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Complexity of Code

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Dear list members:

Peter Ehlen, A Structural Engineer here in Santa
Barbara, my former boss (many years ago now), wrote a
letter recently to SEAOC in response to the 2000 Needs
Assessment Survey that was sent out to all SEAOC
members.  I recently was given the opportunity to read
this letter and felt it was important to share it with
the list members.  

Peter Ehlen has given me permission to post this letter
to the list.  I am in complete agreement with Peter on
this issue of Code complexity.  The letter is as


I appreciate this assessment effort and welcome the
opportunity to share with you some thoughts that I have
regarding what our associates can do in the future.  My
concern lies with the effectiveness of the structural
design portions of the building code and their general
drift toward a much more complicated document that is
more and more difficult and time consuming to
understand and apply.  A simple comparison of the
thickness of the 1955 Uniform Building Code, that I
used when I graduated from college, and the thickness
of Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of the current code give simple
evidence of the additional level of complexity that
exists today.

I believe that those who write building codes may be
losing sight of why the building code exists in the
first place.  The code's purpose is to create safe
buildings for people to live and work in.  In order for
this to happen, the code must be easy to understand by
a wide cross section of design skill levels.  Instead,
the code now has become a kind of showplace for the
most sophisticated design procedures and a battleground
between material manufacturers who want their products
to be used in the construction of buildings.  It is my
experience that fewer and fewer people involved in the
structural design of buildings have a clear
understanding of the meaning of the code.  This
included design engineers and plan check engineers. 
More and more time is required simply to try to
understand the code.  Evidence of the increased
complexity is the fact that for many sections of the
code it is found necessary to write design aid
documents and commentaries that are contained in the
same document as the code.  Also, there is a general
drift toward relying more and more on material
manufacturer documents such as the National Design
Standards for detailed design requirements.  It is
really becoming a full-time job simply to find where
things are in the code and to understand their
meaning.  I am sure that members of the Structural
Engineers Association of California who are active in
the building design field are aware of the time and
complexity associated with the recent codes and,
ironically, the difficulty the codes present in
fulfilling the basic purpose of the code.

One of the problems with the more complicated and
time-consuming codes is that they take time away from
other portions of the structural engineering practice
that are of equal importance.  These include having the
time for design engineers to really think how a
building is behaving and not be completely absorbed in
the literature of the code.  In addition, less and less
time is being spent by structural engineering design
firms in providing construction observation, which is
essential to the realization of a safe building that
will successfully perform in the years ahead.

I wish it to be understood that I have the highest
respect for all the research that is being done in all
areas of structural analysis and design.  My concern is
that these extensive design procedures should not be a
part of the code but should be used as a basis for
insuring that more simplified procedures contained in
the building code are in fact conservative.  Any
individual who has a special design problem or has a
particularly significant structure, there is always the
opportunity to rely on this more advanced state of
knowledge as they pursue the structural analysis and
design of these buildings.  However, most buildings
designed and built in California are less than three
(3) stories and of fairly simple structural assembly. 
A much less rigorous code easily comprehensible by a
wide cross section of structural designers is needed.

It is my understanding that those who participate in
the writing of structural codes consists of people in
the academic field, those in the material supply
fields, and I suspect a relatively small number of
practicing engineers.  This disparity is due in part to
the fact that the academic people and material supply
people are financed by those respective institutions
whereas the practicing structural engineer, who has
excellent knowledge about how the code should be
written, consists of small cadre of admirable
individuals who donate a good portion of the their time
or whose companies underwrite a portion of their time.

In response to your Needs Assessment Survey, I strongly
urge the Structural Engineers Association of California
to take an active role in the creation of a building
code, which is easily comprehensible by a wide cross
section of design engineers and building department
officials.  It should be a code that allows time for
the design engineer to think through the design process
rather than simply comprehend reams of detailed code
requirements.  Since we are in a visionary state with
this needs assessment survey, it might be appropriate
to consider financially underwriting the talents of a
few practicing structural engineers to aggressively
pursue the creation of a user friendly deign code that
will have the best chance to realizing the basic
purpose of the building code, which is to create safe

Peter W. Ehlen