Engineer’s Week 2008


Engineer’s Week – 2008

By Gerard Hillenbrand, P.E.

The Annual Engineer’s week celebration commenced this year with a major reception held at the Dibner Library Building at Polytechnic University in downtown Brooklyn on Wednesday, February 13th, 2008. The Metropolitan Engineering Societies council, the umbrella group representing 25 engineering organizations practicing in the New York City Metropolitan area, organizes this annual reception. This year’s reception was distinguished by the support of eight prominent engineering and consulting organizations in the metropolitan area and their interest, sponsorship, and support are greatly appreciated by the council. Approximately 60 guests attended this function and about half of these attendees earned one professional development hour of credit toward satisfying the recently mandated continuing education requirements issued by the N. Y. State Department of Education.

This year’s celebration opened with a delicious dinner served in the Dibner Library dinning room after which the guests moved to the library auditorium for the formal program. Outside the auditorium the guests were treated to coffee and deserts compliments of the Polytechnic Alumni Association. At the start of the program council chairman Wasyl Kinach, P.E., welcomed the guests and reported that the council had arranged for the prominent display of banners publicizing engineers week at various locations around the area including the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan. Mr. Kinach also reflected on the evolution of engineering into a “Hidden Profession” in the last half of the 20th century despite enormous accomplishments by engineers, the general public appears to take this momentous progress as routine and to be taken for granted. This attitude affects our status and our influence on future developments, as well as our level of compensation. The remedy, the chairman suggested, is an increase in participation of engineers in all public policy decisions, a significant increase of engineering volunteers in public projects, and a return to the dedication esteem and public service exhibited by engineers at the beginning of the 20th century. The other speakers throughout the evening also emphasized these sentiments.

Next Polytechnic University President Jerry MacArthur Hultin welcomed the guests and stated that the needs of the 21st century will ensure the importance of engineering to mankind’s future. Mr. Hultin pledged that his school, faculty and alumni association would continue to stress the vital roll of engineers in today’s society. Mr. Hultin also reported on the status of merger discussions between Polytechnic and New York University. Many of the details of such a merger have already been resolved and the Universities will shortly petition the N. Y. State board of regents to approve such a consolidation. This merger will provide synergy between N.Y.U.’s scientific expertise and Poly’s engineering skills, and create a major educational environment for scientists and engineers whose disciplines will become increasingly inter-related in the future. In the short term also such a merger will provide increased cooperation in areas such as global and overseas studies, enhanced summer and research job opportunities, and increased integration with the Architectural and Green Building communities.

The National Society of Professional Engineers also contributed to our celebration with a short video presentation, which showed the features of the society’s programs to promote the Public’s awareness of engineering’s contributions to modern life. Among these features were the model future cities competition, the National Mathcounts competition, and the recruitment efforts among students in our nation’s high schools. An interesting sidelight to the student recruitment efforts was the statement that you do not have to be a genius to be a successful engineer. Rather, you should have a strong interest in technology and the dedication and motivation to work hard in achieving your dreams.

The Mayor’s proclamation of engineer’s week in the city of New York was presented to the attendees by Mr. Michael Alacha, P.E., the N.Y. City Building Department’s Assistant Commissioner of Engineering and Emergency Services. Each attendee received a copy of the proclamation in which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg extolled the contributions of engineers to the beauty, vitality and stability of our great city.

Next the Polytechnic University Alumni Association presented green building awards to several local Brooklyn organizations whose efforts have contributed significantly toward a more sustainable N.Y. City. James Oussani, Jr. Polytechnic’s International Director of Alumni Relations, presented the awards to Andrew and Christopher Giancola of the Giancola contracting group and to Lawrence Vento of the Ridge Iron Works. Buildings constructed by these organizations have provided 30% increased in energy efficiency and 60% reductions in pollution emissions. The American Institute of Architects will also award these organizations in the next several weeks for their contributions.

Otto Maatsch, P.E. the council’s secretary, introduced the evening’s keynote address speaker. That speaker was Dr. Leslie E. Roberston, P.E., the world renowned Structural Engineer. Dr. Robertson received his engineering education in California and since then has become licensed in all 50 states as well as in Japan, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. He has published more than 300 technical papers on structural, earthquake and wind engineering and has received patents for his inventions in the United States, Japan, and the European Union. He is also a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers and is an Adjunct Professor of Structural at Princeton University. The title of Dr. Robertson’s talk was “Tall Buildings: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – Technical Limits on How High we can Tall Buildings”. The talk was illustrated with an impressive computerized slide show.

Dr. Robertson began his presentation by remarking about how the 21st century needs engineers with great dreams and vision and that current technical education places too much emphasis on computerized instruction and problem solving without adequate exposure to the limitations provided by practical problems in the field. It is in response to these practical problems that engineers create the innovative solutions. It is not well known that Alexander Graham Bell, world famous as inventor of the telephone, also invented the structural steel space frame which was light but strong and facilitated the construction the earliest skyscrapers such as the Woolworth and Empire State Buildings. These buildings were clad with masonry and brick, although strong and sturdy served to limit building height. Similarly not well known was Dr. Bell’s innovations in high-speed water transport based on systematic ship hull design.

In 1964 the construction of lever house pioneered with a prefabricated structural steel frame with a largely glass façade. This technique was also employed in the construction of the 110-story Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. These towers structural steel framework was fabricated in Japan, assembled in Washington State, and initiated the international construction and shipment practices so prevalent in modern construction. Similarly, the U. S. Steel headquarters building in Pittsburgh was the first to used liquid filled columns in construction. Structural frames on the outside of buildings were first developed in Germany and the unique cable supported bridge design was first completed in Japan. Design innovation is now an international phenomenon, where close collaboration between engineers and architects is essential. The design challenges proposed by architects must be analyzed and modified to find the most economic solution to the problems presented by these unique designs, a task that engineers are most qualified to perform.

Civil Engineers as an independent profession was first defined in the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1771, as an amalgam of architectural building design and military fortification construction. Since that time the profession has progressed to the modern era where much of the new construction occurs in the newly emerging post-industrial nations, typified by Southeast Asia. In these locales cultural perceptions may be the controlling features in design. A recently completed high rise tower in Hong Kong had its proposed design modified several times because of these perceptions. For example, a proposed huge circular opening at the top of the building had to be drastically modified because it reminded the Chinese of the rising sun symbol of Pre-World War II imperialistic Japan. Similarly, visible X-Framing in the structure had to be discarded because in Asian culture the letter X is symbol of death. All this in spite of the fact the tower had to resist average wind loads four times those prevalent in N. Y. City. This tower was constructed with a noticeable lack of safety provisions however, a situation that now has changed and upgraded to western standards. Other modern construction trends include various unconventional shapes made possible by advances in reinforced concrete design. The use of geometric shapes in design of a modernistic synagogue uses inter connected shells for load carrying roof in Chicago. The design of asymmetric or leaning building towers first completed in design of greater height structures achieved by innovative brace configurations in recently completed high-risers in Japan and Shanghai, China. The new skyscrapers built on sandy soil and water logged earth in Dubai possible by advances in slurry wall design.

The ever-increasing height of modern buildings has posed the eventual questions of how high can we go? Well, many years ago famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a mile high building and stated that there were no structural limitations to prevent this achievement. He was correct in the theoretical sense but many practical problems must be overcome. The tallest building completed so far is just shy of 500 meters in height. A proposed 1000 meter building in Tokyo Bay, Japan apparently will not be built because of plumbing limitations and the fact that the top of the building would be buried in clouds most of the time. Seismic design has advanced significantly in recent years but earthquakes pose a serious danger to very tall structures as well as building where safety is paramount such as hospitals and nuclear power plants. Security considerations also limit building height as the ongoing construction of N. Y. City’s freedom Tower illustrates. Other practical limitations include provisions for adequate water supply, ventilation and fire protection as well as vertical transportation constraints and, of course, the ever present economic restrictions. Ultra high rise building require advanced high-speed elevators for which technology is currently available. However, the practical limitations on increased acceleration and deceleration in elevators are the possibility that high air pressures would be intolerable and/or that pregnant woman passengers would suffer serious health effects. Another exotic limitation of building height is the rotation of the earth in which tall buildings built on the equator would be subjected to pure gravity load effects. Building remote from the equator (such as in New York) would be subjected to this gravity load plus significant coriolis forces. Taking all these practical limitations into account, the maximum height of tall buildings would be about 800 meters based on current technology.

Using sophisticated computer analysis, the maximum height of a building’s structure is proportional to the structure’s strength divided by the building’s density. Assuming a cylindrical structure of reinforced concrete as a base, an identical building of structural steel could be built 50% taller, a building of structural
Aluminum could be built 83% taller, and a building constructed of the latest composite structural materials (elastic modulus five times that of steel) could theoretically be built 19 times as tall as the concrete cylinder. Computer analysis also shows that conical buildings can be built 3 times taller than equivalent cylindrical structures. The configuration yielding the tallest building, in theory, is the hyperboloid of revolution. Think in terms of an elongated tear drop shape (or of an extended candy kiss shape) or of the shape of the latest power plant cooling towers. Such hyperbolic structures built with internal central columns and coiled high strength bracing, as well as elliptical cross sections oriented to minimize wind loads, could reach as high as 1.5 miles maximum.

The usual question and answer period produced some of Dr. Robertson’s more provocative opinions. He believes that the N. Y. City building code has too many authors who contribute to rules that limit building height. In fact, such rules are prevalent throughout the United States. Although earthquake activity is modest in the New York area, the code’s seismic rules are too low and local universities are not providing enough education on earthquake effects. Current engineering management is not nearly creative enough and must be more progressive in the future and not be afraid to experiment with novel concepts. He cautions against the trend toward widening building stairwells in new construction in response to experiences at the World Trade Center tragedy. He is not optimistic about big increases in engineer’s compensation in the future as long as our efforts are subjected to the regime of competitive bidding rather than set, non-negotiable fees. But we became engineers to serve humanity not to become wealthy. In this respect we are successful beyond our wildest expectations.

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