Doing more with less

October 2012 » Columns » COMMENT
Daniel A. Cuoco, P.E., F.ASCE

This month's issue contains two articles by Christina Zweig describing structural engineering innovations.

The first article provides a short biography of Buckminster Fuller, a brilliant innovator and free thinker whose career embodied the philosophy of "doing more with less." Among his patents is the geodesic dome, for which he is most well known. He was expelled twice from Harvard University, as mentioned in the article; but ironically, as a result of his accomplishments later in life, he subsequently taught at Harvard and received dozens of honorary degrees from various institutions. Today there are more than 300,000 geodesic domes around the world serving diverse functions.

The second article describes some innovations in bridge design, including the type of project delivery method, funding strategies, creative design and construction methods, and new materials. In the latter category, lightweight honeycomb panels made of polyurethane foam sandwiched between fiber reinforced polymer facing sheets are being explored as a replacement for concrete bridge decks. Some of these initiatives are funded by federal, state, and local agencies.

We endeavor to include many of these types of projects in the pages of Structural Engineer.

Structural engineers can innovate in different ways. One approach is to develop a new material or structural system for use in a building or bridge. Another approach is to use conventional materials and/or structural components in an innovative way. In some cases, however, even though an innovative structural system could save a significant amount on materials, the additional cost of construction overrides any economic gain because the contractor hasn't done it before and must price-in a learning curve. In any case, the goal of structural engineering innovation is to provide cost-effective and sustainable solutions, i.e., "doing more with less," while maintaining the responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

Unfortunately, America's litigious culture is a major disincentive to innovation. Certainly, new materials and systems need to be thoroughly researched and examined before they are suitable for public consumption. Structural engineers normally don't have sufficient fees to test new products or designs independently, but sometimes a manufacturer or ambitious building owner will subsidize the cost of testing in return for obtaining a new product or unique building. However, even with exhaustive research and testing, sometimes a new product can develop an atypical problem that was not encountered with other more conventional products. This often results in a lawsuit citing that the engineer "should have known" about the problem even though there was no way to predict it in the first place.

Despite the threat of potential litigation, U.S. structural engineers continue to generate innovative designs for building and bridge projects. This is part of the excitement of being a structural engineer – I guess it's in our blood.

Daniel A. Cuoco, P.E., F.ASCE,
dcuoco@zweigwhite.com

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