Canadian Consulting Engineer

News (December 01, 2002)

December 1, 2002
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

Fire Safety: Engineering reports pile up on Ground ZeroThe physical mess and debris of fallen buildings might be cleared up at Ground Zero, but the legal mess and disputes over what actually caused th...

Fire Safety: Engineering reports pile up on Ground Zero

The physical mess and debris of fallen buildings might be cleared up at Ground Zero, but the legal mess and disputes over what actually caused the collapse of New York’s World Trade Center are mounting by the day.

A member of the official team that investigated the site immediately after the attack was in Toronto in October to explain what they had discovered. Professor James Milke of the University of Maryland was part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency expert team. He addressed a packed audience of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and kept them riveted to their seats.

Milke was careful to say that the FEMA report ( is only a launch pad to be used for more detailed investigations by the National Institute of Standards and Technology/NIST. However, the FEMA team did suggest some building areas that need attention. They found that the location and construction of stairwells should be reviewed, and that fireproofing of structural connections may be critical.

The FEMA team also said that the towers’ steel bar floor truss system may have been a weak spot in the WTC structural design. It is around this point that the expert arguments and counter-arguments begin to mount. By mid-October, Silverstein Developments, who leased the buildings from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had released a report by another team of experts who argued it was the vertical support columns that failed and that the building’s unusual design did not cause the collapse.

Meanwhile, the insurance industry — on the hook for at least $3.5 billion — accused Silverstein of trying to divert attention from the real issues. It released its own hefty engineering study, arguing that the WTC towers’ demise was a single event, rather than two. If it is treated as two separate disasters the insurers will have to pay double the compensation.

Adding to the legal mess, 950 of the victims’ families are launching a lawsuit against the Port Authority, claiming for inadequacies in the building design and poor evacuation procedures.

Work Prospects: Green infrastructure fund is slow off the ground

The Green Municipal Funds managed by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities seems stuck in low gear, with lots of money still left in the pot. Intended to encourage the building of environmentally sound infrastructure, the program got a $250 million endowment from the federal government. After almost two years only $20 million has been spent, and most of that for feasibility studies.

Six “real” projects were approved between April and August this year. They include three landfill gas capture projects in B.C., including one at the Cedar Road Landfill site in Nanaimo, being designed by Conestoga-Rovers. There is also a project to reclaim and reuse treated effluent from the Annacis Island Wastewater Treatment plant in the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Dayton & Knight did the feasibility study and now Kerr Wood Leidal in partnership with Novatech are looking at technology options. An energy retrofit at Montreal’s Biodome and Insectarium was also provisionally approved.

Health: Engineers and autism

An article in the Globe and Mail published October 19 might have alarmed couples who are both engineers. Titled “Is there a Geek Syndrome?,” Carolyn Abraham’s article reported on a supposed “epidemic” of autism in Silicon Valley, California that some are attributing to the high concentration of engineers and computer programmers in the area. The state has recorded a 273% jump in the disorder between 1987-1988. A two-year statewide investigation has concluded that the trend cannot be explained by changes in diagnostic practices or immigration.

In Ottawa, parents of autistic children have noticed a similar phenomenon. According to the article, Elizabeth McRae, president of the Ottawa chapter of the Autism Society, “can name 10 [examples] off the top of her head” where the parents of autistic children are engineers, computer programmers or mathematicians. The article also noted that a Cambridge University professor who researched 1,300 students in 1998, found autism in six cases in the families of students studying physics, math and engineering (half the survey sample) and only one case among the relatives of literature students (the other half of the survey).

Experts reject a purely genetic explanation because DNA traits could not spread so quickly in the population as autism has in California. However, one researcher believes the recent increase in autism may be due to a combination of a virus with genetics. Another theory links autism with testosterone. Babies exposed to high testosterone levels in the womb make less eye contact, one of the symptoms of autism. Boys are four times more susceptible to the disorder than girls.

Awards: Hail to Halsall

Peter Halsall, P.Eng. president of Halsall Associates, consulting engineers of Toronto, received an award recognizing his distinguished career from the University of Toronto Engineering Alumni Association on October 24. (Sadly, Robert Halsall, P.Eng., Peter’s father and chair emeritus of the firm, died a few days later on November 14, succombing to Lou Gehrig’s disease.)

Update: Acres fined $3.4 million

The fine for Acres International’s conviction for corruption related to bribing a government official in Lesotho, Southern Africa was set at $3.4 million in October. The charge related to a water diversion project from the 1990s. The High Court judge indicated that the sentence was to be a deterrent, “such that other consultants and contractors who want to become involved in Lesotho will think twice about paying bribes to senior officials.”

Mailbox: Jenni takes another hit

I was astonished to see a Jessica Rabbit/Lara Croft/Brittany Spears look-alike as the ACEC’s Career Awareness Program role model! (See August- September, p. 8, and October-November, p. 8). Never in my years of engineering consulting — from the boardroom to the control room — have I ever dressed like that, nor have any of my colleagues. If I had, I doubt my clients (male, mostly) would let me in the main gate, as they too have a professional dignity to uphold.

The male counterpart to your female icon would be a beefcake surfer-dude in swim shorts and with a washboard stomach. Would this be acceptable as a role model?

I fail to see how an unrealistically proportioned cartoon image will attract more female interest. Perhaps more male interest. Those young women that we are interested in seeing in our profession are smart enough to be interested by a role model/icon that is more indicative of the discipline than by something out of a Cosmo magazine. Getting on the stereotype bandwagon just because it sells movies and clothes is hardly the direction any professional organization should take.

I don’t suggest you portray someone with coveralls and a hardhat, or a bad haircut and a pocket protector. But I do ask that you look at the types of female engineers that the association is proud of, and try to emulate that instead. There are many of us, and I think we are “cool” the way we are.

If you took our pictures, would you airbrush us all to the shape of your new image for media sake?

Leslie Parchomchuk, P.Eng


History: Web site promotes history of Canadian civil engineering

The Canadian Society for Civil Engineering won the 2002 Pierre Berton Award from the Canadian National History Society in October. Industry Canada commemorated the occasion by launching a web site, “Canadian Civil Engineering History and Heritage,”

The award honoured CSCE’s efforts in raising awareness of the importance of civil engineering in the social and economic development of Canada.

Books: The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication, 2nd ed.

By James G. Paradis and Muriel L. Zimmerman. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002

Reviewed by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball

In some ways, The MI
T Guide to Science and Engineering Communication is a mine of useful information. Unfortunately, it requires the reader to do the heavy work of mining.

Part of the problem comes from the authors’ attempt to appeal to everyone from “university novice” to “seasoned professional.” Maybe students need basic advice, but does an experienced engineer need to be told to ask a reference librarian for help with a literature search or to follow an agency’s instructions in preparing a proposal? The useful insights that might appeal to more experienced writers lie buried in paragraphs of flat, unemphatic prose.

Another part of the problem is the authors’ unwillingness to take their own advice. For example, although they advocate using informative headings, their own are sometimes vague or misleading. Suggestions for storyboarding appear under “Allocate Team Responsibilities,” and procedures for debriefing after an unsuccessful proposal submission come under “Resubmitting.” Yes, there is a fairly detailed index, but readers must know what to look for.

On a positive note, certain examples are excellent. The best are the side-by-side, before-and-after examples, such as the rearrangement of a document structure from logical order to order of importance, or a comparison of two ways to organize the same material, one for scientists and the other for managers.

The MIT Guide covers standard topics such as documenting sources, preparing resums, or writing progress reports. Unfortunately, although the authors (both academics) clearly state that the “burden of calling attention to key points rests with you, not your reader,” their own important points don’t stand out. The book’s designers must bear some of the blame: the visual distinction between headings and subheadings is so subtle that one loses sight of the overall structure, despite the advice in Chapter 1 to ensure “a strong visual component” in documents.

Good writing is in short supply, and we can all use a tune-up, but this book won’t entice many to change their ways. Only a book reviewer or intimidated student would try to read The MIT Guide from front to back. Pity.

Philippa Campsie is a writer, editor, and corporate writing consultant. Norman Ball is director of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values, University of Waterloo, Ontario. Both take writing seriously.

UMA to develop BioOil

UMA Engineering is venturing into the green fields of alternative energy. The Vancouver-based company has signed a memorandum of understanding with DynaMotive Energy Systems to develop commercial projects using DynaMotive’s patented pyrolysis system.

The process converts the abundant discarded wastes of the agricultural and forestry industries to make BioOil. Sugar cane bagasse is a typical agricultural by-product that can be used to make the fuel.

Populations boom at cost to sanitation

A United Nations report found that rising populations are overwhelming efforts to improve sanitation systems in the developing world. In the South Asian Seas region, for example, 220 million people received improved access to sanitation in the decade before 2000, but the population grew by 222 million, leaving 825 million living with untreated sewage.


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