The Art of Not Constructing

Last month I wrote about the economics of engineering and the well-known saying about engineers doing it cheaper, but there were two aspects of this line of thought that I couldn’t fit into that one-page column. After some further consideration I decided that they were too important to let pass.

The first aspect is Wellington’s observation that it is better to consider engineering to be “the art of notconstructing.” This got me thinking about the connection between good engineering and aesthetically pleasing design. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, but I struggled to think of an example from any of the engineering disciplines that I considered to be well engineered but ugly. On the other hand all of the systems, devices, constructions and machines that I think epitomize good design are also elegant, stylish and not over-blown or excessively complicated. Simplicity in itself leads to a well-engineered result, whereas complexity in the design concept is best addressed by eliminating the need for it.

The second aspect was summed up in a version of the saying allegedly said by a founding member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in Britain: “A Civil Engineer can do for a penny what any fool can do for a pound.” The problem with expressing economics in these terms is that civil engineering, together with every other branch of the profession, is littered with case studies where someone did it for less by cutting corners, and then disaster struck.

The Tay Bridge collapse in Scotland in 1879 was the result of the design engineer cheapening the arrangement of the tie rod ends that cross-braced the center columns of the bridge, which subsequently collapsed during a storm killing the 75 passengers and crew on a train crossing the bridge at the time. More than 100 years later a suspended walkway in a hotel in Kansas City, Mo., collapsed under the weight of spectators because the support detail had been changed (and cheapened) in a way which resulted in the loading on the drop rods being double the original design intent. This caused 114 fatalities and 216 serious injuries, the highest death toll for a non-deliberate structural collapse in the United States. This is the real peril in the idea that cheaper engineering equals good engineering. It might be more apposite to say that “a good Civil Engineer might spend a pound avoiding the mistakes that a fool makes to save a penny.”

The two aspects are apparently contradictory, but they can be resolved by understanding that the true skill of the gifted engineer is to know what can be jettisoned without compromising the whole enterprise. Perhaps the last word on this subject should be given to another frequent victim of misattribution, Albert Einstein. Einstein almost certainly did not say “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” although he expressed a similar thought in a much more complex way in a 1933 lecture. The next time you are faced with a tough value engineering challenge remember the art of not constructing, but only in a way that would get Einstein’s seal of approval.

The Art of Not Constructing