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Sharlie Huffman wrote,
 
"I can't think of any reason for a highly qualified bridge engineer to
pass
up a structural challenge.  Keep in mind that everyone who has ever done
a
complex design hadn't done before the first time.  Of course sometimes
the
client doesn't see the complexity and only wants to pay for simplicity."

Sharlie,
I can think of three reasons, at least.

First, I would guess that if you looked at any bridge engineer who might
be considered "highly qualified," you would find that he or she studied
under a similarly highly qualified engineer.  Who in turn learned from
someone, and so on.  I'll stick my neck out and wager that you could
trace back at least 4 or 5 generations for most of the people on the "A"
team today.  As an example, consider Othmar Ammann, arguably the
greatest bridge engineer this country has ever seen; he (and David
Steinman, at the same time) worked under the greatest engineer of the
preceding generation, who in turn learned from the greatest...you get
the idea.  So, in truth, most of these people didn't do anything
completely from scratch "the first time;" they had done something
similar under someone else's tutelage.  The exceptions to this, such as
John Roebling, are very rare.

Way back when engineers actually were doing things for the first time,
actually breaking new ground, I think we tend to forget that a lot of
their work ended up in the river.  In the early to mid-1800's, the
failure rate for bridges was maybe twenty or more percent--literally
three or more orders of magnitude more than we would accept today.  When
a bridge (or even more rarely, a building) falls today, it's a big deal,
because it almost never happens.  As a side note, the automotive
industry accepts a death rate in their products many orders of magnitude
more than our industry accepts; and the tobacco industry causes
(without, apparently, caring) a death rate in turn several orders of
magnitude greater than that.  Yet someone flies an airplane into a
building and everyone screams that we should take more care.  And we
then spend literally billions of dollars to "harden" and protect
buildings to save lives.  What a bunch of crap.  That money spent on
AIDS research or anti-smoking efforts or food distribution systems in
starving areas would save hundreds of times the number of lives for the
same money.  But these people, for reasons that completely escape me,
aren't seen as victims.

But, I digress.  The second reason that highly qualified engineers do
mundane design is that they can make a steady, predictable living at it.
There is a thin line between the exhilaration of a cool new design, and
the fear that it might not work.  I think I remember reading that Ove
Arup tied themselves in knots for a couple YEARS longer than expected,
trying to design the Sydney Opera House.  Hard to make a living like
that.  Or, ask them how cool it was to design the Millenium Bridge.  And
then redesign it.  The guy that designed the Tacoma Narrows bridge was
the pre-eminent suspension bridge designer of his time when he decided
to use triple the span-to-depth ratio of anything that had been built
before.  He never designed another bridge.

The third reason that springs to mind, of course, is that you've got to
talk someone into hiring you to design their hundred-million dollar
thing.  There are always a lot of other highly qualified engineers with
highly polished marketing people alongside, vying for all these cool
projects.  Owners as a whole aren't stupid; they like a sure thing if
they can get it.  They like to hire someone who's done something like it
before.

Michael Hemstad, P.E.  
Saint Paul, Minnesota 

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