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

Paul McEntee

Author: Paul McEntee

A couple of years back we hosted a “Take your daughter or son to work day,” which was a great opportunity for our children to find out what their parents did. We had different activities for the kids to learn about careers and the importance of education in opening up career opportunities. People often ask me what I do for Simpson Strong-Tie and I sometimes laugh about how my son Ryan responded to a questionnaire he filled out that day:

Q.   What is your mom/dad's job?
A.   Goes and gets coffee and sits at his desk

Q.   What does your mom/dad actually do at work?
A.   Walks in the test lab and checks things

When I am not checking things in the lab or sitting at my desk drinking coffee, I manage Engineering Research and Development for Simpson Strong-Tie, focusing on new product development for connectors and lateral systems.

I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and I am a licensed Civil and Structural Engineer in California. Prior to joining Simpson Strong-Tie, I worked for 10 years as a consulting structural engineer designing commercial, industrial, multi-family, mixed-use and retail projects. I was fortunate in those years to work at a great engineering firm that did a lot of everything. This allowed me to gain experience designing with wood, structural steel, concrete, concrete block and cold-formed steel as well as working on many seismic retrofits of historic unreinforced masonry buildings.