ORIGIN: Starting the Conversation

40 for 40: 40 Insights from Tom Wallace to Celebrate 40 Years Part 3 – Structural Engineering and Technology

06.16.21 by Krista Looney
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A lot has happened in 40 years – especially when it comes to technology. This week, we get Tom Wallace’s thoughts on how technology has impacted structural engineering since Wallace Engineering’s inception – for better and for worse – and where he sees the future of the industry heading.

17) In your opinion, what have been the most significant advancements in structural engineering over the past 40 years?

It’s hard to ignore the advances of digital and computer technologies over the past several decades, so Tom’s response might not come as a surprise.

“3D Structural Design Programs and BIM software. Both design and construction have benefited enormously from the speed and accuracy of these tools.”

Additionally, other technologies have drastically improved design professionals’ ability to document existing building conditions. Tom noted that Wallace Engineering was on the forefront of implementing infrared technology to inspect grouting of masonry walls. Moving forward, he believes processes such as drone imaging or Lidar scanning “will become a standard in our industry that will save time and improve accuracy for measuring existing buildings.”

18) What don’t you miss about structural engineering or office life in the ‘80s?

“I do not miss the large amount of hand-calculations and hand-drafting that we used to do. I think it’s good to have those skills but I think it’s really nice to not have to use them all the time...Frees up our time to use our brains more and do a better job of design”

Technology has not only made calculations and drafting more efficient, it has also helped speed up the design process by eliminating certain manual tasks. Tom lamented how he could sometimes spend half a day just signing and sealing page after page of a dozen or more hard copy drawing sets - a task that can be done digitally today. He also recalled a lot of time spent summing up dimensions on architectural drawings to ensure everything added up. Now, CADD programs can automatically update dimension strings when changes are made.

Tom also appreciates how the internet has taken some mystery out of existing site conditions.

“I do not miss asking someone to go to a site and take pictures and give descriptions of the terrain so we can determine the wind classification for a building or guessing what the terrain conditions are. We can now do that with GoogleEarth!”

19) New doesn’t always mean better. Is there anything you do miss about structural engineering or office life in the ‘80s?

In Tom’s opinion, the age of remote offices, computerization, and accelerated schedules has certainly created some modern challenges for engineers.

“When our office was small enough for everyone to fit in one room, it was easy to keep up with what everyone was doing and provide assistance when you could tell someone was having a problem with a design or a client. There were far fewer meetings required.

“Also, when engineers were doing their own drafting by hand, they were able to get their heads into the job more completely than now...Nevertheless, I think the accuracy and productivity of CADD or BIM drafting has many more positives than hand drafting.

“Finally, there was always time pressure, but expectations to start and finish a job were stretched out significantly compared to today. You had more time to think about problem solving and how you were going to approach a project.”

20) Technology has undoubtedly made engineering more efficient, but what are the downsides or challenges of more advanced technology?

“I miss the simpler building codes and design standards that we had in the 1970s and 1980s. I think the complexity of the newer codes and standards make it much easier to miss something and make mistakes.”

While Tom acknowledges that new codes contain a number of improvements, such as more detailed wind loads, that stem from experience and research, he believes the increasing complexities make it significantly harder to ensure code compliance. It’s become as important as ever to stay up to date with new codes and understand at least the basic principles behind provisions and how they can affect design.

“I would be someone who would enjoy having a StarTrek-like computer where I could say ‘Hey Alexa, what’s the wind load on this corner of the building?’ and it would know all the details. But at the same time, if you don’t have a feel for that, you’re going to get in trouble.”

21) What advice do you have for young engineers with regards to balancing implementation of computer models vs. old school hand calcs?

“I think it is important to have the skill and ability to do enough hand calculations to know your modeling is correct and that the answers make sense. Total reliance on computer calculations without a feel for whether or not the answer is correct will likely lead to errors and possibly failures.”

For his first structural forensics project, Tom said he was called to investigate a large concrete beam that had begun cracking and deflecting shortly after construction. Upon review, he determined the beam had been severely under-reinforced - the result of a faulty design. He ended up finding 60+ design errors, most being related to computer modelling mistakes that had not been caught.

Tom hopes young and experienced engineers alike will stay diligent on understanding and checking computer outputs.

“See if the reactions are right, check a few members, that sort of thing, rather than just blindly trusting a computer.”

22) What do you believe are the biggest or most important issues facing the structural engineering community in the near future?

“I suspect the biggest issue going forward will be finding new, well-educated engineers to do all of the work that needs to be done. Combine that with the commoditization of engineering that has been happening for a while, and we have a BIG challenge in the future.”

Tom noted he has routinely fielded calls from foreign design firms offering low priced drafting or engineering services. He worries outsourcing engineering may become more common as work demands outpace available engineers, and U.S. companies may lose control of their quality.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done, but the pressure to do it fast and cheap along with handing it off to third parties is kind of a scary thing. But if we don’t have enough educated engineers available to hire in the United States, we’re going to have a problem with that.”

23) What excites you about the future of structural engineering?

“I think the challenge of net-zero construction and energy conservation is an exciting direction our industry is moving toward. Engineers have always wanted to do more with less.

“I also think the possibilities of kinetic architecture, engineering, and sculptures will be more prevalent in the future and exciting to work on.”

Tom went on to passionately describe a few kinetic architectural innovations that have piqued his interest: residential buildings that rotate throughout the day, allowing you to wake up to a morning sunrise and catch the evening sunset, or buildings that can “walk” to another location.

“As design tools become more robust and easy to use, engineers and architects can focus on creative design solutions that are interesting to live and work in, with a positive impact on the planet.”

24) What concerns you about the future of structural engineering?

“I am pretty optimistic about the future of structural engineering. However, I do worry that other professions are more lucrative than structural engineering and because of that, there may be many potentially great engineers that will be lured away from our profession for more money and less responsibility.

“On the other hand, what other professions are out there where your clients are the most sophisticated, creative and forward-thinking people in the world? Who have the assets to build a building or structure from scratch and are willing to trust you to solve the design, physics, and logistics problems and make their ideas a reality?”

Tom hopes that innovation and novel architectural challenges will continue to inspire future, talented engineers.

“Hopefully that will continue to draw people into structural engineering and architecture. I’ve had a good time with it, and I’ve never looked back.”

Next week we continue our “40 for 40” series with eight more insights from Tom Wallace on the topic of success.

All this month, we’re celebrating 40 year of Wallace Engineering with 40 insights from our fearless founder, Tom Wallace. Each week, we’re tackling a different topic – from the founding and development of Wallace Engineering to entrepreneurship to technology to success. Click on the links below for more insights:

Part 1: Evolution of Wallace Engineering

Part 2: Entrepreneurship

Part 4: Success

Part 5: Architecture, Hobbies, and Travel

Do you have a question for Tom? Let us know! Comment below or email me at krista.looney@wallace.design.

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Krista Looney

Structural Engineer

Ms. Looney has over eight years of experience in the field of structural engineering. Krista has performed structural assessments, inspections and roof evaluations on structures across the United States. She has also performed rapid assessments of and designed repairs for structures damaged by high winds, earthquakes and other natural phenomena. She has been a licensed engineer since 2015.

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