The I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington State collapsed after a truck clipped a truss member overhead (photo by roswellgirl via Wikimedia, used under terms of Creative Commons)
Officials say it is difficult to accurately estimate the economic disruption caused by the bridge’s loss along the west coast’s primary north-south transportation artery. It will be huge. Certainly more consequential is the wake-up call the event signals on behalf of much needed attention to the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure.
Some of the more spectacular building and structure failures of the past include the Quebec Bridge (1907), Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940), Ronan Point (1968), (Hartford Arena (1978), Kemper Arena (1979), the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway (1981), L’Ambience Plaza (1987), Husky Stadium (1987), and the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis (2007). We can now add the
Unfortunately, it too often requires news-grabbing catastrophes such as these to remind us of the importance of learning from what can go wrong. The fate for those who cannot remember the past is to be condemned to repeat it. Even so, the architectural profession has been lamentably inattentive to the investigation of failures of all types and dissemination of an ever-growing body of failure avoidance strategies.
A beautiful failure: the Syndey Opera House (photo by Jacques Griebmayer via Wikimedia, used under terms of Creative Commons)
In any event, good design isn’t always enough. Architects are idealists and want to be innovative, but this can be a problem in the face of rapidly evolving real-world issues. The construction industry is increasingly complex, exponentially boosting the likelihood of errors. There is ever greater specialization, confusion over roles and responsibilities, and litigiousness. The proliferation of new construction technologies and types of materials make it difficult for any one design professional to comprehensively understand their interrelationships. Regulatory codes are likewise ever more byzantine and difficult to navigate. Piling on are clients’ unrealistic expectations and onerous project schedules.
The potential for failure is inherent in errors of all types. Besides design errors there are also errors inherent in the fundamental conception of a project: ill-advised site selection, inappropriate programming, or reckless development. Errors during construction and errors during the operational life of a structure (structural overloading or operator training deficiencies are examples) are also threats. It was a deadly combination of various kinds of errors that resulted in the recent collapse of a multistory garment factory in
Of course, numerous forces and destructive agents of natural, and not human origin, are at the root of many failures. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, flooding, and landslides are among the threats. Although not always practical, the most effective strategy for dealing with these forces is to avoid unnecessary exposure to them. Absent that option, mitigating the potential for progressive, disproportionate structural collapse is the priority. Lives are very much at stake in these instances.
A distressing new problem is failures attributable to intentional damage—criminal destruction wrought by terrorists. At best, anti-terrorism strategies can aim to reduce the impact of unidentified threats by unknown weapons against unspecified targets. What facilities are most at risk? Is it the high-profile, high-value target (i.e. the
No, not that CSI.
People often think of the TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation when they hear the acronym “CSI” rather than the Construction Specifications Institute. However, when it comes to the real world of forensic engineering, Ken Carper believes our industry's CSI is playing a leading role. It is precisely the increasing complexity of the world that demands effective, systematized, and sophisticated modes of information organization as advocated by the Institute. CSI is the one organization that embraces the entire spectrum of construction-related endeavors. It fosters collegiality between the disparate parties involved with the conception, construction, and operation of buildings. CSI is also the industry’s premier advocate for information dissemination. To avoid repeating the errors of the past, we must learn from them and from the experience of others. Education and communication are the foundation of many failure avoidance strategies.
We have tremendous challenges to face as design professionals. Postponing the destruction of our buildings is one of them. Thanks to Ken for delivering an important lesson about the fundamental concepts of errors. It was a wake-up call in its own right.