What are the challenges on the minds of structural engineering firm leaders and industry experts? This topic and many others were explored during the Structural Engineers’ Buildings Conference and Expo—an annual event presented by ZweigWhite and sponsored by Structural Engineer, and held last year at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 29-30. To focus the dialogue, I hosted a roundtable discussion with several esteemed professionals and posed the question, “What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing the structural engineering profession?” (See “The Panel” below for a list of participants.)

The group discussed several issues—including natural hazard mitigation, the structural engineering profession, and, of course, building information modeling (BIM)—as well as offered solutions and opportunities for each; excerpts from the discussion are contained in this article.

Greatest challenges
SCHNEIDER: To address the question about the greatest challenge to structural engineers—besides getting the next project, which, of course, is always the greatest challenge—I believe it will come from hazards and loss mitigation. The United States has been fortunate to have grown a fantastic infrastructure over the past 200 years in a period of relative calm with respect to natural disasters. North America is an extremely hazard-prone place. Looking at history, we can find eyewitness accounts of earthquakes so large that a tree disappeared behind the lowering landscape and another where a river actually ran backwards. Even the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and the 1886 earthquake in Charleston, S.C., were events that occurred with small amounts of infrastructure compared to what exists today.

Our first really big event to affect a large amount of infrastructure occurred with Hurricane Katrina—which is a $100 billion event and the costs are still going up. And it’s not even clear whether New Orleans will ever recover from this event. Katrina was not a Category 5, it was only a Category 3, and look at what it did. We have not seen a Category 5 hurricane hit the United States since the 1920s. What this means is that structural engineers and architects are going to have to start paying a lot more attention to seismic and hurricane design, because extreme natural hazards are going to occur in our country.

THORNTON: You asked the question, “What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing the structural engineering profession?” and I think that it is us.

GOUPIL: Why do you think that? Explain.

THORNTON: I think we are our greatest challenge. I don’t think we have enough self-esteem and enough confidence in ourselves to believe that what we do is so important.

GOUPIL: How do we combat ourselves?

THORNTON: With different training and a different approach to education. Architects are trained to present, to communicate, to sell, to promote themselves, to promote their industry, and to take credit for what they do. Also, we need to get the engineering faculty off tenure track and get practicing engineers teaching engineering. Do you know that architecture faculty get credit for tenure by practicing architecture and publishing? Engineering educators do not receive any credit in American engineering in schools for practicing engineering. Zero.

Given this lack of formal training in our system, I think BIM is an opportunity to really move structural engineers up in the delivery chain.

ERICSON: We now have new interesting challenges with BIM, as well as the same inherent risk. We want to be aware of it, but we don’t want to let that stop the process. I see the BIM process as a very strong opportunity to enhance our work, to check conflict, to avoid the coordination problems that come up. And one of the most important aspects of BIM is bringing the players to the table and working together, partnering, making the project happen.

SCHNEIDER: And one great thing about a BIM model is that it can potentially be leveraged with other software models—such as HAZUS, the hazard assessment and loss estimation software funded and developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—to perform hazard analyses and design mitigation.

ELLIOTT: Well, it caught my attention in the earlier discussions about BIM, and you may have said it, Charlie, that it’s got to be one of the best risk management tools that we’ll have. Because what it’s going to do is eliminate a lot of those requests for information and the conflicts on drawings, as well as improve the quality of the work. It made me reflect a bit because here we are trying to develop tools, when, in fact, we’ve been slapped in the face with this whole system. BIM may be the ultimate vehicle to get us farther ahead than anything we can do with risk management tools.

CONOVER: I was going to talk about a challenge with BIM for structural engineers. I liken BIM to a wheel on a bicycle, with BIM at the center. But if there aren’t any spokes, you really can’t go very far. So if each of the professions or interested parties has to be a spoke to make this work, everybody’s got to step forward. Certainly there are folks that are starting to put some of the spokes together, but you really don’t have enough where you can go out there on a rough road and ride hard. To tie this into another question you asked, Jennifer, “How should firms position themselves for the future?” Well, structural engineers have an opportunity to say, “This is what we want the future to be and we’re going to take the risk. We’re going to step forward and start carving out a spoke for that wheel; we’re going to make this work.”

THORNTON: You know, the folks at the General Services Agency (GSA) and all the AIA people that I know are all saying the same thing. In fact, the Construction Users Roundtable (CURT) has come out in writing and said owners are actually willing to pay you more money if you adopt the BIM technology because they see BIM as a unifying system that will save them time and money in the long run. The owners have always complained about the quality of the AEC documents—they always have beaten us up, and chiseled away at our fees. I think it’s about to change.

ERICSON: Well, you’ve set the tone for that by demonstrating the value the structural engineer can bring to the team and by getting paid that value. Actually, in the structural steel construction industry we see very good partnerships developing between fabricators, erectors, and structural engineers just getting their own structural steel BIMs going. It seems to be the model that is showing us the way.

CONOVER: I might add in terms of the BIM moving to the future, if we’re going with the bicycle-wheel analogy, you want somebody that’s saying, “I want to ride.” You know, to make it worth your while you want to have demand. If the customer, the building owner, or the one financing the project doesn’t understand the benefits of BIM, they’re not going to demand it, and if you go and try to talk to them about it, it’s certainly a much harder sell. I’m not suggesting that structural engineers or others shouldn’t step up to build some spokes, but a coordinated effort to get the building owners to understand the value and say, “I want to go for a ride, build me a bicycle!” makes the need for the spoke a hell of a lot more acute and immediate than if you’re out building spokes and trying to put them on a wheel that nobody really wants to ride.

THORNTON: Our greatest ally in all of the BIM projects we have done has been the general contractor or construction manager. They’re our best ally because they see the value we can offer in terms of time and money. If I told the owner, “We can save you three months on this project,” he’d say, “That’s your job.” But if the contractor says, “Hey, Lou, these guys can save me three months in my schedule,” the owner would say, “Okay, pay them to do it.”

Building codes
CONOVER: I want to say something about performance codes, something Charlie mentioned in the conference today, and lead into one of the questions you asked, Jennifer, about changing codes and does that affect the ability of structural engineers to work. The short answer is: If you have a pure performance code, it never changes; it is comprised of goals and objectives. The International Code Council (ICC) actually publishes the ICC Performance Code—and you can use it and you can throw out the rest of the I-Codes. Some municipalities have even adopted it. And as long as those goals and objectives don’t change, you don’t have a changing code.

THORNTON: As we all know, the prescriptive codes have evolved. There are vested interests that have helped them evolve, which have preferential treatment for certain materials or certain systems. The benefits of performance-based engineering are two-fold: It improves your ability to communicate with the owner, which is important for structural engineers because it gets you past certain other disciplines, and it gives you an opportunity to explain what you’re adding in value, which you don’t get to do in a prescriptive code.

GOUPIL: Do you think there’s a fear factor associated with performance-based engineering?

THORNTON: Absolutely. Because the minute you start doing performance-based engineering, you damn well better know what you’re doing, because there’s no fallback. You can say, “Well, I was in compliance with the prescriptive code, I guess the code was wrong.” But, I also don’t think every project needs to have a performance-based design.

Performance-based design is another tool that structural engineers need to keep in their tool chest and know how and when to use it. It is another skill that will add value to your services and set you apart from your competition.

Thoughts for the future
SCHNEIDER: If you were to turn on the television any given night, you’ll find a show on natural disasters—tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes. The awareness of disasters is everywhere, especially since Katrina. And the opportunity for structural engineering firms to assimilate disaster-resistant design is more open than ever before. Thirty-eight states are considered earthquake-prone by FEMA, 23 states are hurricane-prone, and 50 states are flood-prone. The field for practicing disaster-resistant designs is essentially nationwide, and for structural engineering firms, the opportunity is ripe to bring this into their portfolio services.

ELLIOTT: Many of the things that Charlie talks about, and all of these issues that have been brought up in the conference, paints a picture of vast change for our profession. For example, when the iron curtain came down if you went into the countries behind the iron curtain and you asked where their leaders were, there really weren’t any because they were all looking to the socialist government to tell them what to do. It’s the same within structural engineering; we just aren’t used to being in a leadership role, but instead have grown accustomed to prescriptive codes and restrictive contractual arrangements. We aren’t used to being out there in front and selling ourselves, but—and I agree with Charlie—there is currently an opportunity for us change all of that. If there’s ever going to be a chance to do it, this is it. Our challenge is to seize the opportunity.

GOUPIL: Educating ourselves came up several times, and it seems, there is a lot to learn. It’s exciting. Charlie, you said that someone today told you that this is a very exciting time to be an engineer. I’ve heard that sentiment a couple of times recently, especially in the context of BIM.

THORNTON: As I’ve said earlier, but just to rephrase it, we’re at an unprecedented time in the history of the American construction industry—we’ve got labor shortages, material shortages, and a large demand; yet it’s a real opportunity. As you know, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and the fact is that we haven’t changed our practices or the way we design structural systems very much over the last 30 years because we didn’t have to. It’s time that we need to change things. As an industry, we are presented with a fabulous opportunity to take all of these tools—BIM, hazard mitigation, performance engineering—take all of these things and move up to the next link.

I think the public is expecting more from us and let’s give it to them.


David Conover is a senior advisor for the International Code Council, Inc., and is located in the Washington, D.C., headquarters.






Doug Elliott, P.E., is president of Elliott LeBouef & Associates—a structural engineering firm in Springfield, Va. He is also the committee chair for the CASE Risk Management Program’s toolkit committee.





Nils (Val) V. Ericson, P.E., is chairman and CEO of the Di Salvo Ericson Group, a structural engineering firm in Ridgefield, Conn. He is also the chair of the CASE Risk Management Program.






Philip J. Schneider, AIA, is the director of the Hazards Risk Assessment Program at the National Institute of Building Sciences, located in Washington, D.C.






Charles H. Thornton, Ph.D., P.E., is the chairman and CEO for Charles H. Thornton & Company, LLC, headquartered in Easton, Md.







HOST : Jennifer Goupil, P.E., is a structural engineer and the editor of Structural Engineer magazine.