The Code of Hammurabi and structural engineers

November 2008 » Columns
The following two key clauses from the Code of Hammurabi—developed by the King of Babylonia between 1790 and 1750 B.C. (the world’s first written code of business performance)—still have significance for today’s structural engineers, architects, and builders.
Richard G. Weingardt, P.E.

The following two key clauses from the Code of Hammurabi—developed by the King of Babylonia between 1790 and 1750 B.C. (the world’s first written code of business performance)—still have significance for today’s structural engineers, architects, and builders:

  • If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly and the house falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
  • If it ruins goods, he shall make compensation for them, and shall re-erect the house at his own expense.
To many, Hammurabi’s code (simply translated) is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. So what’s the point? In the United States, only the part "if your building falls down and kills someone, you must die" doesn’t apply. The other part of the code, however, does. When something falls down—or doesn’t work as promised—someone has to pay. This is especially true in today’s litigious environment that creates adversarial relationships and stifles engineering and construction innovation.

So to prevent headaches, litigation, and financial setbacks, it behooves structural engineers to be constantly alert toward preventing structural mishaps. Every building project, simple or complex, is potentially laden with challenges and untold twists and turns. And history has shown that the cause of most building failures and/or difficulties can be traced to the following:
  • human misjudgments or errors,
  • flawed materials or methods, or
  • acts of nature—and of terrorists.
Because engineers, architects, and contractors—human beings with all the imperfections such creatures have—design and construct our man-made environment, structural failures and inadequacies will never go away. Hopefully, though, we structural engineers can reduce the occurrence and severity of failures by keeping three things in mind.

First, more design deficiencies result from mistakes managing a project than from purely technical errors. Second, having technical competence doesn’t translate into possessing sound judgment. Third, because designers of buildings are ultimately responsible for their structural performance, engineers and architects must stay in control of their creations from design through construction, and sometimes even for a reasonable period over the life of certain structures.

It’s critically important that structural engineers be significantly involved during the construction administration phase of their projects—especially taking seriously shop drawing reviews and job site visits. During either phase, if potential problems (big or small) emerge, resolving them early is the best policy (unless your errors and omission insurance carrier forbids you from doing so). Typically, though, ignoring troubles that surface during construction is like an ostrich putting its head in sand no matter what others may advise us to do. A paying-no-heed approach rarely does any good and won’t make potential lawsuits vanish.

In my more than 40 years of reviewing structural malfunctions, I have found that one or more of the following six items was the source of the problem:

  • redundancy (lack of it),
  • progressive collapse (failure to understand it),
  • constructability (not adequately thought out),
  • sound judgment (technical expertise trumping logic),
  • overconfidence (failure to question one’s actions or computer results), and/or
  • peer reviewing (absence of any).


Knowing these items have played a major role in most failed structural projects provides good reason to take heed. If you fully understand the implication of these items—and properly address them on your projects—the likelihood of having a structural catastrophe on your hands will be greatly diminished. Understanding how structural failures occur and can be avoided is crucially essential.

For instance, requiring peer reviews—having qualified, unbiased eyes looking over technical design work—on projects where cutting-edge, never-been-built-before structures are proposed can uncover potential the-devil-is-in-the-details ills and prevent disasters. Remember, it’s easy to get so close to a project that you can’t "see the forest for the trees."

Along with this, always using good judgment, common sense, and vigilance to not let your technical competence override all your decisions can keep you out of the courts. Also, make sure you can explain to non-engineers—someone like a judge or lawyer, your neighbor, or even your mother—the essence of your design and your decisions in plain English, not engineering lingo.

Our profession spends considerable time and effort on the first three: redundancy, progressive collapse, and constructability. However, careful consideration of the last three—sound judgment, overconfidence, and peer review—will go a long way toward keeping you from ever having to answer to the "if something falls down someone must pay" part of ole Hammurabi’s code.

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