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Structural Solutions: Engineering without a Net

Douglas Fitzpatrick on January 31, 2016 - in Column

I was flipping around the cable channels a while back and happened across a show about “The Flying Wallendas.” I had heard of the Wallendas as a kid, but I didn’t realize they had been performing since the late 1700s, a remarkable seven generations. In the 1920s, however, Karl Wallenda put the family on the map when they started performing their balancing acts without nets.

Nik Wallenda, the most-recent performing Wallenda, has taken it a step further and also practices without a safety net or harness. His great-grandfather Karl taught him that a net creates a false sense of security; lacking a net forces him to block out all distractions and to constantly be aware of what’s around him.

Nik wants his practice to be as real as the performance. It forces him to think differently each time he steps on the rope to perform. His mind and body are constantly on alert and paying attention, so the performance is simply an extension of his practicing, and it comes to him as second nature.

Sharing Data

As my firm started to understand how we could leverage BIM internally, we also noticed there were opportunities for using our structural data externally. The obvious first use would be interference detection with other designers, but there were also thoughts of minimizing the data recreation inherent in traditional workflows. BIM and technology have made our projects go faster, but perhaps there was also a way to make our projects better—more efficient.

Think about what’s still happening today: although we have some great tools, we model in 3D, “dumb it down” to 2D drawings, only to have someone else (such as a steel detailer) recreate all that 3D data from scratch. To make projects more efficient, we have to share structural data to eliminate the recreation of data by someone else, which brings us to a fork in the road.

Risk Avoidance

I’ve witnessed our industry’s seemingly breathtaking transformation from hand-drawn documents to electronic CAD drawings and now to 3D BIM. However, through that transformation, there seems to have been an equally radical change in our tolerance for risk.

Every conference I go to has a session on the risks of sharing information or a lawyer talking about contract language to shed risk or a vendor talking about how their software can encrypt files to only allow certain people to do certain things, etc. If you don’t think it’s that bad, ask an engineer for a CAD file or his structural BIM. If you get anything, it won’t be without signing a waiver that says something like “you can use this information, but we’re not responsible for the accuracy.” Keep in mind, that’s the same information someone put their seal on.

And we wonder why engineers “don’t get no respect.” We increasingly ask for more, give back less, demand more contingencies, and ultimately take less and less responsibility.

Taking Responsibility

In that environment, how could my firm expect to change how things work by giving someone something we tell them they can’t trust? How could we expect anyone to want to change with us if they feel they have to look for the “needle in the haystack” in the information they get? They would much rather do it themselves and check for their own mistakes.

To effect real change, we turned our structural model over to fabricators and detailers without a waiver. No legal jargon about shedding responsibility. No CYA paperwork. No hunting for needles in a haystack. Model it correctly in the first place, and simply hand it over.

This wasn’t something that became an edict in a Monday meeting with a BIM manager leading the charge; we didn’t switch our thought process overnight. As we started down the BIM road many years ago, we saw the possibility and opportunity for sharing data downstream and have been working on getting not just the plans correct but also the model correct from the beginning.

Working without a net puts our engineers in a different frame of mind when doing their work. They know they have to get it right.


We trained our engineers to be disciplined about modeling early in the transition to BIM, and it has become second nature for them. They work with the “end game” in mind: the performance, where benefit and value become reality. With the proper early mindset, the leap to no waiver wasn’t that difficult—we were already wired to do it correctly.

Much like Nik Wallenda, working without a net puts our engineers in a different frame of mind when doing their work. They know they have to get it right.

If you routinely hide behind a waiver because your models are poor and you don’t want to expend the extra energy to provide good data, this concept is a quantum leap. Start out by instilling greater discipline on design, and take small leaps on data sharing with trusted partners, and soon you’ll feel comfortable taking larger leaps of model sharing without worrying about a net.

About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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