Architecture and Engineering – a balanced equation

Claire Limoge-Schraen is at the meeting point of hard and soft science. She has degrees in architecture and structural engineering, as well as in opera singing and cello under her belt, and is now a graduate student at LMT-Cachan. Let’s just say she is well placed to bring scientific and architectural education closer together. She tells us more on DiscovHER!

Tell us a bit about your research.

In the short term I hope to be able to assess the structural vulnerability of our stone-built buildings, a large part of our heritage, in preparation for any eventual earthquakes. I’m looking to develop a hierarchical method that could be applied to a community’s entire built heritage, without having to preselect buildings according to non-structural factors, and progressively select the buildings calling for more advanced and very costly research. I’m developing tools that will enable local authorities to optimise the use of their resources for the upkeep of their heritage, and also a means for architects to determine whether the issue of seismic activity is significant in the context of their restoration projects.

In the longer term, I hope to include a catalogue of reinforcements adapted to each type of ruin, which will be scientifically tested and based on architectural principles, in particular with respect to international heritage preservation guidelines. I hope that this work, when applied to the day-to-day management of our built heritage, which contributes and bears witness to our shared history and the creation of our nation, will enhance its preservation and avoid losing parts of our heritage that can never be replaced. On the one hand, it will explain the catastrophic damage that can be caused by a one-in-a-hundred-year earthquake and could enable the actual risks to be taken into account. On the other hand, it will provide scientifically-based solutions and tools for those involved in preserving this heritage, who otherwise would not have the resources, to help them make the right choices.

What would you like to see happening in your field in the next few years?

In my field of research, I’d like to see the wall between architecture and science come down. I’d like to see the mistrust between architects and engineers give way to the benefits of cooperative working: architects could leverage digital prediction and structural diagnostics tools developed by civil engineers, while the latter would be opening themselves up to a much wider field of research and could draw on architects’ expertise in onsite diagnostics.

How did you discover your passion for science?

Scientific research doesn’t tend to be a childhood ambition. Although I did a science-based baccalaureate, it was a long time before I returned to science as a career. Initially I chose to study literature and music when preparing for the ENS entrance exams and at the conservatoire. Then I moved on to the more practical application of fine art – architecture. During these studies, I realised that there’s much more to science than what I had learned in my high school level math classes! For those who take steps to understand it, science is clear and concrete. It’s a pleasure to understand the whys and hows, and it’s also a valuable tool for other fields. I felt that in order to design a complete building that is both aesthetically pleasing and efficient, an architect could not disregard understanding its structure. So I did a structural engineering degree. For my finals I chose to combine my interest in the structural and seismic aspects with my long-standing affinity with heritage buildings. It was while working in this field that I discovered research in concrete terms – and I was hooked!

What is it like being a woman in a predominantly male environment?

Working on sites as a structural engineer, I found the environment much tougher than in the civil engineering research environment in a lab. Women first had to prove themselves worthy of the profession and demonstrate that they had the required knowledge and ability. In the research environment, I never felt that women’s work was more criticised or called into question than men’s. Having said that, when there are only 6-7% women in the workplace, the atmosphere tends to be more “macho”... Bawdy, male-chauvinist jokes are more common and a drink with colleagues after work can be a lot crazier. This kind of thing can make it harder for women to integrate or even put them off completely.

I would emphasise that the role of the boss (and I’ve only known male bosses so far) is crucial as it’s his attitude that sets the example.

Claire Limoge-Schraen received a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship in 2014.

For Women in Science

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