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RE: Botched Buildings

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Title: RE: Botched Buildings


Thank you for pointing out this article.  It is certainly interesting reading.  The central theme is that building design and construction have gotten more difficult, and quality has significantly eroded, since the Kansas City Hyatt walkway collapse in 1981.  I agree with the former statement, but not necessarily with the latter.

Design and construction have gotten more difficult principally because of the current emphasis on speed and, to a lesser extent, on savings.  The quote at the end of your post was from John Pierce at MSDW.  His other quote was "Time is money and there is less time available to do anything".  [Sidebar:  Nevertheless, MSDW found both the time and the money to sponsor Bill Clinton's first post-presidency address.]  Unfortunately, time and budget pressures have been steadily rising for the last two decades (or more) and will certainly continue to do so.  Ten years ago, I was confident that technology (computer automation) would come to our rescue.  I no longer believe that, because computers are lousy at so many things that require our time, such as:  thinking and exercising judgment, attending meetings, processing shop drawings, responding to RFIs, and making site visits.

In my opinion, quality of constructed buildings has not significantly eroded in the past twenty years.  As an industry, we designed and constructed a lot of crap back then too!  Just look around at some of the "monuments" that remain from that era.  The "good old days" weren't all that good!  One thing that has changed for the worse is the availability of competent labor, both in design and in construction.  There is currently an alarming shortage of young engineers and skilled craftsmen.  If the quality of design and construction has eroded in any measurable way, that is the primary cause.

You asked how to cope.  Here is what I do, and it works, even though it might seem old-fashioned:

1]  Be more selective in choosing clients and projects.  Practice polite ways of saying "NO".  Don't agree to undertake any project where there is undefined scope, inadequate fee or schedule, or excessive risk.  There is more than enough "good" work to go around.  If you accept "bad" work, you have no one to blame but yourself.

2]  Accept the reality that quality is not a variable.  Assign your engineers to follow their projects "from cradle to grave", and impress upon them the importance of each and every phase of the work (especially those tasks after the design has been completed).  Also explain to them the absolute necessity of integrity, sound professional and personal ethics, and their paramount responsibility to the health and welfare of the public.

3]  Hire only the best available personnel.  Pay them well and treat them fairly.  Engineering is a services business.  Ultimately, the only thing that differentiates your firm from all the others is the quality and motivation of your people.  Over the long run, the firm that attracts and retains the best people will always enjoy the most success, regardless of how it is measured.

Speaking of long runs, you recently sent me a private email on the joys of distance running.  I concur that it is excellent stress relief and, back when I owned my own firm, I was a member of Dr. Kenneth Cooper's Aerobics Center and ran 5-10 miles there every morning before going to work.  After several years of that, I was asked to serve as an expert witness for a fellow structural engineer who was being sued by Dr. Cooper over a distressed floor slab.  I was deposed for nearly 40 hours, and the defense ultimately prevailed.  After that experience, I decided not to renew my membership.  Subsequently, I adopted a new "green" philosophy:  "Each of us is put on this planet with a finite number of heartbeats, so it is best to practice conservation."  Or, as expressed succinctly on bumper stickers:  "Exercise regularly and die healthy!"

Best Regards,

Stan R. Caldwell, P.E.
Vice President
Halff Associates, Inc.
8616 Northwest Plaza Drive
Dallas, Texas  75225
Phone:  (214) 346-6280
Fax:  (214) 739-0095
Email:  scaldwell(--nospam--at)

Neil Moore wrote:

The latest issue of ENR (5/14/01) has an article starting on Page 56
discussing many problems with the construction industry.  Obviously many of
us have been caught up in this.  Recent discussions of engineering offices
knowingly turning out incomplete projects appears to be part of the
problem.  Many firms are trying to do "Instant Engineering" in order to
survive.  Some firms, like mine, will turn down projects where information
and a scope of work is lacking and an impossible time constraint is being
imposed by the Bean Counters. 

Some engineers are in the process of killing themselves.  I recently was
told of a firm who prides themselves on complete and thorough projects
where one of the principals had put in a 48 hour session in order to meet a

Anyway, try to get hold of this article and maybe someone will have some
suggestions on how to cope.

The paragraph that got my attention:

"Our users work in Internet time"........and "construction is a
bricks-and-mortar business that is nowhere near Internet time."

Neil Moore, S.E.
neil moore and associates
shingle springs, california