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ReEngineering the Engineer: Longing for the Good Ol’ Days of Engineering

Douglas Fitzpatrick on September 27, 2021 - in Articles, Column

I was recently talking with a friend of mine in the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) side of the industry. Several years ago, they acquired a small structural component to their office in a merger with another firm, and he was surprised by the quantity of software this little contingent needed on a regular basis. The MEP team really only used two software: something for BIM and something for their HVAC analysis. The structural folks had BIM software but also a slew of other software: some very specific, some very general, some material specific, some application specific—all from a lot of different software companies.

The MEP firm was rather large, so I don’t think their slim pickings of software was a cost-cutting measure like it might be for a new, small firm working from home trying to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the assortment of structural software is real, at least in our office, and I would guess other structural firms are no different.

We have a variety of types of licenses: floating and node-locked. Some software is used by everyone (Microsoft Office, Bluebeam, etc.), but everyone doesn’t need access to everything all the time. Sharing floating licenses is totally fine when possible and generally helps keep software-maintenance expenses down.

Of course, the amount of software and licenses we need also is contingent on our clients. Most are using BIM these days, but some are still using AutoCAD. Some are using really old versions, and some insist on the absolute latest version, which brings me to the point of this column.

Things That Make You Go Hmmm …

I attended a kick-off meeting for a music-building addition to an existing church built in the early 1980s. The music building is free standing, but the architect wants to capture the look of the existing building, which is understandable. During the meeting, the architect took a survey of software versions everyone had access to and asked if it was OK to use the latest version of BIM to do this project because, and I quote, “the new version allows them to model features from the existing building correctly for the new addition.”

Take a minute to let that scene sink in while you talk amongst yourselves …

The architect was basically saying that building features from the existing building they wanted to replicate on the new building—which were designed, drawn and built pre-BIM, pre-CAD, by hand—could only be conveyed to the contractor with a version of software that was 40 years in the making! Really?

A Nearly Lost Art

I think the art of being able to convey something by hand is disappearing. When I’m teaching someone in our office, I always need pencil and paper to draw and help them understand the issue. There seems to be something about drawing by hand that makes a better connection for learning. Maybe it’s the eye-hand part of it.

While upgrading to new software isn’t a deal breaker for most people, the wave of emotion that came over me was more of disappointment and the grim reality of what’s going on in our industry. Our task as designers, architects and engineers has always been first to analyze and then accurately convey that information to allow someone else to build it.

While I would never consider going back to hand drawing our construction documents, the ability to talk with someone and convey an idea by hand is still valuable. It’s shocking to me to see young engineers struggle with trying to “explain” their problem with a hand sketch. They can’t manage a perspective or isometric view. Parallel isn’t parallel. Scale of components isn’t consistent.

You don’t need CAD quality, but it needs to at least be close. To me, being able to draw something in a meeting by hand, live, says more about your engineering acuity than the ability to be able to model something in 3D.

The Times They Are A Changin’

Maybe I’m being the “old bag of air” in the room, yearning for the good ol’ days and lamenting as life accelerates before my very eyes and gets away from me. Perhaps on some things, but I don’t think this is one of them. The skill to be able to communicate in real time with someone right in front of you, by hand, will never lose its coolness. Is it the only answer? Of course not. But I think there’s a real connection in your brain and a deeper understanding when you can draw something by hand that conveys a thought.

I’m sure there’s someone still holding out that this computer thing will pass, and the slide rule will come back in favor; but the slide rule was surpassed because something came along that made the same calculations lightning fast. While 3D images from BIM certainly convey a lot of information in one shot, having the skill to physically draw something by hand will always hold its value. You can always find something to write with and on, but you don’t always have a computer. 

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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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