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ReEngineering the Engineer: The Needle in the Haystack

Douglas Fitzpatrick on May 23, 2022 - in Articles, Column

Every now and then, I find myself reminiscing about how we designed buildings back in the “dark ages” when I was a young engineer. Our engineering tools were much less sophisticated, unless you consider a slide rule sophisticated. When you think about some of the innovative buildings that were designed back when high-rise construction started, the engineering effort required to pull off some of those signature buildings is remarkable.

In those days, all designs were recorded on sheets of mylar, a clear sheet of polyethylene that you drew on with a pencil (for those not old enough to have seen it). The only way to get information to the other consultants on the team was to “run prints.” If you drew the short straw, and it was your job to run prints, it was a good day if you left work without an ammonia headache.

Although we had this seemingly crude process, buildings were built and information was shared. Communication had to be good when your only form of transferring information was a blueprint. Drawing by hand was painstaking; it was inherently slow, and everything had to be drawn. There were no cells/blocks, no copy parallel, no copying a floor plan and deleting a bay for the third-floor step back.

Perhaps because it was so laborious, people actually talked about what they needed to draw before they drew it. All the consultants actually consulted with each other so they only had to draw it once. They identified a problem—and solved it—before it was ever committed to mylar. And what was drawn was only what was necessary to convey the thought—nothing more, nothing less.

New Technology Creates New Challenges

I distinctly remember, however, noticing something changing about the way we were working starting in the late 1990s as CAD was becoming prevalent. It wasn’t just that we were creating information faster, although we were. Our way of communicating was changing, and I remember it being a sinking feeling—not a good one. It had a helpless quality to it.

Although we gained drafting efficiencies, an ancillary benefit was the ability to transfer information easily. No more prints required; simply send a CAD file to someone, and they have the latest version. What an awesome concept. You could have updated information from an email!

Unfortunately, we often were left to find the “needle in the haystack”—those things that changed from the last copy of the file we received. It felt like verbal communication had slowed, and someone was just throwing their drawings over the fence.

I don’t think it was malicious. It had become so easy to iterate through design ideas in CAD that it was almost impossible for the person working through the design to track what they had changed by the time they settled on a solution. It seemed to resort to: “They’ll figure it out.” Not helpful …

A Much Bigger Haystack

BIM now has taken that challenge and escalated it by another degree of freedom. At least with CAD, we were looking for the needle in a 2D haystack; now it’s 3D—and that’s not just 50 percent more difficult. Granted, the haystack is all in one place, one file, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Sure, you can cut sections through the model you get, but, if you start looking too closely, you realize the part you need to understand is just a mish-mash of modeling that doesn’t make any sense. It looks good far away until you try to figure out how to make it work.

Or, equally as bad, the person who sent you the model does you a “favor” and cuts a gazillion sections for you. They label them 1, 2, 3; but you can’t tell which ones are real or which are investigations, because none of them have annotations, and they’ve stripped out all the sheets—for some reason—that could at least provide some context as to which are relevant.

What Are We Supposed To Do Now?

If there was a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, one has been the adoption or acceptance of screen-sharing tools. Yes, they existed before COVID-19, but they really came into their own when we were forced to use them. Personally, I found them very helpful. It’s much easier to show someone a problem than try to explain it. Letting them see what you see, and talk through it in real-time, is powerful and saves time.

If the secret to real estate is location, location, location; the secret to finding the needle in the haystack is communication, communication, communication. Take advantage of virtual screen-sharing tools to discuss issues with your design partners.

Don’t waste time trying to figure out what someone meant in his or her model, or guess and do a bunch of unnecessary work. Set up a virtual meeting, and ask them to walk you through it. You’d be surprised how quickly you can get it resolved and keep your design moving forward. As they say, a picture is worth 1,000 words. 

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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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