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28 years of Experience, 18 hours of Engineering, and a Good Night’s Sleep

Friday, November 10, 2017  

Personal Reflections on Reconnaissance in Mexico City

By: Kenneth O’Dell, S.E. (SEAOSC)

While 28 years of practicing the art and science of Structural Engineering is not that significant, when compared to the statesmen and women of our Association, it has begun to afford me the opportunity to share my “grey hair” with others. Insight into the profession of Structural Engineering comes in many ways to those who choose to keep an open mind, and from that insight, wisdom is hopefully gained. On a recent trip to Mexico City, as part of SEAOSC’s Safer Cities Reconnaissance Team (, I had the opportunity to solidify a thought that has been stirring around in my brain for several years now. 

That is…Structural Engineering is not about the Structure.

For many of you, this may not be exceptionally new thought, and you may be scratching your head with a perplexed look, thinking; well duh, where has this guy been for the last 28 years? For others, this may be a puzzling consideration, leaving you equally scratching your head, asking, if this guy hasn’t been focused on the structure, what has he been engineering for the last 28 years? Don’t get me wrong, as with most engineers, I began my engineering career, and remain, excited about the numbers. However, my view has changed from seeing the numbers result in sizes of beams and columns, shear walls and braced frames to seeing their impact on the community in which I work and live. While perhaps, I wish I could be more reflective on the carbon footprint of the structures I design, this is not the result I’m most intrigued by. Rather, I’m intrigued by the question of how these structures make people feel.

A little over a decade ago I had the opportunity to participate as the engineer of record on a therapeutic equestrian center, used to help improve the lives of people with disabilities through therapeutic horse-related programs. I think this was when it began to sink in that structural engineering is about helping others accomplish something bigger than the building. This project was followed by an entire high school campus and many other education related structures. In these projects, I began to see student activities long before I saw the beams and the columns.

Then in 2010, I was invited to join a team responding to the earthquake that devastated Haiti. Our team spent approximately 7 days completing building safety assessments throughout the garment industry of Port-au-Prince. Our goal was focused on ensuring employees could safely return to work, supporting their livelihoods, as well as the livelihood of the Haitian economy, which relied heavily on foreign contracts in the garment industry. On this trip, it became abundantly clear that the buildings were not the industry, but merely the shells within which great things could happen for the economy of a nation.

Several years and a couple earthquakes later, I found myself in Mexico City following the September 19th Central Mexico Earthquake. As a team sponsored by SEAOSC our goals were threefold; look for lessons learned related to building types subject to retrofit ordinances recently passed in Southern California, interview residents and building owners regarding preparedness, response, and recovery to advance discussions of resiliency within communities, and develop photo and video resources to supplement training programs for post-earthquake and building damage assessments. While these goals were met, the interaction with the people of Mexico had the greatest impact and reinforced my belief that the structures were not the issue. 

The issue was how the people responded to the buildings whether damaged or not. Of course, there were tragic examples of catastrophic building failure, and many examples of structural and non-structural damage that could have been prevented. However, once the shaking stopped, and rescue turned to recovery, the greater question became…what next? 

It was on our final evening in Mexico when this question could not have been more vividly asked. While headed to a final building on our list for observation, I was nearly run over by woman desperately searching for structural engineers to assess buildings in her community.  She spoke of a neighborhood in distress due to the impact of a damaged building looming over adjacent buildings. The subject building had been deemed “structurally sound” yet uninhabitable by City officials until repairs could be a completed. However, a second engineering review considered the building to be a hazard, with evidence of partial collapse, and the potential for the building to fall in any direction. 

As would be imagined, this had the neighboring building owners and occupants quite distressed, as they did not know which report to believe. One of the neighboring buildings was largely vacated by the residents, voluntarily, because they were too concerned to remain. However, a few remaining families had nowhere else to go, and they stayed because “this was home”. One of these families was a young couple with a girl who was perhaps 10-years old. The young girl’s bedroom was in the shadow of the damaged building. Their angst was further compounded by the lack of available communication from the City officials, due to the official’s overwhelming task of continuing to complete initial assessments on a huge inventory of affected structures.

While most of our previous building observations were limited to quick exterior assessments, albeit with a few excursions through the structures with an owner’s permission; the team spent almost three hours on-site for this building, a bit more than a traditional ATC-20 Rapid Assessment. With a team of six, our total of 18-hours of exterior review (we could not access the inside of the structure), combined with review of the two previous reports, might be able to be considered something just shy of an ATC-20 Detailed Assessment. 

Through our review, we reached a collective opinion that the building did not exhibit a collapse potential, and based on observations of overall plumbness of the building, supported by review of the other reports, we shared our opinion that the building did not pose an imminent hazard significantly greater than that posed prior to the earthquake. Thus, we felt the adjacent building remained safe to occupy. I went so far as to throw my own 13-year old daughter under the bus by suggesting I would allow her to sleep in the young girl’s bedroom.

On the flight back to the States, another team member and I discussed trip outcomes. One thought provoking consideration was the fact that we spent, as a team, an inordinate amount of time, 18 hours, on a single building. Wouldn’t it have better to spend some of that time on other buildings, we wondered. In defense of the time spent, we ticked off all the things we learned from the one building and engagement with the residents of the adjacent structure; how to observe the different crack patterns, interpretation of soil settlement vs compression displacement, discussions with community members regarding their preparedness and post-event recovery expectations, etc. 

It was then that it struck me… all those items were important, but they paled by comparison to our real accomplishment. As a team, we spent 18-hours of engineering expertise for the singular achievement, that night, of letting a little girl sleep peacefully.

In picturing a peaceful night’s sleep, I come to realize, and encourage my professional colleagues to consider; as engineers, we have an incredible opportunity, some might say responsibility, to positively impact the communities within which we work and live, we just get to use the art and science of Structural Engineering to do so.