Johann F. Szautner P.E.

Many of us make New Year’s resolutions for the future, including resolutions pertaining to our profession and career. I usually reflect on the past and what I learned from it. Here are my observations of what changed over the last five years and significantly impacted the world of civil engineering.

1. Adoption of sustainability as an ethical standard for civil engineering design. American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) defines sustainability as follows: A set of environmental, economic and social conditions in which all of society has the capacity and opportunity to maintain and improve its quality of life indefinitely without degrading quantity, quality or availability of natural, economic and social resources.

2. Hydraulic shale fracturing technology, commonly known as fracking, created and continues to create an energy boom, by harvesting natural gas, which is locked in shale. Fracking methodology injects large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals, some of which are not publicly identified, because of their proprietary nature. However, the environmental impact is not yet fully understood; concerns remain about ground water pollution and potential seismic activity related to fracking.

3. Recycled plastic and wood-plastic composite lumber is nothing new, but lack of strength has been an issue that has excluded it from structural application. However, research and production innovation over the last 5 years resulted in the formulation of structural plastic lumber strong enough to use in bridge building. Civil and military demonstration bridges have been built in Missoula, Montana and Fort Brag, North Carolina. Projects built with structural plastic lumber include seawalls, floating docks, piers, bulkheads, sign posts, playground equipment, and animal pens, and fences.

4. Temporary fabric structures have been in use for over 20 years, but over the last 5 years their use changed more and more from impermanent to permanent. Recent advances in laminating different materials with thermal and translucent properties, including attaching thin photovoltaic film, greatly increase thermal control in addition to natural light transmission. Fabric buildings lend themselves to clear span buildings, unobstructed by columns, do not require conventional footings and can be easily relocated. They are used for sports arenas, warehousing and manufacturing, material and equipment storage, as well as agricultural uses.

5. Over the last 5 years, engineers have been losing their jobs faster than people in a lot of other professions. Even graduates of the best schools are getting laid off as companies downsize and outsource or offshore operations to other countries. This is not all about finding cheaper labor; unfortunately our increase in engineering productivity plays a major role as well. On the bright side, it creates opportunities for the entrepreneurial engineer. Today’s engineer has to be innovative and on the move, chasing fast track opportunities, wherever they present themselves. This will require engineers to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining, lifelong learners.

Mr. Szautner, P.E., P.L.S, D.I., is a Professional Engineering Consultant, specializing in Forensic Engineering. He can be contacted at