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ReEngineering the Engineer: Engineers Are Experts at Following the Rules

Douglas Fitzpatrick on July 27, 2020 - in Articles, Column

Well, here we are in August. It’s hard to believe the year is more than half over, and many of us spent about two thirds of that time working out of our living rooms and kitchens. It’s almost become normal, although I know working that way isn’t going to be a good long-term solution for us—at least not our office.

We haven’t officially gone back to the office yet. A couple of our people went back as soon as they could. Most of the rest of us have children and working spouses, which makes things more complicated. I considered starting back in some staged fashion around the end of June, but I wanted to wait to see how the Memorial Day weekend was going to play out. We all now know how that went.

Numb, but Learning

I admit I’ve become a bit numb to the pandemic—not disinterested or uncaring, just numb. I found it interesting, almost fascinating, in the beginning. There were numbers, percentages and statistics (the things we engineers love)—not just for the United States but the entire world—for topics foreign to most of us. But now the continuous reporting of infection and death rates, implications of going back to school or not, and the impact this has had on so many people borders on depressing. If the virus doesn’t get you, the anxiety will.

To me, however, one thing has become clear: Based on the spike in infections after Memorial Day (and probably July 4th), a clear and coordinated set of rules to follow would have helped tremendously. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but it appears that simply wearing a facemask in public places and practicing social distancing dramatically helps curb the spread. How simple is that? Perhaps we could have avoided the shutdown by doing just those two things. We will never know, but I’m sure historians will have fun picking a side.

Rule Followers by Nature

Fortunately, for us engineers, following rules is one of the things we know how to do really well. We can’t practice engineering without agreeing to follow the rules. And those rules are in place for the same reason as those for a pandemic: to protect the general public.

The rules for a pandemic seem relatively trivial: purchase mask, open package, put on mask, stay 6 feet away from people. The rules for engineering are significantly more complicated, and we don’t get to exercise our “constitutional right” to pick and choose which rules we think apply to us individually. Follow them all, or find another profession.

We have material codes that guide us on how to analyze all the materials we work with: steel, concrete, masonry, wood and all the subgroups that go with them. We have building codes that specify how loads are applied to our structures for all the different regions in the country: high seismic, high wind, high snow. We have tech notes to provide practical guidance. Then there are the load combinations that put it all together based on statistics and probabilities. It’s a lot to understand and follow. As trivial and second nature as it seems after we understand it all, it’s quite an accomplishment to master these rules, and it’s something we all should be proud of. It’s not for everyone.

Mastering Rules Is Art

For a young engineer, trying to tie all this together highlights just how complicated our world of rules really is. Although they may know all the rules, putting them together to pick the right structure type for a building, for example, is really more of an art.

Before we get started, a slew of other decisions already made impact our decisions. Based on the building’s intended use, its area, its height, the use of sprinklers or not, cost, and perhaps local preferences, the architect follows his or her set of rules to select a particular building construction type.

After we have the architect’s ground rules, we look at seismic implications. For us on the East Coast, that involves determining the local seismic demands at the project site and then wading through a chart with more than 80 different types of lateral systems to choose from, all of which have to complement the decisions already made by the architect. Each one of those also comes with its own set of special rules.

For a young engineer, it can be overwhelming. Even if they’re familiar with all the rules, it’s a lot to digest the first couple times. Eventually a pattern develops for work in certain areas and types of buildings, but we still have to check the rules every time we start a new project.

The COVID-19 pandemic will ultimately fade into a distant memory, and the rules we used to defend against it will most likely not be necessary anymore. We don’t talk about the 1918 Spanish Flu anymore despite its severity. However, we will always need to follow our engineering rules. They help us fulfill our duty to protect the public in all things we do. Helping young engineers understand how all that works is the best defense for our industry.


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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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