The “Fuzz Factor” in Engineering: When Continuous Improvement is Neither

Engineering Fuzz Factor

Allen Hurtz

Guest Blogger:
Bob Zabcik, Director of Research and Development for NCI Group Inc.

Sometimes being an engineer makes me want to put my finger through my eye, into my brain, and swish it around. Reading and interpreting code requirements is one of those times.

I’m not that old (please let me live in bliss on that one), but in my almost 25-year career as an engineer, I have seen some 75 code and standard revision cycles representing thousands of pages of text, all requiring review and interpretation for laymen who are cursed with making a living selling building materials in this brutal marketplace.

I know the purpose of building codes and standards is to protect the public who need protection from the very real threats of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and freak snowstorms. As an engineer who has taken an oath to protect the public, that responsibility is paramount to me and one I carry with pride.

I guarantee it.

But the system we have set up to protect society has grown beyond a manageable state into monster status. Moreover, it is a venue filled with hundreds of hyper-sensitive, over-reacting people with individual research and commercial agendas, ballooning paper and free-running ink.

In a recent personally defining moment, I stepped away from the tree trunk pushed firmly against the end of my nose and decided to gander upon the whole forest. What I saw concerns me because of the responsibility I have to protect the public.

You see, I’m beginning to believe that the biggest threat to human life in a building is not the possibility of natural disasters but instead the threat of simple human error, a reality that increases in probability every time we introduce a code or standard change proposal. The requirements in these documents are long and complex already, not to mention getting them applied correctly to a project in a timely fashion, while also battling the constant barrage of phone calls, texts, and emails a feat worthy of the likes of Albert Einstein and Carl Fredrich Gauss. (If you’ve never heard of Gauss, I suggest you Google him. He was one of the greatest minds of all time.)

It has been called by those who have ventured down this thought path before me as the “Fuzz Factor” and I believe it to be a very real threat to public safety in today’s engineering world.

Let’s start by looking where the rubber meets the road.

In 1960, the AISI cold-formed steel specification had 22 pages of requirements. In 2007, it had 114.  The latest edition in 2012 has 150 pages. That’s a 680% increase in 52 years.

Congratulations, AISI. You have the smallest growth rate of all the standards I track at a little under two pages a year. Hey, stop laughing at your thin-walled brother AISC design specification because you should be ashamed. In 1941, you had 19 pages of requirements. Twenty years later, you had 57 pages.  Ten years after that, 157 pages. In the most recent edition in 2010, you’ve ballooned to 239 pages. That’s about 3 pages per year, not including the seismic provisions. That little piece of work did not exist until 1992 at 59 pages and is now a fat 335 pages in length. Growth rate: a whopping 15 pages per year.

That’s something akin to sumo wrestlers in training.

It is no better on the load side of the equation, either. ASCE 7, the standard that establishes the load levels to be expected from environmental phenomena like snow, wind, earthquakes, etc., was 92 pages in the 1988 edition. The latest edition, released in 2010, is a sporty 368 pages. That’s a growth rate of 15 pages per year, as well.

Now, let’s look where pencil meets paper.

Ultimately, people reading and applying code provisions are human beings with all of the limitations bestowed upon us by our creator(s) or evolution, however you choose to view that. The question is: Have human minds grown in requisite ability to read and understand all of this information? Being that Gauss died in 1855 and there has not been another mathematician like him since, I’d answer that question with a strong “no” and I’m not alone in that. There are quite a few educational psychologists who buy into the theory that we are actually getting less intelligent as time goes on, even though we are better educated as a society, because education tends to stifle creative thought at an early age and that skill is not developed.

So, how do we address this trend of growing complexity and shrinking time? In my opinion, the answer is relatively simple. Instead of continuing to further define the problems and solutions like we’ve done so well in the last century, we need to consider evolving the engineering process to match the complexity level thrust upon the practitioners.

Buildings don’t fail if the diaphragm resistance was wrong in the second significant digit because there was no torsion considered or because a column had second order effect that magnified its load by an unexpected 10%. Instead, they fail because the resistance was overstated or the load understated on a global level by 50% or more because that’s the level of conservancy in the code typically.

Case in point: The 1983 Kansas City Hyatt disaster. The initial design by the engineer was a good one and likely would not have failed. It was a later revision to that design, one that gave it less than half of the capacity of the original, that ultimately caused the disaster. The proposed change came to the engineer at a time that they were busy working on something else and was not given proper consideration. A simple human error that any of us, no matter how smart we might be, are capable of.

To me, today’s environment is one where “can’t see the forest for the trees” problems flourish. Fortunately, those problems are fairly easily spotted when put in front of a person who is capable of seeing the forest because they don’t have an in-depth knowledge of the trees growing in it.

In this case, that could be a peer engineer performing a simple cursory review. To make this fully effective, it should not just be one or two peers. It should be more like 5 or 10 people with widely varied experiences and preferably strong cultural diversity, each one spending an hour or so scanning the results of the design, rather than the design itself.

Diversity is more important than you might think because each of us brings to the table a unique set of skills but at the same time, we are all limited to our experiences. It’s the old adage that the oncologist will tend to suspect cancer and the dietitian will tend to cite nutritional problems with the same patient. So, let’s do what doctors do in this situation: Swallow our pride and ask for a consult from a practitioner whose experiences are different from our own.

It’s simple, easy, and could save lives, let alone all of the trees consumed by the printing of fat building codes and standards.


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Bob Zabcik

Bob Zabcik is NCI’s Director of Research and Development. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and a Registered Professional Engineer with more than 20 years of experience. He serves on several professional committees such as the MBMA Energy Committee and Sustainability Committee as well as several task groups of those committees. He is also on the Board of the Cool Metal Roofing Coalition and serves as the Director of their technical committee.


  • Avatar
    Reply January 16, 2014

    Fabrizio Pesce

    AMEN!!!! Codes should be written to address the issue to qualified people having the skills and proper qualifications to understand the regulated work!!!…Isn’t the license there for!!! So why we need to have a code section that explains in detail ” why you should NOT drink water from a toilet bowl”? Also just reading a code and apply that specific section to a project is not enough, in fact code sections are to be interpreted, and a section is function of the other, to many time I have seen code officials and professionals read the code like a military rule book. One should understand the SPIRIT in which that code section applies to a specific project. So let’s write codes with qualified people in mind, and cut the academic crap. As I stated once, a Code or an Engineering Standard in the hand of a wrong person could have the same devastating effect of not having a code at all …so lets make sure that we have a code to follow , however let’s simplify the process, so we can all have the time to read it!!! That’s the lesson of the inverted -U curve, which remind us that …” there is a point at which money and resources stop making our lives better and start making them worse”!!

  • Avatar
    Reply January 16, 2014

    Larry Brehm

    Interesting article….

    It would be hard to argue that codes have not increased in volume and complexity. However, your call for diversity and design review is already widespread throughout the industry.

    Diversity: Originally back in the old days, all building and site design was performed by a lone architect. Now, all the complicated stuff is delegated to civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers with more and more specialization. Mechanical engineering has split into fire protection, plumbing and HVAC designers, and electrical has split into power and technology specialists with many engineering firms having separate departments and department managers for each.

    Design review: While your call for peer review sounds good, in practice it doesn’t work. Either the less experienced designers assume it cannot possibly have any errors or omissions and do not ask anybody (I did that once) , or their peers who are asked do not have the time or vested interest in the other guy’s project. From my experience at all of the various firms that have stolen me from someone else, I believe the best peer review is by the registered engineer/department head who puts his stamp on the plans, who will justify the design to his everybody else, and who will be sitting on the witness stand if anything goes wrong. After department head reviews the plans, the design will probably go to the architect who should know about everything in the building, but who may only have a cursory knowledge of the subject matter. It will then be picked over by the plan reviewer who will point out anything they see as problematic. Before construction, it may then be reviewed by the contractor and by the inspector.

    I believe the worst problems occur due to contractor changes (human error). Contractors who are inexperienced may not understand code requirements or why they are there. Contractors who are having financial problems may take liberties so they can pocket the savings. If their version is unsafe, then hopefully it can be caught during submittal review, or by the inspector during construction. The worst problems occur when contractor changes are rampant (finding unsafe changes through the clutter is like playing Where’s Waldo), and when the engineer has no means to observe construction to catch and fix unsafe changes. That may be good subject matter for future articles.

  • Avatar
    Reply January 22, 2014

    Fabrizio Pesce

    At the base of the issue is the definition and/or the intend of the License and Regulations, which based on a New York Court decision several years ago stated that: …”The intend of the P.E License is to make sure that the licensed professional, has the proper education and intellect to make sure that all the people (working on the regulated work) have the proper skills and ability” to protect people Health & Safety”. (What that means is that, if you are a P.E. that does not means that, you are some kind of PERFECT JENIUS). In fact, the engineering code of ethic prevents the P.E. to engage in any work, or render an opinion on issues without having the proper knowledge of the facts. As unfortunate that sound, I have seen to many department heads been promoted for the wrong reason, and some of them because they were at the right time with the right paper, and as a result, I personally witnessed the CODE to be seriously and grossly misinterpreted. Unfortunately ” the so called professionalism” (and job security) prevented the little peoples to report the IDIOTS to the License & Regulation …thus life went ON & ON …& ON as usual. The Design & Engineering society should be self regulated just like the Doctors & Lawyers…so that “Bad Professionals” should be disbarred, as I stated the CODE should be interpreted accordingly to the spirit of the law by competent people …as in the old days I was prevented to work on things and/or do anything without the permission of the person I was working for, nor I was able to give an opinion or answering a question beyond my responsibility….today we have COOPS running load calculations, or assigned to a project as a lead designers or engineers so that to maximize the profit and be listed to the SCE magazine Top 100 Firms. We should rate engineering firms based on how many cases they settled out of court, NOT based on how much money they raked at the end of the year…. once we have such system and understanding in place, than we can make sure that the Code is going to be interpreted as was intended to be.

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