Preservation Engineering Workshop APTI Québec City 2014

Posted by: Ken Follett on Wednesday, November 12, 2014 at 12:00:00 am

In my career niche it is often my role to help structural engineers get to where they think, which is also where they tend to seem to be the most comfortable, in thinking, that is, and less in physically doing. And I am not so sure that they are ever really comfortable in talking about what they are thinking. Though I would never restrict them from taking up a hammer and chisel, but rarely do I find the structural engineer who would volunteer to dig their own test pits in order to uncover beneath the stones of a foundation. Sometimes that comfort zone (I tend to call the work environment an envelope rather than a zone, though it could be a containment bubble) means to make sure the structural engineer has water to drink, dehydration has a negative impact on anyone’s ability to think, or helping them to get past the security guard in the morning, or to explain what they just said to the end-client, or throwing them up on a lift 150’ in the air and not scaring the bejeezus out of them in the process. Sometimes it means in conversation that I get to say something very disconnected and unjointed that, we hope, causes them to recalibrate the frame of their thinking process, rather than to view me as a dolt, and to be able to view the problems that they are faced with in their thinking anew. Not being an engineer by habit or profession I find saying something disjointed to be relatively easy to manage. So, for me at least, though when we are all out working as team members together in the investigation of an historic structure it very much helps to have a feel for where the structural engineers are sort of going to end up in their thinking. Where are their heads at and how can we help them get there more efficiently? Presentations of projects where they have thought themselves out to the end of their current cutting edge thinking therefore for me is relevant.

I particularly enjoyed the conversation in respect of the problems inherent in the interpretation of building code as applied to heritage structures and strategies by which one can deal. I have been reading about the 11th century rise of literacy, as learning to read and the availability of printed material to read came up out of an otherwise either oral or hierarchically controlled knowledge culture. It strikes me that the ability to understand, work around, and argue against, or with, building code requires a high degree of literacy. The ability to read is an acquired skill, the ability to comprehend what one reads to the point of being able to manipulate and expostulate the meaning of text is even more rarified of a talent. But I also need to somehow settle with this historical analogy that the 11th century development of reading by a wider citizenry cultivated on one hand a recognition of heresy, and heretics, resulting in burning at the stake and such, and a rise in secular free thinking. The one settling point here though is that physics and mechanics, in fact fire and earthquakes, are fairly adamant regardless of whatever words are applied to the character and building of structures.

One element that I felt that was missed by the idea of a workshop was a reflection on the state of the state of preservation engineering as it occurs in practice in the world-at-large. On one hand I feel compelled, though I know a few answers, to ask what is the ‘preservation’ about in the term preservation engineer and just how does that differ from simply being an engineer? The presenters of the workshop seemed to have a self-identified coherency as to the distinction, but I did not hear any discussion on it. I am often befuddled by the benign intransigence of the obvious, and possibly this distinction was just too plainly obvious to take any serious note. As I am not an engineer I find myself quite often on a project where the engineer that I am paired up with on a team has either no experience or no clue what they are engaged with when they see how an old building was built. Unfortunate that I spend more time with those sorts of engineers than I do with the fine preservation engineers that were present in the workshop. So it does strike me that regardless of a structural engineer using the full weight of their intuitive being or the refinements of statistical analysis, that the best practice and the best data are of no good use in the hands of idiots. I say that in respect of the mention of the rigidity of reinforced concrete retrofit into traditional building technologies that organically obtained a seemingly inscrutable ductility shaken to distraction by the more rigid concrete. Someone had to have thought that problem into existence. Or a structural engineer telling me that the brick barrel-arches that have done just fine for more than a hundred years should be ripped out and replaced with concrete. Or, for me since the conference, to witness in a 1710’s structure an engineered shoring in an attic to support a roof, a shoring that belied a total ignorance of traditional timber frame construction, obviously something predictable in its own behavior, and a solution likely in the long-term simply alone by dead weight to create unintended consequences.


Another element of the workshop that I very much appreciated though I am not sure was a consciously intended thread was a perspective that ran from the macro to the micro. I like paying attention to the connection of steel beams and columns buried in the masonry, to measure the web and flanges, but I also like the somewhat romantic illusion that the wallpaper may also add an element of stability to a structure. I lean toward the application of intangibles in heritage conservation, though I would never go so far as to say that the bray of a pedigreed donkey, regardless of potential vibration, would comprise a structural element. Though, as a contractor one time I removed many layers of paint from a carved stone water table, a fairly complicated architectural element that also served as a mass in the full width and depth of the masonry facade, and once the paint was removed the stone fell apart behind it. One was left with the feeling that something else was going on with the structure that we would never have noticed otherwise. It was a good two days.

Ken Follett


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