The bliss and tragedy of not knowing
MAHOGANY SUN - Ricardo J. Cueto Jr. () - November 6, 2010 - 12:00am

Any fool can enjoy chewing marbles and see his dentist thereafter to fix his molars. Or, he could kill a mosquito using M16 to set a Guinness record and become a widower in a wink just because the poor insect was biting on his hubby’s neck when he pulled the trigger. There is bliss in ignorance but there is also tragedy in not knowing.

A now-famous campanile leaned because during the age it was constructed, the importance given the arts far overshadowed the quiet significance of engineering. Unfortunately enough, it was not only harmless paintings, sculptures and poetry that mesmerized the imaginations of men. Fanaticism for the arts extended to building structures as if they could stand as still as every stroke of Michelangelo and eternal as every word of William Shakespeare.   

The campanile, which took almost 200 years to build on a literally wrong footing, started rising in the early 12th century and was to be known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa — a structure that was never originally intended to lean but, rather, assert the economic might of the Italian city after which it was named.

There were times in the long history of the tower foundation’s differential settlement that Italians thought the leaning could be some blessing in disguise as the tower started to generate tourism except they could not find a way to stop it from tilting. Maybe they feared it could transform into a Sleeping Beauty that no prince could wake up with a kiss. Eventually, they needed something to ensure that the leaning would come to a halt. Of course, it took no-nonsense engineering to correct the undoing of die-hard art fanatics.

Sound engineering practice has remained, to some extent, a doctor on call. Ring his phone when you start seeing images of the afterlife; forget him the rest of the way as long as things fall into place. Good engineering has a price that appears to scare away certain interests. A five million-peso bid difference in the engineering design of a two billion-peso building could win the project outright for the lowest bidder without the owner realizing that a mere three percent savings in construction cost because of sound engineering (which a higher bidder could offer) translate to P60-million cost reduction.

Here, P60 million is lost to thin air because of owner’s refusal to part with five million bucks on ill-advised decision. What business sense, if you could call it one. In many other cases, the price of not knowing is costlier than a rare stone. I watched on television as one mid-rise building in old downtown Manila was brought down to its knees in broad daylight one uneventful day a few years back. What did people learn from Ruby Tower? What did they recall from the memories of Dagupan and Baguio on a morbid July 16 in 1990? More than P60 million worth of unlearned tutorials, I guess.

Keep this in mind so you could tell the difference between fact and fiction by the time the next salesman knocks at your door. Sound structural engineering practice does not necessarily guarantee a totally undamaged structure after a design-level earthquake but, depending on what performance level you require, it should avert structural collapse even in the event of a major earthquake. This primary objective intends that every structure designed and built in accordance with the National Structural Code of the Philippines (latest edition, 2010) is structurally life-safe.

But the tragedy that befalls the engineering profession in general is, in part, the making of its own sons. Over time, it has grown more wallpaper “engineers” content with hanging their diplomas in their living rooms and believing that what they learned in fifth grade has remained state-of-the-art. They have made decent living out of signing certifications of all sort with little or no idea where ‘structural soundness’ is in today’s lingo. How exactly do you define “sound” as opposed to saying that a structure is “compliant to structural life-safety provisions” of this or that code?

Engineers like us design structures, not women’s lingerie or bridal gowns as much as some of us may have loved to. As such, we are not gorgeous people. We listen to what the client or the architect needs. For every project, we must strive to know business, occupancy and other special considerations, budget, timetable and, of late, even the target performance level during a major earthquake event. The last one, of course, is best left to a separate future article that is fully dedicated on the subject. If you want glamour and star appeal, engineering is not the profession that will take you there.

We make safe and functional homes for business. We make works of architecture perform reliably in the real world against the hazards of the unknown. But beyond being purely technical people, the output of our labor sometimes helps lead our clients to make an informed decision on how their money is best spent. We give them measurable information on technical aspects of certain undertakings beyond the gloss of architectural renders. A case in point is assessing the cost effectiveness and risks involved in pursuing particular project developments.

Most clients would have purchased land before they could make a decision on specific things they want to do with it, and this is normal to this very day. You get a good land on slightly rolling hills for a cheap price, convenient access to a major artery, and an excellent assessment from a feng shui expert. But there are moments in time when luck cannot be stretched too far. You get to meet a full complement of engineers who recommend pre-engineering studies would be best conducted on the site before any design activity begins. Let’s see what these guys are up to, you say to yourself.

Only after such studies were you able to know that you have a land sitting on sinkholes and cavities large enough to hide your fleet of SUVs dangerously close to the surface of the existing ground. That means you may need to spend on foundation treatments, consider major revisions on the already drawn-up master plan, if feasible, and possibly realign your projected construction budget. In another case, a client might have purchased an old property he wants demolished to build a skyscraper without initially knowing it rested on liquefiable soil. Think of business nightmares.

It is not anyone else’s fault that engineering is a misunderstood profession. Every man is a fan of great beauty such that if he has already seen the visually captivating renders of his proposed project in 3D-StudioMax or SketchUp, it’s almost as good as seeing his dreams unfold before his very eyes. Maybe it is nature’s calling that everyone tends to appreciate external beauty first and foremost. This is true in every sense and it happens every day. A stunning beauty passes by a crowd and every head turns in her direction without one knowing all she got are three months to spend her life.

Indeed, who could really tell by just looking? No one did for that campanile in Pisa in the early 12th century. As long as beauty holds, it has many beholders. The time to call the doctor is when everything has gone wrong and beauty feels like going to a sleep so long and deep there is not a kiss in the world that can open her eyes again. Ask the engineers who made the Leaning Tower a lasting beauty that it has been to this very day. There is no reason not to believe.

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