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  • 1.  If you See Something, Say Something

    Posted 03-26-2024 10:20 AM

    This is a familiar refrain in the security domain and now structural engineering? I stumbled across this article on preventing America's aging buildings from collapsing by Abieyuwa Aghayere, Professor of Structural Engineering at Drexel University, and it is an excellent read. In light of four recent building failures coupled with inconsistent or lax laws and ordinances, Professor Aghayere makes the point that residents must adopt a more vigilant and proactive approach to identify and prevent structural problems.

    The need for public awareness and vigilance is an interesting commentary on the art of structural engineering - as it ultimately comes back to us - and should be a pause for all structural engineers. Some will say these were old buildings, and the failures were inspection and maintenance issues, but the profession's credibility is at risk of erosion one building failure at a time.

    As a profession, we put a lot of effort into maintaining and updating design standards. Are we doing enough when it comes to standards for inspecting and maintaining aged infrastructure and advocating for laws and ordinances that force owners to take responsible action?

    Mitch Winkler P.E.(inactive), M.ASCE
    Houston, TX

  • 2.  RE: If you See Something, Say Something

    Posted 04-04-2024 10:36 AM


    I found the article very insightful, but I wonder if we're asking too much of a public numb to visible damage in a field where the difference between critical issues and cosmetic damage is not obvious.  I love explaining lateral-torsional buckling because it's so intuitive once you can picture the behavior, but the implications (I need to reinforce/brace the beam because I'm adding intermediate support?) are not at all obvious.  The drawback of the public understanding that structural engineering is complicated and requires experts, is that laypeople are less likely to play armchair structural engineer when we need them to.  Moreover, living in a built environment filled with noticeable damage and serviceability issues means that people's intuition for scary structural behavior is constantly invalidated by their lived experience: if people really started reporting what they see, they'd have to flag exposed rebar, severe section loss, bouncy bridge girders, visible rot, failed expansion joints, and soft floors every day.

    To your question though, I'd be interested in seeing requirements for owners to look after the health of their buildings.  Some existing building failures are from issues that no engineer has ever seen, but far too many make it to the point of having an engineering report in hand that raises serious concerns, but not the "last mile" of doing anything about it in time.  One challenge is that if you make investigation reports legally binding for owners, many owners will avoid having one done.  I believe part of the post-Surfside legal reform in Florida was to require that engineering reports commissioned by building owners and condo boards be made available to all residents: a middle ground option that minimizes unintended consequences.  I think this is an excellent idea, but there is room to go further to protect the safety of the public, hopefully without doing more harm than good.

    A cultural shift towards maintenance would go a long way here.  For decades, we have eschewed maintenance in favor of newness and innovation.  There's a movement in Science and Technology Studies (STS) to shift away from that model, but I don't know that it has made its way into prominence in political dialogue.  (If you're curious, this article lines up the argument nicely: https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more)  When I've gone out to existing buildings to investigate cracks or soft spots, the owners are generally interested in whether they need to do anything about the damage.  I think damage should be repaired regardless of whether it presents imminent structural concern.  Maybe the first step is to keep up our built environment, and then we can ask the public to be our eyes and ears.

    Christian Parker P.E., M.ASCE
    Structural Project Engineer
    Chicago IL