Canadian Consulting Engineer

No monuments, but a show of courage

Whatever else they signify, awards tend to reflect the zeitgeist. It's probably no coincidence then, that the same year the CN Tower in Toronto was topped by a structure in Dubai, the winners of the C...

October 1, 2007   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Whatever else they signify, awards tend to reflect the zeitgeist. It’s probably no coincidence then, that the same year the CN Tower in Toronto was topped by a structure in Dubai, the winners of the Canadian Consulting Engineering Awards are not the “great monument” type of work. There are no magnificent bridges or towers. Rather, the winning projects are the type of engineering that takes place behind the scenes. They reflect the thoughtful engineering approach that makes a huge difference but without a splashy display. It’s what I think of as subsurface engineering, or what used to be known as engineers taking on the Martha as opposed to the Mary role, from the Gospel story.

The winner of the Schreyer Award is a prime example of this kind of behind-the-scenes dedication. The project is the acoustical design of an auditorium in Medicine Hat, Alberta by Aercoustics Engineering. What struck the jurors was not only the arcane mathematical skills of the engineers, but the fact that over a crucial matter they exercised great courage and judgement.

The computer models indicated the auditorium ceiling should be raised four metres in order to achieve the right sound reverberation. Instead Aercoustics trusted their own experience and a scale model they had built. Their decision to go against the computer models and recommend the architects keep the ceiling at the original design height was truly “nerve-wracking.” No-one could know if it was the right decision until the auditorium was fully built in all its glory.

Reflecting on this, I think that as much as we like to trust research and models and planning exercises, whether in engineering or other fields we often make our best decisions according to our “gut feelings.” I’m just reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Gladwell argues that humans make smart judgements through “thin slicing,” a process where the subconscious cuts through a mass of information in milliseconds to settle on two or three critical factors which then prompt the conscious mind. His examples include a firefighter who made a split-second decision to get his men out of a burning house without consciously analyzing that the fire was in the basement and the floor they were standing on was about to collapse. He just suddenly knew that they had to get out. Another real-life example Gladwell gives is a general who routed U.S. forces in week-long war games because he could act instinctively and spontaneously, whereas the U.S. military was drowning in its own information and elaborate computer models.

Building projects are well represented in this year’s award winners, and their engineers all show courage and a willingness to stand behind their own convictions. In the case of the Gimli Community Health Centre, for example, MCW/AGE engineers were so convinced that they could design for more energy savings, they did a parallel study at their own expense to convince the client.

In another project, Golder Associates pioneered a German technology to build a foundation for a conference centre in Nanaimo, B.C. Here the engineering is literally out-of-sight and subsurface. However, thanks to these awards, masterful engineering like this will never be completely out of mind.

Bronwen Parsons


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