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Wood panel wall sections with large spaces between planks and sections, light shining through in room with raw floor

Visualizing and Celebrating Building Systems

Justin McAdam

I’ve always been jealous of architects. Take a look at any architectural magazine and you’ll see beautiful images of light-filled spaces and glorious, sculptural forms. Page after page of textures, shadows, and sunlight. The images are amazing.

Illuminated letter T in box with lights on sides inside of partially constructed theater with no seats, molding on balcony

State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ. Photo © DLR Group

As a mechanical engineer, I’m not so lucky. We engineers can be a bit self-defeating when it comes to taking our own photographs to share and discuss. We’re quick to focus on a microscopic view of something that needs improvement but frequently neglect images that showcase the macroscopic view of a system that works wonderfully. Having more big-picture, celebratory images would be helpful internal educational resources for designers – and to show clients what’s possible for their future designs.

Changing the Narrative

One of the great things about working at DLR Group is our personal development grant, or PDG, program. This program gives an allotment of time and money to explore an individual passion project. I was the fortunate recipient of a PDG grant in 2021 and used those resources to explore the way we visually document mechanical engineering.

Lessons Learned

One thing I understand better through this grant is the importance of composition. I think we’ve all seen examples of “industrial” photography that depicts an array of neatly stacked pipes or some intricate arrangement of gears and pulleys. I love images like that from an artistic perspective, but they rarely give the viewer insight as to how that equipment functions. Rarer still is an image that tells the story of how that infrastructure provides some type of direct benefit to the human experience.


Backstage view of State Theater looking upwards to wood panel ceiling with light shining through. Bricks, right, seating left

State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ. Photo © DLR Group

Perhaps my favorite image of this project attempts to tell such a story. DLR Group was tasked with the design challenge to renovate the historic State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. The effort included modifications and upgrades to theatrical systems, auditorium seating, lobbies, restrooms, finishes, signage, and HVAC systems. The image in question was taken on the back corner of the theater stage during the renovation. The left half of the picture shows the audience chamber where people would one day sit and enjoy a production. The right half of the image shows all the behind-the-scenes theatrical, mechanical, and electrical equipment working in unison to make such a production possible. Theater or not, every building has a production crew of sorts that pushes buttons and pulls levers so the everyday occupants can simply enjoy the space without thinking about the action taking place behind the scenes.

Another key project of this PDG was to hold a company-wide building systems imagery contest. As noted before, many engineering images are related to troubleshooting or documentation, but there are a lot of missed opportunities to celebrate images of successful designs. Employee-owners from across the country were incentivized to submit their own photographs, diagrams, and other visual resources that highlight building systems on DLR Group projects. Prize money was awarded across 7 categories. The contest resulted in a far greater awareness of the visual resources we have, and promote ongoing efforts to create even more.

Both photography and building systems design share features that are generally associated with positive outcomes: patterns, repetition, simplicity, elegance. My hope is that by continuing to celebrate building systems imagery, we can create a feedback loop wherein an elegant design leads to a compelling and discussion-worthy photograph. And this will lead to an educational resource that will fuel the next great design.

Explore how engineering supports our integrated design process.

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Justin McAdam
Connect with me to start a conversation ➔ Justin McAdam, Senior Mechanical Engineer

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