What’s Most Important To You As A Structural Engineer?

I am attending the 2012 SEAOC-SEANM Convention in Santa Fe, New Mexico this week. I did not realize that Santa Fe is the oldest state capitol in the U.S., first inhabited by Spanish settlers in 1607, and then settled by Don Pedro de Peralta in 1609-1610. The Palace of the Governors, built in 1610, served as the main government building in Santa Fe for nearly 300 years. The current capitol building, known as the Roundhouse, is the only round state capitol building in the U.S. Our airport shuttle driver used to be a tour guide, so we learned a lot on the drive in.

St. Francis Cathedral, Santa Fe. By Bill Johnson, 2005. Licensed under Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

The first session I attended today was a discussion of recent earthquakes. James Mwangi Ph.D, PE, Associate Professor of Architectural Engineering at Cal Poly, discussed his project to develop sustainable reconstruction practices for masonry and concrete structures in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Then Joe Maffei, Ph.D, SE, talked about lessons learned about concrete wall design from the 2010 Chile earthquake.

I don’t think it was intentional, but the juxtaposition of these two presentations was interesting to me. Two major earthquakes in the same year in countries with very different construction practices. Haiti has no real building code enforcement, limited inspection, and limited access to building materials and skilled construction workers. Chile, on the other hand, has a modern building code with concrete provisions similar to ACI 318, and skilled engineers and builders.

Listening to Dr. Mwangi and Dr. Maffei present got me thinking about what is most important in creating a safe, strong building that can survive these natural disasters. As a designer, I took code enforcement and special inspections for granted. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. I think structural engineers would agree that code enforcement, special inspections, and structural observations are critical to ensure that buildings are constructed in accordance with the plans.

When designing a building, I always spent the majority of my time putting together a complete set of drawings with clear details. Calculations were important to size members, define the loads and determine how the loads distributed. You need the details to define that load path for the contractor. Given the choice to do more calculations or draw more details – and budgets force you to make that choice on every project – I would always choose more details.

But is that how you feel? What about calculations? How do you prioritize what’s most important to you in designing a safe, strong structure? Let me know by posting a comment.

– Paul

8 thoughts on “What’s Most Important To You As A Structural Engineer?

  1. Paul – I agree with you that more details in a construction drawing set is more useful to ENSURE that the structure is built according to your intent. With that said, If the details are not backed by concise calculations then they are not doing a complete job. 99% of projects are served well by standard details, when a special circumstance requires additional detailing; It is my belief that calculations come first – then specialized details, primarily to explain to the contractor, what those calculations interpret to in the construction.

  2. I agree with your observations regarding the importance of enforcement and inspections, but wanted to add some insight with Haiti.  I was part of the US team of engineers which worked with the UN and Haitian government to perform the red-tagging and repair efforts. 

    The primary problem in Haiti seemed to the complete lack of awareness by the general public and average builder of how poor the buildings would perform when an earthquake hit. Unfortunately most of the Haitian people are simply rebuilding exactly the same as before because they don’t know better. 

    In the case of Haiti the building codes already exist, and knowledgeable Haitian engineers and contractors are available.  Unfortunately without code enforcement or inspectors, well designed builidngs only happen when the owner insists on it, and selects a team with the knowledge and experience to do so.  In this situation the most effective way of improving structural safety is to raise public awareness and generate demand for better buildings.

    • Thanks for your comments – I agree, public awareness is key. Dr. Mwangi’s paper focused a lot on the training efforts his group implemented in Haiti to educate building professionals and home owners about how to rebuild better and safer earthquake and hurricane resistant buildings.

  3. I have always felt that the bigger part of engineering is defining the problem. Paying attention to the details is essential to defining the problem. All the calculations in the world will not help if you have not adequating determined what you are trying to build. Details also help the designer determine if the structure is actually buildable.

  4. It seems to me that one of the issues that faces our practice today is the overuse or overdependence upon typical details and requiring the contractor to correctly interpret where to apply them.  I believe that more job specific details usually translates into a better constructed building.

    • Job specific details are the best. The mis-use of non-specific “typical” details was common even when drafting was done by hand and typical details were photocopied and stickybacked onto the drawings. The ease of recycling details with CAD software seems to have exacerbated the issue in the last 15 to 20 years.

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