February 2008 » Letters
Readers comment on careless word use and good engineering.
CE News Staff

Careless word use
I am taking liberties in using your fine publications to address a disturbing tendency in misuse and ignorance of words in the popular literature. The importance of this is increased when those in the professions attempt to convey information to the public, but even more important is the dilution of proper usage by professionals in their endeavors. We are looked to for a higher standard of precision in meaning. As that is diluted by careless misuse, so is the stature of the professions.

This is best demonstrated by examples often found in news media, but more serious when misuse is in engineering journals and discourse between professionals. Some samples:

Concrete is referred to as cement. Cement is a constituent of concrete as we in the business all know. The inappropriate reference joins with careless use of concrete in construction. Curing is critical in temperature, moisture retention, and additives. It is difficult to address these concerns if the proper understanding of the interaction of cement, water, fine and coarse aggregate, additives, and mixing are not understood. Cement is not concrete. To allow such careless wording is to disregard the proper use of one of the most significant building materials.

Dirt is what one sweeps up, cleans from clothes, or removes in the bath. [Soil, not dirt,] is backfilled, compacted, hauled, dumped, graded, or quarried. And careless terminology leads to misuse of soils in construction. Compaction of sand is best by vibratory machines or ponding with water, not by sheep’s foot roller. Rubber-tired loaders do not accomplish compaction except by fortuitous circumstance. Compaction effort without regard to optimum moisture content leads to much wasted effort and questionable results. The lapse in proper use of soils is endemic if not pandemic. We involved in construction must not become infected and must restore understanding and usage to its rightful place.
Col. Phil Weinert (Retired)
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


Good engineering
I enjoyed reading your editorial, "Should you be high-tech?" in the December 2007 issue of CE News. I agree that it is difficult, if not impossible, to meet clients’ needs in today’s engineering climate without a substantial upgrade in both software and hardware. Our [small] firm recently purchased new computers, software, and large-page scanner, and I couldn’t be happier using the system … to design our projects.

On the flip side of this coin, I believe that many larger firms believe that the software can do most of the thinking for younger, inexperienced engineers and is a replacement for mentorship. In my experience, most of the decision makers in the larger firms don’t actually use the design software they purchase. There is a potential for a disconnect between the designer and the manager in this sense, and a decrease in the quality of the product that is designed.

Staying up-to-date and high-tech is important, so long as it is coupled with experienced people using the software. The goal of any firm should be, above all, for a design to be economical and to work in the field. Firms that rely too heavily on the technology must realize that the software cannot think for them, and that there is nothing magic in the world of civil engineering. The principles that have guided good design firms for decades should still govern those good design firms, and should not be replaced with a false sense of security that their computer system is up to date.
Joseph P. Young, P.E.


We have the concept that more years in college, more continuing education, and specialty licenses will make for better engineers. Specialty licensing is nothing more than an attempt to get more money for highly specialized engineers. More education can make better engineers, but education that parrots the bad engineering concepts we have engrained in the system will not erase the bad engineering that is being forced on us by groups that are so myopic in their views that it is a wonder that we are able to function. What do I mean?

In site work today, almost every political subdivision requires that a detention system be built for each project. Does it matter that all those small basins will probably time shift their peak discharges so that the net effect is a worse flood? No. If I build a large, area-wide basin or design my site so the post-development runoff is less than the predevelopment [runoff], can I eliminate the individual basin? No. No matter what, the site will have a detention system and it will be designed per some specified computer program whose 100-page output will be submitted to a specialist in the proper agency.

We were told by the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent mud and trash from construction sites from entering into the drainage system, which isn’t a bad idea. But now I am told to reduce total suspended solids, minerals, nutrients, chemicals, and even biological oxygen demand. When, why, and by what group was the decision made to build, in essence, sewage treatment facilities for stormwater on every site?

This tidal wave of bad codes with their conflicts and contradictions between them just kills the meat and potatoes engineer. Does the ability to design or construct the specification ever enter into the code writers minds? Probably not; they don’t have to use what they have written, nor do they have to integrate their code with the other codes.

The construction industry has eliminated weather delay, unforeseen conditions, or any reason for a contractor to get an extra or time extension. This has lead to things being built in conditions and in time frames that degrades quality but meets the schedule.

I missed the continuing education course on dimensioning with a computer. I now see elevations and grades being specified to the third decimal place and building dimensions to the 1/32nd of an inch.

All the education programs and specialty licenses are not going to change the tidal wave of bad engineering being drafted into codes and laws by their myopic, specialist authors. Let a meat and potatoes engineer try to get the bad codes or laws revised and he is stonewalled by the specialist, know-it-alls. One can’t be a "good" engineer with codes, laws, and concepts that preclude good engineering.
Michael Zunich, P.E.

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