Posted by: nedpelger | April 3, 2009

The Design Part of Design/Build

I got one of those close call phone calls yesterday. You know the kind I mean, when a tragedy was just narrowly avoided. As I heard the details of the old stone wall falling 6′ to 12′, just missing a mason below, I instantly played the worse scenario in my head. How my cheerful buddy, who runs the concrete and masonry company,  now lies dead under a pile of loose limestone. How I deal with his wife and kids at the funeral. How I forever question myself about thinking the wall was stable on bedrock, rather than on some large boulders that just looked like bedrock.

When I worked as a consulting engineer 25 years ago, the wife of an engineer buddy of mine was a midwife to lots of Amish families. While waiting for the babies to arrive, they had plenty of time to talk. When these farm families asked what her husband did, she explained that he designed sewer systems. Often these simple folks just couldn’t get the concept of design. Building they could understand, but what does someone do that designs?

In China, stemming from Confucianism,  engineers “Build” rather than “Design”.  So the engineering profession doesn’t have the same status there. There are few engineering courses or books to study. Apparently, no general consensus exists for engineering ethics or how the profession should operate.

To design is to conceive in the mind or to create a plan. To build, one must first design, even if only with a fleeting thought. The Design Part of Design/Build, though, takes more than this fleeting thought. It entails a knowledge of the physical realities of the world combined with a sense of the most efficient way to solve a particular problem.

As I evaluated the fallen stone wall, I called Tom Zug, my friend and structural engineer, whose opinion I greatly respect. Tom came over and we stood at the bottom of an old (1754 and 1870) stone and brick 4 story building and discussed how to stabilize walls. We have both studied engineering (how the physical world works) and have varied experiences to pull from. We included the Mason (he changed his pants by then) and the Construction Supervisor in our deliberations. We arrived at a design, that now will be executed by the various contractors.

You may be more drawn to the design side of this business or perhaps to the build side. I encourage you, in either instance, to learn to appreciate the challenges and strategies of both design and build. Read through sections of the Construction Knowledge database and learn specifics. Commit to learn and grow, to advance in this great business by knowing more and executing better.

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