Professor Theodore Weidner: The problems engineers solve are becoming more complex

Purdue College of Engineering
Purdue Engineering Review
6 min readJun 12, 2023

--

Construction engineering and management is an oft-overlooked competency that is rising in prominence as we confront the enormous infrastructure rebuild needs of the United States and advance green-building strategies for a sustainable future. Theodore “Ted” Weidner is an experienced hand in the field, with decades as a facilities and construction manager at public and private institutions, as well as extensive knowledge of historical techniques and modern practice. The professor of engineering practice at Purdue, who once worked as a carpenter for Habitat For Humanity, thinks people interested in the discipline might enjoy these books.

Surveying in Early America: The Point of Beginning, An Illustrated History, by Dan Patterson and Clinton Terry

Understanding history is always better with illustrations, and Surveying in Early America is an excellent example of how pictures help tell how difficult it was to survey more than 250 years ago — particularly when one looks at photographs of the instruments used. The authors combine their talents of description and photography to relate stories of pre-Colonial times and how science and engineering were applied to perform an important service for business and society.

Centuries ago, surveying could be extremely challenging. For instance, surveyors had to carry their tools, and deal with both uneven terrain and heavily forested areas of the frontier. The book is filled with recreated images of the conditions and restored examples of the tools used.

Surveying in America looks at about 50 years of the practice on the continent — chiefly using George Washington as a foil — and provides a realistic perspective of the time. It mostly covers the period before the standard grid-based method of surveying that was used to lay out the Northwest Territories after 1785.

The book is not technical, so also should interest a teenager contemplating a career as a surveyor or civil engineer. Regardless of the reader, it is a pleasant read that reminds us of how we got here and some of the struggles associated with land development.

The House That She Built, by Mollie Elkman and Georgia Castellano

The facilities industry, from planning and design to construction and operations, historically has consisted of men. I’m proud to have led organizations with women and members of other underrepresented groups in some of these roles, like planner, architect, engineer, electrician, painter and plumber. Unfortunately, the industry still lags behind others in attracting a diverse workforce.

The House That She Built was supported by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), with the intent to reach girls early in their education (K-3) to break through the stigma that they are not capable of design or construction work. The audience is girls aged 5 to 9, so the book uses illustrations and plain words to identify opportunities in design and construction. The authors speak from experience in the homebuilding industry and hit the target well.

The book is especially appropriate for those who have a mission to increase the diversity of our workforce with a long-term vision (likely 15 to 20 years). It’s also a nice book for a daughter or granddaughter, to broaden her horizons and encourage her to see opportunities for the future. I intend to use it to reach young people for my own industry.

Building Bridges: Between Theory and Practice, by David Blockley

As one gets older, reflection on events that helped form what we do today provides perspective. Building Bridges offers a series of thoughtful reflections, using examples of failures (learning experiences) to demonstrate why we engineer structures as we do today.

It’s an interesting convergence of engineering and philosophy, something unusual in society today. The author’s practical experience and thoughts on dozens of structural engineering disasters, combined with analysis of the failures, provide good reading for those who are technically inclined.

Building Bridges relies on some familiarity with major structural failures over the last 100 years in the U.S. and Europe. Bridges are the primary focus of structural failures; buildings are included as well. Why did these incidents occur? The author proposes 25 reasons, some in combination, across more than 20 examples. He ties these reasons back to his “20 Learning Points,” which might be compared to Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Buildings Bridges is a compendium of papers submitted to journals and proceedings, each with an extensive list of references. If one is willing to wade into the field of structural failures, because of professional interest or philosophical perspective, it is a great read. It looks at Bayesian logic — a type of statistical thinking based on probability — and systems thinking, which is a good way to tackle any complex problem.

While Building Bridges likely has more application to a graduate engineering course, reading about other peoples’ failures — oops, learning experiences — may prove valuable for non-engineers wanting to get away from the pressures of work and acquire knowledge in the process.

Construction and Building Automation: From Concepts to Implementation, by Benny Raphael

The Internet of Things (IoT) is discussed in media on a regular basis. Some folks understand it, and some don’t. Planning to use IoT well is important for facility officers and easier to implement if thought about in advance.

As a textbook, Construction and Building Automation includes exercises and problems to challenge the reader. But the important feature is the presentation of the physical and engineering basics about lighting, cooling, heating, and other typical elements of building automation, as well as opportunities to provide more effective occupant support and energy conservation. Many of the reasons to utilize building automation and what to do to implement it successfully are known by most APPA members. However, the descriptions of what and why are very helpful and can stimulate thinking about other applications.

While automation for operations is familiar and implemented easily in new construction, automation of the construction process is more difficult. Essentially, methods of construction have not changed for decades if not centuries or millennia. There is still a great deal of construction that occurs ”stick built,” or piece by piece on the site. There have been some efforts to modularize construction to allow for large assemblies to be installed all at once with a crane lift. These projects require involvement with the owner and designer early in the process before the builder can implement significantly. However, there are limited opportunities to automate the construction process.

Automation, or a different way of doing construction, is still needed. While Construction and Building Automation does not create or identify solutions, it clearly explains the process, including the physical, mechanical, logistics and software elements necessary for creative engineers to develop systems and equipment. Heavy reliance on a shrinking labor pool for construction going forward should compel faster development and adoption. This publication will help inspire the thinking of those looking for new methods.

Theodore “Ted” Weidner, PhD

Professor of Engineering Practice, Division of Construction Engineering and Management

College of Engineering

Purdue University

--

--