“Structural Engineering is the Art of molding materials we do not wholly understand into shapes we cannot precisely analyze, so as to withstand forces we cannot really assess, in such a way that the community at large has no reason to suspect the extent of our ignorance.”
The origin of the quote is not known, though it is often attributed to Dr. A.R. Dykes (1976… the year I graduated from high school) and thought to have been popularized in the U.S. by James E. Amrhein.
Structural engineering is one of the things I am trained to do, and one of the things I do in my professional life. Many people ask me what I do in my work… imagining that it is a profession involving many hours analyzing mathematical output and staring at computer-generated structural models.
I must say, there are many paths to follow in a structural engineering career, and some of them do indeed involve many hours analyzing computer-generated mathematical models. Many years ago, I chose a different career path… or you might say, many different career paths!
Looking back, I believe I understand a few things more about myself and the world I live in as a result of these multiple career pursuits and experiences. I have a different perspective on what I do as a structural (and architectural) engineer. I like that the definition above starts with “… the Art…”.
Engineering is problem-solving. Civil (structural) engineering is solving people’s problems for the benefit and safety of the general public. For me, it’s connecting the dots: take the information I know (or what is available), look at the goals (or what is possible), and use my judgment to create solutions. Judgement includes knowledge, intuition, integrity, foresight, confidence, and the ability to draw upon many sources of information. Creating solutions includes creativity, artistic mindset, logical thinking, decision making, and the ability to work with others to communicate solutions in a manner that are clear and synergistic. Basically, I see structure and clarity within the multitudes of information and options… and try to form an educated opinion or recommend a possible solution accordingly.
Personally, I succeed when I am in a position to understand my clients, help them determine their goals, and work with them to create clear, understandable, achievable, and sustainable processes (or solutions) to satisfy their goals. I thrive when these goals relate to a vision for a better world and when I am engaged in the creative solution-finding process. (Sounds a lot like my other work in coaching, training, outdoor education and adventure, and therapeutic yoga and wellness mentoring.)
In my work as a structural engineer in Vermont, a typical week includes: working with builders and architects to figure out ways to re-frame or reinforce old building structures for new uses (then performing calculations or doing research, recommending- and then drawing- solutions); reviewing construction work in progress to analyze challenges and determine economical, durable, and safe solutions; working with architects and designers to recommend efficient building systems (structurally, sustainability, economically, aesthetically, functionally, adaptability, etc.); working with timber framers and owners to design people’s homes and to integrate framing; working with in-house architects on downtown and community revitalization projects; performing and writing structural assessments; designing new structures for new buildings; and coordinating payment for my services.
Most of my time is building working relationships with people. Most of my work requires a keen sense of responsibility and deep knowledge of mathematics, materials behavior and engineering mechanics. Most of my success depends on timely, reliable, and innovative solutions that make sense. Most of my reputation depends on my integrity and my ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and with a sense of respect for everyone (and everything) involved. Most of my motivation is driven by a desire for a healthier planet.
My experiences teaching snow sports have broadened my interpersonal communication skills. My experiences leading backcountry trips have broadened my teamwork skills. My experiences competing in endurance races have broadened my abilities to persevere. My adventure experiences (bicycle touring, tandem hang-gliding and para-sailing, mountaineering and canyoneering, skiing and snowboarding, snorkeling and scuba-diving, third-world travel) have broadened my perspective. My experiences facilitating therapeutic recreational workshops have broadened my abilities to understand people of various abilities and backgrounds. My experiences as a business manager and program director have broadened my sense of self and leadership. My experiences as a yoga teacher and wellness coach have helped me understand holistic health and the importance of positiveness, supportive human relationships, and community. My experiences participating in research work and continuing education workshops have broadened my desire to learn more. My experiences working with combat veterans have broadened my understanding of trust, brotherhood, common good, and dedicated service. My experiences in nature have broadened my sense of awe, spirituality, and my connection between whatever choices I make each day, professional and personal, and the health of our planet.
I am defined by who I am, and how I do what I do… and the decisions I make. And how I persevere through the challenges of living. And how I help and support others. As an engineer. As a coach. As a mentor. As a person engaged in whatever career role I’ve chosen .
Structural Engineering is the Art… of molding materials we do not wholly understand… into shapes we cannot precisely analyze…
By the way, I first read the quote above in the early 1990’s, when a young engineer who I had been mentoring gave me- as a gift- a photo he had taken of the Manhattan skyline taken from the Brooklyn Bridge. It had the quote inscribed on the photo. At the center of the photo were the World Trade Center’s (and structural engineer Leslie Robertson’s) Twin Towers.
…so as to withstand forces we cannot really assess….
It seems that my life is inspired by understanding these forces... by weaving lifetime experiences together… by working with people to find synergistic solutions… by being inquisitive, creative and idealistic… and by being positively inspiring… for a healthier and more sustainable world.
…in such a way that the community at large has no reason to suspect the extent of our ignorance.
Long ago, I let go of the idea that there is one right answer. Computer models are only tools for engineers working on projects for real people. There are many answers. Life is hard. We only know what we have learned (and what we KNOW already). And life goes on. With each answer comes a new question. For me, living a full life (as a structural engineer or as a wellness coach or as a spiritual leader) is about asking questions… and learning from as many experiences as possible!