By: Kevin Duffy
In the age of political correctness, I’m going to put a stereotype out there that pretty much everyone will agree with: Engineers are sticklers for the rules. We understand that from the general public’s point of view, this could be seen as unnecessary or even downright annoying. What is the big deal if you let a few cracked bricks slide on a FISP report, or the beam isn’t installed with the specified bolts, right? We’ll let you know, but first let’s take a look at the National Society of Professional Engineer’s Code of Ethics. Most professional organizations have a code of ethics and Engineering is no different. In it, the number 1 Canon is “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” There is a halfhearted joke amongst the industry that in medicine, if a Doctor messes up, one person may die; but if an engineer makes a mistake hundreds of people could die. At this point, I’m sure many of the people reading this article are thinking that I am speaking in hyperbole. For those people, I urge you to look up the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, or the more recent Florida International Bridge Collapse. While these cases are certainly the extreme, they highlight the worst case scenario that every engineer thinks about when posed with a design change or with field conditions that differ from what was expected.
Taking the code of ethics into account, let’s answer a few common questions within our niche of the engineering and construction industries. Why isn’t my building just safe, it’s just a few cracked brick, or 1 bad lintel? Won’t they last another 5 years? The simple answer is maybe, but there really is no way of knowing. We an use our judgement and expertise, which is why it’s important to hire a firm that is skilled and experienced in identifying FISP conditions, but that is a topic for another day. if we can’t be certain that the condition won’t completely fail before the next FISP (Local Law 11/98) report will be filed then we must report it as a potential danger to the public, whether that be as an unsafe or Safe With a Repair And Maintenance Program (SWARMP) condition.
Another question that is popular among contractors this time of year is, how come I have to rip out and replace the masonry work I did when it dropped below 40 degrees (or 32 degrees) soon after installation? The simple answer is that the bond between the brick and the mortar did not set sufficiently and therefore could fail prematurely. We aren’t saying that it definitely will fail, but it’s not something we are willing to risk our hard earned license for if it does.
The last example of a type of question we get asked from time to time is, why is it a big deal that the specified anchors or bolts weren’t used? There are a multitude of factors that go into the answer of this question.
Anything ranging from the diameter of the bolts, to the material could be the reason why. If a change is made from a mild steel bolt to a stainless steel bolt the stainless may not have the same capacity so it could potentially fail if overloaded. If the anchors are thinner than what was designed they may not have the factor of safety that is required by the building code.
Hopefully this article has shed a little light on why Engineers can be so uptight about certain requirements, it’s not because we don’t care that it will cost a little extra money or be headache to an Owner or Contractor, it’s because we have an obligation to look out for the greater good of the public and ensure that each and every project we design and oversee lasts is built according to the building code.