What Do We Do All Day?

by Don Friedman on March 29, 2017


George W. Melville, Chief Engineer of the United States Navy Bureau of Engineering, in the 1890s. A serious man with a serious hat.


We’re fairly busy right now. Also, we have two part-time student interns learning the basics. When you combine those two facts, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how we all spend our time at work. Mostly idle thinking on my part: I don’t have one weird trick that will revolutionize engineering.

We spend a good chunk of the day in correspondence with people from other firms. Building owners, architects, mechanical engineers, contractors, other consultants (with preservation consultants being the ones we deal with most often), expediters, government agency officials, technical support personnel for products we specify, prospective clients, and so on. The mix of these different groups varies between different OSE personnel, as does the amount of time spent on the phone, in emails, in office meetings, and occasionally in video conferencing. At least we’ve got rid of faxes.

We spend a lot of time on site. Investigative surveys are the most interesting site visits (for me, anyway) as they are miniature mystery stories wrapped in architectural voyeurism. Construction site visits are a big slice of time, too.

We talk to each other: internal review, bouncing ideas off each other, asking questions, looking for information on similar problems in the past. Also, a lot of discussions about food.

We spend time doing research of various types: looking at codes, looking at product literature, looking at databases about buildings.

And the we get to the stuff that looks engineering-like: calculations and drafting. Those are two parts of the design process, but in a way the least interesting parts. The interesting part is mostly invisible, as it is the thinking about what it is we want to draft and we want to calculate. For me, that thinking is accompanied by scribbles on scrap paper; for at least one of our engineers, it is accompanied by sketches in CAD.

Everything we do other than design is the context of design: it is about finding the information we need for design, facilitating design, and communicating our design to others. All professions have their core knowledge and tasks that distinguish them from everyone else, and ours is the design of building structure. Sometimes, for example in a day that has four meetings, it’s possible to temporarily overlook that. But we can’t stay away from it for long and we wouldn’t want to.

 

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