Oriana Fenwick

The structural engineering firm Silman (led by Kirk Mettam, executive vice president; Joe Tortorella, president; and Nat Oppenheimer, executive vice president) has helped build or restore some of our most revered buildings, including Fallingwater—a legacy that earned it a Collaborative Achievement Award. Here the firm responds to our architect’s version of the Proust questionnaire.

What has been the firm’s most rewarding collaboration?
Too many great collaborations to single out one or two—and each partner, in each generation, has their own stories. The greatest collaboration has been within the firm. The leadership has evolved in a way that we regularly challenge each other and grow together while celebrating our differences.

What does an ideal collaboration look like?
An ideal collaboration generally starts with a well understood mission, set by both the owner and design team (including the builder and their subs) that understands the mission. If all parties truly commit to a basic premise, then tough decisions (which will always occur) are able to be made based on the shared goals, rather than an individual party’s interest. True, lasting collaboration means a lot of compromise, and this can only happen effectively when weighed against a mission or goal and not against each other.

What is your firm’s approach to working with architects?
Ultimately, we believe in the power of architecture. We understand that architecture can be a vitally powerful mix of art and science. While an engineering mind can often help lend order to an architect’s art, it must not simply translate art into science. Often, we pride ourselves on “speaking the architect’s language” (that language is different with different architects).

Joe Tortorella
courtesy Silman Joe Tortorella

What is the importance of structural engineering to architecture?
At its simplest, structural engineering can help bring out inherent order within the architecture or support a critical disorder within a design. At a higher level, a good structural engineer can facilitate evolution within the design by asking questions of the architect, in their language, that forces them to consider, interrogate, and refine the design. Rather than simply place columns and beams from the outset, great collaborations between the engineer and architect (which often occur early in the process) will often lead to reconsideration of column and beam placement altogether; or the prioritization of one over the other; or the role of the structural materials within the design.

What is the greatest ambition the firm has yet to achieve?
Being recognized equally for our work in new construction and specialty structures as we are for our work in preservation.

What is the greatest challenge facing structural engineers today?
The commodification of our work. The idea that artificial intelligence can simply replace the collaboration experience. It is very difficult to convey the unique aspects of a good collaboration and, often, owners don’t trust teams that are too close to each other. Many, therefore, opt to assume that any group of firms with good reputations can be put together and collaborate without regard to the benefits that long, productive working relationships generate.

Nat Oppenheimer
courtesy Silman Nat Oppenheimer

What is the most promising recent area of development in the profession?
The digital revolution has been beneficial to the profession in several tangible ways. While it has led to some negative outcomes (schedules that are often too fast, and the belief that one can simply move things around without consequence late in the design process), overall, it has allowed us to return to a place where we can spend more time on the behavior of the structure. And, through that, we can gain great insights into efficiencies of design, rather than looking for efficiencies only on an element-by-element basis.

What’s the firm’s biggest strength?
That we see every project as unique and start every project with no preconceived notions. We bring engineering rigor and a large toolbox of tried and true design approaches to the table and work hard to assemble a series of those known approaches into something unique that has never been done. Since we are often the first trades on site, it is imperative that we give the owner and builder the confidence that what they are about to do is achievable and yet still unique.

What’s its biggest weakness?
That nothing we do is repetitive—a weakness at least to our bottom line.

Kirk Mettam
courtesy Silman Kirk Mettam

What’s your idea of engineering misery?
Simply being asked repeatedly to reduce structural elements by a pound here or a pound there rather than whether the overall structural approach even makes sense.

What is the biggest change coming to the firm in the next year?
Considering that we are writing this while all sheltered in place, the biggest changes are likely to develop minute by minute over the next few months. If we had written this a few weeks earlier, we would have told you that our biggest challenge is making sure that the firm succeeds into the third generation of leadership. In fact, let’s keep that as the challenge to come—that the firm will emerge stronger than ever into that third generation of leadership.

What’s the one question you wish we had asked (and the answer to that question)?
What does the future of collaboration look like at Silman? We are a firm whose success has come from creating markets where none existed, and we believe that this is the only way forward. Yes, we are exploring new boundaries in the areas of digital design/AI/design visualization, new materials and construction techniques, as well as collaboration tools. But we are also always looking beyond the visible horizon and taking time to imagine how we can contribute to the evolution of our craft, always with a focus on the humanity in engineering.

What does winning the Collaborative Achievement Award mean to you?
It’s a wonderful recognition that this simple idea that founder Bob Silman had and the present leadership promulgate—to collaborate with joy at a high level—could create a national reputation, attract an unbelievably talented staff, and foster 54 years of joy.