ORIGIN: Starting the Conversation

Naturally Curious

02.18.14 by Kevin Fitzpatrick
1 Comment

“Curiosity is a willing, a proud, an eager confession of ignorance.” -S. Leonard Rubenstein.

I wonder if I act and think the way I do because of my engineering training or if I am an engineer because of the way I naturally act and think. Engineers are curious and I am inclined to say it is by nature. We want to know how everything works. At least I have been that way as long as I can remember.

One of the more vivid recollections of my curiosity is from my time as a fifth grader with my prized 0.5mm Pentel Quick-Click mechanical pencil with its translucent blue barrel. I may be off in regard to the model name, but it’s the style of pencil where the clicker (it’s a technical term) is located at the tip of your index finger so you can advance the lead without going through the hassle of moving your thumb all the way around to the back of the pencil. Anyway, I used to pass the time in my classroom by breaking down the pencil to all of its individual components to scrutinize them and figure out how they did what they did, then put them back together. How did the clicker move the clamping chuck?  How did it advance the lead? Why does my teacher keep repeating my name?

I no longer disassemble my writing instruments (on a regular basis), but I am still filled with a natural curiosity. Curiosity serves me well as a structural engineer.

Nearly all of the projects I have worked on since joining Wallace Engineering in 2006 have involved existing buildings with varying degrees of alterations or additions. Before we start design work on the project we often have to travel to the site to evaluate the existing building conditions and gain a general understanding of the structural systems.  In the cases where we are fortunate enough to have a set of existing drawings in hand our focus is to verify that the existing conditions match the drawings.  Where we don’t have existing drawings our job becomes significantly more difficult and more important.  Not only do we have to locate and measure as much of the existing structural elements as possible, but we also have to get into the head of the original design engineer. Curiosity pushes me through the process of obtaining all the clues I possibly can.

We look at the out-of-place elements and try to understand why. Why are some columns located off the normal grid? Why did they use a wide flange beam here where they used open-web joist girders elsewhere? We frequently discover that these buildings have already gone through remodels and/or expansions or have unrepaired damage, which adds to the list of questions. What caused the damage to this joist? Curiosity helps me form hypotheses that I can evaluate, whether it be with calculations or just rational thinking.

Many elements are easy to understand. For example a column that is off-grid because it lines up with a re-entrant corner is easy to identify. Why a girder is a wide flange beam versus a joist girder can be more difficult. If it was because of clearance issues, that would be fairly easy to determine; wide flange beams are typically shallower in depth than joist girders. But it could be more than that. It could be a drag element in the lateral force resisting system where a beam made more sense because of the loading or end connection issues. In order to know, we have to follow the loads and observe the connections. The process of following the load path leads to an understanding of the structure. Curiosity drives me to understand what I am working with.

From time to time, we encounter existing structural damage that has not been repaired. In order to provide an effective repair we need to first understand the origin of the damage. If a joist is showing signs of damage, it could be due to new loads added, such as new rooftop mechanical equipment.  In one particular building investigation I found over a dozen damaged joists. Most of the damage occurred on the diagonal web members, with a few of the joists having some top chord damage. But there was no pattern to the damage and no concentrated areas of damaged joists next to each other. What caused this damage?  In the end, we determined that the most likely cause was that the joists had been lifted into place using a forklift, rather than hoisted with a crane. Mishandling of the joists caused damage at the point of contact with the forks. Having this knowledge made it easier for us to provide repair recommendations, knowing that we only needed to bring the joists back to their intended strength and there were not any added external forces that would stress the joist in that same manner again. Satisfying curiosity gives me, well, satisfaction.

I don’t buy into the idea that ignorance is bliss. I am thankful that I don’t know everything, because I value the pursuit of knowledge. But ignorance without curiosity will remain ignorance.  It is the process of overcoming ignorance that is bliss!


One Response

  1. Sam Ray says:

    Thanks for the entertaining read! Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it keeps the engineer alive.

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