BRAIN & BRAWN; Structural Engineering Is Backbone 'Behind the Beauty' of Architecture

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 16, 2003 | Go to article overview

BRAIN & BRAWN; Structural Engineering Is Backbone 'Behind the Beauty' of Architecture


Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Violent storms such as Hurricane Isabel seldom have merciful outcomes - except on the fortunes of structural engineers. These are civil engineering specialists who often are the first people called on to survey damage to the support systems of buildings caught in a storm's wake. Structural engineers work with support systems of every kind, whether made of wood, steel, masonry or other materials. They also help develop the codes and standards used in the construction trade.

"We call their work 'the strength behind the beauty,'" says Edward Bajer, executive director of the Washington-based Council of American Structural Engineers, a subgroup of the American Council of Engineering Companies.

Structural engineers often are involved in the construction of houses and are employed directly by owners, architects or contractors.

"In some cases, an engineer will be hired by someone buying an old house with the intention of restoring it and wanting to know it is structurally sound," Mr. Bajer says.

They also are a critical part of any large-scale commercial or residential project, although most don't work in the private sector. Their main business is with bridges, dams, parking garages and such ambitious construction projects as the new Washington Convention Center and the restoration of the Washington Monument.

Structural engineering is a branch of civil engineering, but a civil engineer has a broader range, working on water-treatment plants and other utility projects, Mr. Bajer explains.

"And they are much different from a home inspector. Our people are more professional. Home inspectors are guys who may have some sort of expertise, but they cover everything - doorjambs, wiring and heating units, for instance. Structural engineers look at the foundation, at beams, rafters and roofs. They tell you if these are OK and then get the contractor to do repairs if necessary."

The homeowner seeking a structural engineer should make sure the engineer is properly licensed. Credentialing varies by state. In addition, most engineers can recommend contractors to homeowners.

Structural engineer Dan Vannoy is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Maryland. The Web site for his Annapolis-based Trident Engineering Associates boasts that the firm offers "assistance on-site, anywhere, anytime." The firm will perform engineering investigations (including on aircraft and automotive accidents), reliability and failure assessments (on power-plant systems, for instance), general engineering and even legal assistance. His subspecialty is what he calls "forensic engineering" - looking at things that failed and determining why.

His other firm, Vannoy and Associates, works primarily with insurance companies, such as Allstate, which hired him last year to check structures after a tornado hit La Plata, Md.

"This last storm was quite devastating, on top of all the rain before then," he says.

He was asked to check walls and foundations either immersed in water or struck by falling trees. A Chevy Chase residence he describes as a 1900s Victorian was struck by a tree that took out a quarter of the home. …

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