Monday, May 27, 2013

Building/Construction Failures – What Went Wrong

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)
Unbeknownst to those of us attending last Thursday evening’s Willamette Valley Chapter CSI meeting at the Eugene Hilton Hotel & Conference Center, the Skagit River Bridge in Mount Vernon, WA collapsed as we dined. The accident severed I-5, dumping two cars into the chilly water, injuring (but miraculously not killing) three.(1) 

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. 

Ken Carper
In retrospect, it was kismet that the topic for our meeting’s program was building failures. Ken Carper, professor emeritus at Washington Sate University and a well-published expert on the subject, authoritatively delivered lessons gleaned from his decades of forensic engineering experience.(2) Foremost among these lessons is to learn from failures when they occur. Failure literacy is critical if we are to avoid repeating the same errors in the future. Performance that falls short of expectations can be an effective teacher. As the old saying goes, “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” It behooves the construction industry to take heed of experience, trial and error, and the tremendous educational value of failures. 

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 Skagit River Bridge to this list. Each of these failures added to the body of knowledge associated with engineering pathology and teratology.(3) 

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)
Ken bemoaned the tendency of the architectural “glossies” to ignore problems that accompany some of the most heralded projects. What sells advertising space are pretty pictures, not exhaustive forensic analyses of building problems. The classic case in point is the Sydney Opera House, universally lauded for its iconic design, which has come to symbolize an entire nation. What are now almost as universally ignored (at least by architects) are its infamous tribulations, which include mind-boggling cost overruns, a protracted construction phase, political bungling, and terrible acoustics. The ostensible takeaway: “If you don’t have a clue, at least make it beautiful.” The Sydney Opera House is a beautiful failure. 
Perhaps more damning is the American Institute of Architect’s decision in the 1980s to not co-sponsor the Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The aim of the journal (for which Ken has been the editor since its inception) was and is to improve the quality of construction through interdisciplinary communication and examine the causes and costs of failures and other performance problems. In its infinite wisdom, legal counsel at the time advised the AIA to not become involved in discussions about building failures, believing that architects must be protected from information that may be damaging to them in litigation. The focus was definitely upon avoiding liability rather than accepting responsibility for design errors. 

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 Bangladesh. There is plenty of blame to go around in that tragedy.(4) 
Dhaka Savar Building Collapse (photo by Rijans via Wikimedia, used under terms of Creative Commons)
Unfortunately, the potential for failure is present in every human undertaking. Mitigating the risk of human error should thus be a fundamental goal for the design and construction of all buildings and structures. The famous structural engineer Lev Zetlin once said “I look at everything and try to imagine disaster.” Besides attempting to predict a structure’s performance, mitigation strategies include evaluating constructability, conducting project peer reviews, designing for maintainability, and keeping up one’s professional education. 

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 World Trade Center or the Pentagon), or is it the local Starbucks? The implications for our society and cost impact for building projects of all types are immense. 

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. 


Sheldon said...

Thanks, Randy. Some of my favorite convention seminars were presented by forensic engineers. Even if you don't experience a disaster in person, it seems it's easier to learn from one example of what went wrong than from many examples of how to do it right.

Ron Geren said...

Randy, excellent post. I agree about the AIA...its mantra seems to be "risk avoidance" rather than "risk management." As you point out, this is an area where CSI excels.

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...

Sheldon, Ron: Thanks for your comments. Ken Carper's presentation was truly excellent. In the future perhaps we can look forward to more examples of how to do things right when it comes to risk management rather than learning painful lessons from what went wrong.

Building inspections Adelaide said...

Some has to take responsibility for the mistake.

Forensic Engineering Consultants said...

The best thing about CSI is that you just cannot blame the other parties for everything because they are also sitting around the table and will defend their positions.

Mike Johnson said...

Building colossal structures and buildings was not so easy without the noteworthy contributions made in the field of scientific research where the field of forensic engineering adds another great value of validating the structure is safe by utilizing its great expertise such as model building of the same structure in order to identify the root causes that can develop a situation of vulnerability through its team of highly qualified and experienced analysts.