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Re: Engineering judgement

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-----Original Message-----
From: Bill Allen <BAllenSE(--nospam--at)>
To: seaoc(--nospam--at) <seaoc(--nospam--at)>
Date: Wednesday, November 26, 1997 7:46 AM
Subject: Re: Engineering judgement

I hope "where we are going" is a defensible position on our judgements.
I hope never to have to "waste" my valuable time defending my judgement. It is unfortunate that the trade most influencial to the owner / client is the one least qualified to judge the competency of our design. This incites the owner to act against the engineer for either over-designing. It is common to take action against the engineer for damage that may have actually been caused by the ineptness of the accuser or by following traditional construction techniques where specific details are called.
This requires the engineer to expend many hours and out of pocket expenses to defend his design. As we have discussed and as each of us knows, this is a no-win situatation that black-marks the engineer by the willingness of his E&O insurance to settle for least cost without regard to vindication.   

Another point which you bring up is one of my favorites. It's the one about
the contractor telling you that you had "engineered the  house  " 10,000 "
times above code... ". 
I do agree with Bill on these comments. The only problem with the response is that many laypersons, rather than trusting the knowledge of a competent engineer, considers the comments arrogant and professional justification without need of an explanation. A defense that stems from a superiority justification (ie, I'm the engineer - not you) will often create more problems than stop them.
Is there a reasonable solution - I doubt it. Building owners look for any way to save money. A home owner may be more likely to accept the engineers authority than a devloper of Condo's where every leasable square foot is maximized for profit. The developer wants the design to minimize material and labor costs in order to maximize the profit margin from leases. All is considered acceptable, until that narrow shear wall that met code standards flexes more than the allowable story drift of 0.005H and subsequent damage insues. The tenent runs to an attorney who blames the developer who hires another engineer to justify a claim which blames the architect and engineer - and the snowball starts to grow larger .
It appears to be a no-win situation as long as the judgement of the engineer is allowed to be challenged legally. Designing below code minimum is obviously answerable by the engineer of record, but may not be wrong if the results are justified. For example, a shearwall that is less than 3.5:1 ratio may not be a liability if it were designed for deflection and the story drift can be calculated and justified. The code provides many minimum "rule-of-thumbs" that can be exceeded as long as it is justified (ie, bearing stud heights justified by analysis). The city of Los Angeles, may have stricter requiments for H/b ratios (reduced to 2:1) but most cities outside of the area will let an engineer do what he can mathmatically justify. 
The real problem is the engineer that testifies against another as a bias toward the side that is paying him. This is unethical but happens every day as many of us are pulled into law suits as cross-complaintants. Expert witnesses are taught to insure that they receive work from both sides so as to be judged impartial. Is he really - I doubt it. IMHO, he was hired to find fault and will be replaced if he does not provide the results the attorney's expect of him.
The solution may be to establish an unbiased professional review committee that charges the court for their time to evaluate the complaint. As we discussed with the issues of autonomy of BORPELS, this is not necessarily perfectly unbiased, but should be an improvment over plaintiff and defense hired experts. The loosing side must then pay for the peer review. The committee stays "virtually" unbiased. This does not preclude the engineer from defending himself but allows him to have as fair a defense as can be allowed by the nature of human beings. 
Finally, an engineer should be allowed to design at minimum standard without reprisal (even if the judgement of subsequent codes support a more conservative approach). Before you jump down my throat let me explain. I would support this methodology if there was a form of protection against the engineer to allow him to provide the specific needs of the client within strict limits of the code without reprisal should anticipated or even expected non-life threatening damages occur. In most cases the design is justified by code or else the local municpals would have responded with stricter enforcement or design measures. Psychologically, I don't know if I could work this way, but I am sure that there are others that feel the clients needs are more important than those of the future owner or tenent of the project. 
AND, an engineer should be allowed to design at any conservative standard that he feels justified without reprisal from his client. The client is, hopefully, hireing the engineer to design what he believes to be a safe structure. The engineer should not be penalized unless the client makes it clear - in writting - that he is to follow minimum code standards and not exceed this level of design. The engineer, then has the right to continue or resign from the project before this decision is made in a court of law. As I stated in another post on the subject: 
I don't care to walk a tightrope at the line of minimum compliance to a code
that is anything but perfect.... However, the closer we step to the edge should be a personal choice. Those with a fear of heights should not be punished for standing
farther from the edge than those willing to live on top of it. It is the legal profession that acts upon the clients anger and justifies E&O insurance as a pot of gold waiting to
be pilfered.
Dennis Wish PE