineers and architects around the world to learn how they work together and share what they learned with students preparing to enter the field. “The idea was to give engineering students an understanding of where their knowledge fits into design and to give architecture students a little more appreciation of the degree to which design is collaborative,” Mac Namara says. “The book also provides a nice set of case studies for our students to see how different areas of expertise have to layer up to make something really complex. Building relationships with other experts is in itself an important skill—one that we, as instructors, can do a better job of preparing students for.” Amy Speach