Anyone who has an interest in engineering history has surely enjoyed stories of the design and construction of great engineering works, including my personal favorite, the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the common threads among the various fields of engineering is the personal vision and passion attributed to the engineers and builders associated with these types of projects. This is even more apparent—and more important to the success of the project—the further back in history you go. As projects were initiated 100 or 200 years ago, it was important to find local (or easily transportable) labor, materials, and technology that conformed to the designer’s vision. Rarely were there ready-made materials available, and those that were usually required the skills of steelworkers, pipe-fitters, masons, woodworkers, or other trades to fabricate the specialized components required. Widespread standards were in their infancy.
Today, our engineering libraries are filled with volumes of vendors’ wares, ready to be selected based on the field conditions experienced during typical projects. Just as plentiful are the governmental regulations that dictate many aspects of design. There are, of course, innumerable cases of specialized engineering that require advanced skill and knowledge to undertake, and every project is unique in some way. But for the average small- to mid-sized engineering firm, it is more likely that a majority of the work is based around government specifications, with the remainder utilizing tried-and-true components or technology, if not simply the force of habit. Worse, systems may be constructed based on a particular vendor’s product because of that vendor’s own marketing efforts; the most recent high-profile case being that of the use of poorly specified epoxy rock bolts in the Big Dig Tunnel. Even if the vendor is found innocent, the lesson should be clear that we should be cautious of taking anything "off the shelf" without proper scrutiny.
As much as engineers are perceived as "hard numbers" people, it is easy to forget how much the profession depends on creativity and innovation. Further, it is precisely that innovation that allows a given project to rise to historical significance or win awards. We can name the longest bridge, the tallest tower, or the largest dam. Who could name the largest subdivision in the country? What about the largest-diameter wastewater main or largest stormwater retention pond? Are they not historically significant, or do we simply not recognize the significance of something as ubiquitous as our municipal services?
How many times do we do our best to follow the book, be they government regulations, industry practices, or contractor preferences, when it isn’t really what we would have chosen if we had a clean slate? On the other hand, how much more comfortable is it when we can depend on others’ work and simply say, "This is what is required." How secure would we feel if there were no standard of care and we were required to justify each and every calculation? Would we be as willing to apply a completely new technology or method to our projects (would our clients allow it)? We surely wouldn’t even have the option if our predecessors had not taken the risks for us.
Certainly, the implementation of standards has allowed technology to expand beyond local boundaries. National and global business would be in the dark ages without industry-wide standards. Government regulation also ensures that everyone is bound by the same rules. These are requirements of our need to form multidisciplinary teams to solve problems and construct great things. But we should always beware of prematurely narrowing our solutions and ignoring the potential of our clients’ visions—which are rarely bound by our technical constraints or vendors’ catalogs. We should be cautious of simply picking a solution that is a "best fit" rather than developing—engineering!—a solution that realizes the vision.
Jason Burke, P.E., works for Allied Engineering in Bozeman, Mont.