The Meaning of Failure

by Don Friedman on November 27, 2017

Trigger warning: The blog post below includes discussion of death in building failures.

Definitions of structural engineering tend to be positive, as they should be. Safely and economically designing structures…that sort of thing. Engineers are, amazingly enough, human and prefer to think about success rather than failures. I’ve been working on a paper for the upcoming construction history congress, and it’s largely about failure. It’s actually about the birth of the American version of forensic engineering, but there’s no way to talk about that without talking about failures and the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are full of examples. Some of the ones I’ve used in the paper are reasonably well-known today, like the 1904 fire that obliterated downtown Baltimore. Some are not, like the horrific Ninth Ward School fire in New York. Every one that I discuss in the paper includes people killed by fire or by building collapse; the St. Louis tornado killed hundreds.

Obviously I mean no disrespect in dredging up events that caused so much misery. Engineers learn from failure, and the growth of forensic engineering has been a part of that for well over a century. No matter how respectfully a tragedy is discussed, it is still a tragedy; in all of these cases it is a tragedy for people not close to me. This issue is not unique to engineering, but is roughly equivalent to the discussions that take place among medical professionals or the research and publications of many historians.

The medical analogy is probably the best because of the issue of failure. Doctors know that some patients will die no matter how well the people and technology of medicine perform, but their job is to try to prevent that from happening as best they can. Similarly, there is no realistic way to prevent all deaths from fire and building collapse, but it is our job as engineers to try. We succeed most of the time – indeed, we have a far better success rate than doctors because we are dealing with structures far less complex than the human body – so it is unnerving when we fail. Most engineers I know have the occasional moment away from work when we suddenly wonder if we made a mistake on some project. Those moments are easily addressed by checking on the projects when we get back to the office. Reading article after article about old failures has the effect with me of triggering that baseless worry.

The photo above shows two skyscrapers, built with the latest in steel-frame technology, during the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Those buildings survived, damaged, while many of the older buildings around them burned. The promise of fireproof construction proved, yet again, to be false, but the newer buildings survived better than the old ones did and so reduced the amount of time needed to get things functioning again. This fire was one of the last leading up to the Triangle Fire which, in killing 146 people while the building was hardly damaged, showed clearly that the new technology worked up to a point. It turned out that “fireproof” buildings were great at not burning themselves but that didn’t necessarily mean the people inside were safe.

In short, the word “failure” is both an accurate technical description of the topic and a euphemism to hide the fact that building failure means people’s injury and death. In a technical discussion, it’s the right word to use. In ordinary conversation, it’s a poor shield to hide behind to escape the consequences of bad engineering.

Finally, you can call it squeamishness or propriety, but I looked at a lot of photos before choosing the one above. The earthquake killed a lot of people but it is unlikely that the photo above captured any of the deaths, as it took some time for the fires to get to be that bad in the downtown area and people had evacuated.

Relating Damage To Structural Type

November 22, 2017

Some stereoscopic views of Chicago after the 1871 fire: That’s the kind of devastation that a firestorm can cause. But it’s worth noting that different types of building fail differently. Nearly every building in Chicago before the fire was either of wood-stud construction (private houses and small commercial buildings) or of masonry walls with wood […]

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An Alarming Symptom, Maybe

October 23, 2017

Sometimes issues during an investigation aren’t clear. That picture is the entry to an abandoned church and that’s a really odd crack in the floor. I was there to do the most basic type of conditions assessment – hazard to the public or not? – and since the building was closed to use, the only […]

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Telegraphing Through

October 20, 2017

Another artistic photo, this time of one face of a party wall in a rowhouse. If you look closely (click on the picture to expand it), you’ll see that the plaster is well-adhered to the brick. The plaster didn’t fall off in that one area, it was removed. Why? Because the presence of that long, […]

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This Is Ungood

October 18, 2017

From a few years ago, some rotting wood beams and a failing brick pier. In 1989, I performed a long and difficult site visit to check on a structure I won’t name (confidentiality is still in place, even after all these years) that had to be reviewed once per year. The fellow who had been […]

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Rising To Failure

October 3, 2017

This is the same building as the unlinteled door – it was chock full of bad masonry conditions. The picture above is just to provide some context. I’m interested in the brick pier in the cellar. Here it is in isolation: There are several possible causes for the visible damage, but rising damp is the […]

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All In The Emphasis

October 2, 2017

I find this article in the New York Times about the recent earthquake in Mexico City to be problematic. To be clear, I claim no special knowledge of the quake itself or of Mexico City, but the building process is the same everywhere. To create a building of any significant size, we need a prospective […]

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Patterns of Damage

September 28, 2017

João Carlos Souza has a primer up on ArchiNet on how to identify problems in concrete buildings based on crack patterns. Putting aside some bad translation from Portuguese to English* it’s quite good and can help identify damage when used as intended. Mr. Souza does not explicitly state the assumptions that went into his visual […]

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Failure In An Expected Pattern

September 20, 2017

The animated picture above is from The General, a 1926 Buster Keaton movie. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.) In the era before computer graphics, and when the use of scale models for special effects led to disappointing results, Keaton got a realistic train crash in the obvious manner: he crashed a train and […]

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Anna Karenina in Concrete

September 10, 2017

Tolstoy said that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This principle can be applied to buildings: every building in good condition is alike, every failing building fails in its own way. The white paint on the concrete does a great job, in my opinion, of highlighting where the […]

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