Rebecca R. Bowman, PE, Esq.

As Laurence J. Peter said, “There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.”

As some of you know, I’m both an engineer and an attorney. One of the excellent things about legal education is that it’s largely based upon case studies. In law, “case study” refers to a study of legal cases that have been decided. In engineering, “case study” refers to a study of experience. However, in my engineering education, we did absolutely none of that. I do not recall (granted, it was a while ago) a single instance of examination of a structural failure. We didn’t even watch the Galloping Gertie movie in any of my classes (although we did watch it at an NSPE chapter meeting).

As an attorney, I make a fair amount of my income from engineers who have not learned from experience, whether their own mistakes or the mistakes of others. As an engineer, I would like to make attorneys like me go out of business. In all the cases I have handled, there has not been a single failure that was a surprise or something that could not have been anticipated. Whether a failure resulted from incorporation of expansive soils or inadequate compaction of fill or forgetting to look at the history of the site, not one of those failures resulted from information that was not available before the failure.

I understand that you don’t all work in structures, soils, or construction. Some of you actually work with materials, about which we don’t know pretty much everything. (You’re typically known as researchers.) However, the human landscape is littered with the carcasses of businesses that failed to ask basic questions. Gee, I wonder what happens when those little fibers from the asbestos insulation get into workers’ lungs. Gee, I know that many historical peoples who ate from lead-content pewter plates suffered from anemia and dropsy and other consequences of lead poisoning; I wonder if lead water pipes would cause problems. Gee, I know that Meriwether Lewis suffered from mercury poisoning (to treat syphilis); I wonder if using mercury in thermometers is a good idea. And don’t even get me started on pharmacological disasters. You would think that by this time, we would have learned that there’s no free lunch. Every decision has consequences. If we would take the time to consider the possibilities, at least our decision could be informed. I am not proposing paralysis by analysis, just a little consideration of possible consequences.

One of the greatest benefits of this very magazine is that it offers to all of us the opportunities to learn about the experiences of others. Yes, celebrations of successes are wonderful. Teach me about the prophylactic measures you took to avoid problems. However, analysis of less-than-unmitigated-successes is even more useful. Tell me about the things you wish that you had done differently. In today’s litigious society, you may have to be discreet and somewhat circumspect, but you can still share.

Help me to know when “cutting corners” is not cutting corners, but cutting strength-bearing members. Help me to know when just a few minutes verifying correct placement can avoid potential catastrophe. One case I worked with involved the block-layers being off by six inches on the beam slot. No big deal, right? The beam still fit in the slot. However, no one caught the shift, and the structure, designed to bear on the beam, was built as designed, but was not resting on the beam. The result was, shall we say, one of those less-than-unmitigated-successes. One simple verification measurement and one simple question – How does this impact the design? – would have avoided a serious problem.

Sometimes “cutting corners” doesn’t really seem important. “We’ve built on this soil before; we’ve never had a problem before, so we don’t really need to spend the money to test the soil. Ah, yes, but no two sets of soil conditions are truly identical. Don’t tell me how the situations are similar; tell me how they are different. This second location has a drainage swale and we really can’t see the water movement through the area. Build here without checking and the structure will slide down the hill.

I’m in southwestern Pennsylvania. Flat is pretty much an unknown topographical condition here. If you’re building on a suburban residential lot with a thirty-foot drop from side-to-side across an eighty-foot width, a ranch house with a side-entry attached garage is not a good idea. Just say no. Okay, so you said yes. Don’t use an un-engineered, un-drained twenty-foot-high wall incorporating “pre-engineered” interlocking landscaping block to support the driveway. Okay, so you did that. You CANNOT be surprised when the house slides down the hill.

And I just love “pre-engineered” products incorporated without thought. (That was sarcasm, in case you were worried about me.) Let’s use a pre-engineered skylight system and connect it to a pre-engineered window wall. No problem, right? Both are pre-engineered. Well, did you notice that the skylight system collects water on the inside and the window wall collects water on the outside? Just exactly where is the skylight water going to go? (The answer, of course, was down the inside of the window wall into the basement computer room – not a good answer on any level.)

My point is that by identifying and questioning our assumptions, by learning from the experiences of others who have gone before us (whether by years or months), by asking the simple question — How does this impact? – we can avoid the errors, mistakes in judgments, and disastrous consequences suffered by those who have gone before us. You who have learned from your experiences or the experiences of others, please share. Use the vehicle of this magazine (and earn valuable CPE hours). You who are still willing to learn from the experiences of others, read and watch and ask questions. After all, if you don’t respect your elders’ mistakes, you’re in a Risky Business.