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From the Editor: There’s No Replacement for ‘Learning by Doing’

Mark Scacco on August 30, 2017 - in Articles, Column

I recently visited a job site of a friend of mine who is a construction manager. I met with him to discuss the use of emerging drone and reality-capture technologies, but I ended up tagging along as he crisscrossed the site, solving one problem after another.

In one case, the footing for a wall wasn’t poured in the correct location, because the arc of the wall was “eyeballed in” in the CAD file. In another issue, a sewer was 12 feet from where it was supposed to be—the construction staking was off. And in a third case, a stone masonry wall was being built in the wrong location, because dimensions on the digital model didn’t match the linework. As a technology consultant and engineer, I was doubly frustrated with what appeared to be a lack of engineering skill or experience.

As I contemplated this, my friend took me to another area of the site. But at this location, there wasn’t a problem. In fact, no one was working in this area of perfectly graded and blanketed detention basins, which also served as a botanical garden display.

“This all required very precise grading, because the plantings along the shore can only live in water depths within a certain range,” he noted. “This was all graded with GPS [guided] machines.”

Degrees of Engineering Separation

With these examples fresh in my head, I was reminded of something 20 years of experience taught me: the best indicator of success is when the person wielding the technology is as close as possible to the thing being built/modeled/analyzed. The technology used to perfectly grade the detention basins was wielded by the person operating the machine and by the excavator’s office staff who created the DTM models. The operator and office tech had a close encounter of the first and second kind, respectively, with the earth that shapes the ponds.

For the problem with the wall foundation, how many degrees of separation existed between that footing and the designer who drew it on a computer screen in an office somewhere? Not only is it unlikely that designer ever saw the site, the specific location where the wall will go or the excavated footing trench, has he or she ever seen any trench excavation, footing pour or masonry work?

When I graduated from college and started designing, there was no requirement from my university or employer that I have field experience—or even observational experience—and this cuts to the point: In young engineers, architects, designers and their kin, there’s a major disconnect between what happens in the design office and how those actions translate into real, (ahem) concrete objects in the built world.

After staring for weeks at the lines, circles and hexagons that represent the utility system for a 1,000-lot subdivision, it’s easy to lose that connection and see it as “moving shapes and numbers” to achieve a specific goal. Of course, there has always been some disconnect between field and office, but with the advent of digital reality capture (i.e., surveying), modeling and staking, the potential for errors increases dramatically. Like a knife, depending on how it’s wielded, technology can do a lot of good or a lot of harm.

What’s the Solution?

Although it’s impractical and unnecessary for designers to see every project, they can and should see as many as possible in the field. I recommend the following: Get live experience watching the item being built or installed. See what problems arise and which solutions are possible. For example, see what a 6-foot-diameter manhole looks like with five 48-inch pipe connections (hint: think of Swiss cheese). See how “insignificant” items—such as whether “B/W” is called out in the legend as “Bottom of Wall” or “Back of Wall”—can mean the difference between a footing installed at the correct location or your firm buying that footing.

The institutions from which new designers graduate can do a lot to alleviate the problem. Internships, lab courses and other ways of gaining field experience should be required for graduation. A certain amount of field experience also should be required to obtain professional licensure (and possibly to keep it). And wherever possible and practical, design firms should facilitate on-the-clock field experience opportunities for new graduates.

Lest I be a hypocrite, I plan to more often practice what I preach. To that extent, my company, Engineered Efficiency, has embarked on several initiatives to provide more hands-on consulting and implementation services to our AEC customers; to more-frequently “get into the field” to see firsthand what the problem is and which technology is best suited to solve it; and ensure that those experiences and workflows are available to all users of our eLearning platform, Wareflix.com.

Mark Scacco

About Mark Scacco

Mark Scacco, P.E., is the Editor in Residence for Informed Infrastructure magazine and since 2001 has been an AEC industry consultant. He is the president of Scacco LLC and can be reached at mark.scacco@scaccollc.com.

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