The Challenges of Running a Structural Engineering Practice

Alpa Sheth

Volume 3, Issue 1, March 2016
pp. 64 – 71

Alpha ShethALPA SHETH is the Managing Director of VMS Consultants Pvt. Ltd and Partner, Vakil Mehta Sheth Consulting Engineers, Mumbai for over 15 years. She holds a Master of Engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a Founding Trustee of Structural Engineering Forum of India and Children’s Liver Foundation, India. She was awarded the CIDC Vishwakarma Award for Industry Doyen in 2014.

Ms. Sheth currently holds the INAE Distinguished Visiting Professor at IIT Madras and is Visiting Faculty and Chair of Academic Council at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture (KRVIA), Mumbai. She is a Member, Research Council of CBRI (Central Building Research Institute), Roorkee, and is on Board of Governors of the Maharashtra government’s Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) – Heritage Conservation Society. She has been Advisor, Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority and has been in various advisory roles to the Gujarat Government for Seismic safety since the 2001 Bhuj earthquake.

Ms. Sheth is a Member of Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) Committee for Earthquake Codes (CED 39), BIS Committee for Special Structures (CED 38) and Cyclone Resistant Structures Sectional Committee (CED 57). She is Principal Author and Co-ordinator for BIS Sub-Committee for Drafting of Tall Buildings Code for India for (BIS) Special Structures Sectional Committee (CED 38). She has been on numerous World Bank post-disaster reconnaissance teams, including for the Great West Japan earthquake, Great Sumatra earthquake amongst others.

In the present essay, Alpa Sheth brings out her rich experience of engineering practice and deep involvement with teaching of Structures to the students of architecture and civil engineering in various capacities to provide unique insights on the state of structural engineering education and practice in India and how that impacts not just the relationship between architects and engineers but the production of buildings itself.

Is an Engineer Just a Technician? A well known architect while bargaining with his structural engineer on his quoted fees is rumoured to have impatiently said to him, “Look, I don’t know what this fuss is all about. I’ve placed all the columns and beams and sized them too; all you have to do is put reinforcement bars in them.” That pretty much summarizes the relationship of the architect-engineer, especially in India, over the past few decades. An engineer is often (mis)taken as a technician or he is constantly treated as such until one day he begins to believe he is indeed one and slowly ceases to apply himself innovatively on a project. His attitude is that of abject surrender and servitude, taking the path of least resistance. He feels increasingly trapped in a dry, insipid profession which offers neither the thrills of ingenuity nor the moolah to bribe your creative conscience into silence.

It wasn’t always so. One can recount examples of outstanding engineers who dared to experiment, make mistakes and tell the world about their mistakes and how they went about rectifying them. An immediate example that comes to mind-is that of the Millennium Bridge. Before it was inaugurated in the year 2000, the bridge was the subject of much acclamatory discussion due to its sleekness and unique form. The media could not write enough about the greatness of its architect Norman Foster and his other stellar works. No one knew who the structural engineer was. However, after the footbridge was opened to pedestrian trafc, it began vibrating alarmingly. The architect washed his hands off the bridge, shrugging it off as the responsibility of the structural engineering consultant, Arup. The little known tailpiece is that not only did Arup study this very odd resonance induced vibration, they xed it at their own cost! (Which went into millions of pounds).

An engineer is often (mis)taken as a technician or he is constantly treated as such until one day he begins to believe he is indeed one and slowly ceases to apply himself innovatively on a project.

Another example is that of Le Messurier and the tale of the Citicorp Center building in New York. An engineering student questioned Le Messurier on his design which got him thinking and he realized that the joints were indeed not strong enough for a particular wind load condition. This design aw, if discovered, could have caused him expensive litigation, professional disgrace and possible bankruptcy. On the other hand there was little chance that anyone would ever nd out about the design aw if the extreme wind load condition did not ever happen in the life span of the building (it hasn’t, until date). At one time, Le Messurier is said to have even contemplated suicide but better sense prevailed and he conded with the architect; they opened up to the client and came up with a rectication plan to strengthen all 200 of the bolted joints in the building by welding plates onto them. His honesty was much appreciated and while the retrot cost the client $ 8 million, Le Messurier contributed just 2 million dollars that was his insurance cover.

Both the above examples are illustrative of the fact that engineering is indeed not a “technician’s” job. There are ways that a structure could behave which are not easily apparent – and that makes engineering an exciting journey of discovery. A lesser architect