Engineering to preserve and progress

The &quotMosteiro dos Jerónimos&quot (Jerónimos Monastery) in Portugal is a survivor. On Nov. 1, 1755, the Great Lisbon Earthquake, measuring an estimated 9 on the Richter scale, took as many as 100,000 lives and shook the city to its core. A tsunami and fire shortly after the earthquake almost destroyed what was left. The earthquake is credited with the birth of seismology because, in view of the massive destruction, its effects were scientifically studied.

Yet the average visitor is insensitive to the Monastery’s turbulent survival. What is typically admired is the breathtaking beauty of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos as it majestically represents the Manueline, or Portuguese late Gothic, architectural ornamentation characteristic of the early 16th century. The voyages and discoveries of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral are immortalized in the maritime elements and representations engraved in the majestic columns, ceilings, walls, and details of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As I admired ornate altars and sanctuaries, I wondered who had contributed to preserving this historic site. How was it done? And then I saw something that was almost as impressive to me as the monastery: a sign dedicated to the original designers and builders. Moreover, a special exhibit presented the most recent preservation/restoration work performed, complete with the technical team’s names and professions leading these efforts.

I have often thought that technical professionals receive little, if any, public credit for their work, particularly that of historic rehabilitation, restoration, and preservation. Wondrous construction masterpieces are viewed and admired by the public daily; yet, few people associate the grandeur of historic skyscrapers, bridges, abodes, and other edifices with a technically knowledgeable team that sometimes has to work around other historic sites such as Roman aqueducts, Middle Ages castles, and modern construction to provide a World Heritage Site with 21st century plumbing, lighting, and safety code adherence.

Retrofitting is a scientific art. The delicate balance between retrofitting and preservation requires an expert technical team sensitive to historic materials, character, and possible reversal of the retrofit as technology advancements are made. Improperly pursued, retrofitting can compromise a site’s appearance and integrity. For example, in seismic retrofitting, structural members are used for reinforcement and irregularities and large openings are filled to improve the structure’s resistance to dynamic loading. These efforts can be intrusive and potentially change the character of the edifice. So I think that the &quottechnical artists&quot responsible for a successful project deserve a little credit.

In advocating recognition for the highly visible work of technical professions, my aim is to continue to present to the public tangible examples of what engineers, architects, and designers do. Sometimes it is as easy as pointing out some of the world’s wonders with a bit of technical background on what it has taken to preserve world heritage and similarly important sites, perhaps a few centuries younger. So, I also advocate that engineers become knowledgeable about their local, national, and international construction marvels-those that people will make trips of a lifetime to see. Share some of the technical savvy that has restored and preserved world wonders along with your Kodak moments collection. Of course, understandably, you may have to take trips of a lifetime first. Remember to take spare batteries. Sometimes it’s tough to stop at just a hundred Kodak moments.

Do you have an idea that promotes technical recognition to the public? Send your suggestions to

Posted in Uncategorized | January 29th, 2014 by

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