The Conflicted Engineer
Climate change is an issue seemingly designed to confound engineers about what is the responsible thing to do. Consider this exchange recently overheard on Linkedin:
Engineer 1: Professional engineers owe a duty to public safety. Therefore, we must identify buildings that fail to meet HVAC standards designed to prevent transmission of the Covid virus.
Engineer 2: And, I think that engineers should be flagging emissions of greenhouse gases from buildings for the same reason. Because, fossil fuel use results in climate change, which is also a threat to public safety.
Engineer 1: Hmm. I’m not so sure about that. Engineers bear some responsibility there…
As new information about climate change and its impacts accumulates, engineering societies — the embodiment of the engineering profession — are increasingly engaged in sorting out the implications for engineering practice and providing guidance on how to respond. However, engineers have been slower to accept that climate change sometimes requires abandoning established ways of doing things.
The engineer is constantly juggling professional and personal responsibilities. The profession holds protection of the public as its paramount responsibility. But, the individual engineer has many other, sometimes conflicting responsibilities — to their client, to their employer, to their family, and to themself.
Any change in the way of doing things will have consequences, many perhaps unforeseeable. Project costs might increase. The engineer’s competence may be put in doubt. Ultimately, personal trust is at risk. Why deviate from a proven course of action?
The case of William LeMessurier, chief design engineer of the Citicorp Center, provides a case study of the ethical peril that lies in wait for the professional engineer, and what it means to hold protection of the public paramount.
LeMessurier produced a strikingly original design to accommodate an unusual restriction on development at a site in mid-town Manhattan. Instead of continuing all the way to the ground, the 59-story office tower is held aloft on massive columns located in the center of each of its four sides. Structural stability is assured by a series of diagonal braces extending over several floors and incorporated into each face of the tower.
Complications arose when, at the last minute, LeMessurier discovered that his design calculations were incomplete. In calculating the stresses due to wind loads, LeMessurier had followed accepted practice of orienting the wind force perpendicular to each side of the tower. However, LeMessurier later discovered that wind hitting the building at an angle would produce higher stresses than the structure could withstand.
What was LeMessurier to do? His design process had followed established practice for calculating wind loads. However, the nearly-complete structure now posed a deadly hazard to an estimated 200,000 people. There was a reasonably high probability that the tower would come crashing down into the streets of New York City.
LeMessurier was in conflict, but ultimately he could not ignore the new information obtained from the additional wind loading calculations. An engineer must always act to protect the safety of the public based on the best available information.
LeMessurier’s responsibility as a professional engineer required him to make changes to the structure — changes that imposed significant additional costs on his client and put his professional reputation at risk. Completion of the tower was delayed by 3 months as bolted connections at critical locations throughout the structure were reinforced with stronger, welded joints.
As a result, the Citicorp Center is regarded as an exemplary feat of engineering and of engineering practice.
You have a social obligation. In return for getting a license and being regarded with respect, you’re supposed to be self-sacrificing and look beyond the interests of yourself and your client to society as a whole. And the most wonderful part of my story is that when I did it, nothing bad happened. — William LeMessurier
More by this author: Read about the 19th century roots of the engineering profession and the 72 engineers and scientists named on the Eiffel Tower.