The 7/14/11 USGNN Newsletter had a link to a story about how the Harmon Tower in Vegas should be torn down since it wasn’t built per the plans and specs. If you went to the comments at the end of the link, everyone from the architect, general contractor and city inspectors to the ironworkers were blamed. Seems like the popular opinion is too many people turned aside, and too many cost and schedule shortcuts were taken. But what’s even more disturbing is how was it allowed to progress so far before someone decided to speak up and say it wasn’t, right?
Oftentimes, the issue comes down to how much risk one is willing to take, and how close to get to the edges of tolerance before raising a red flag. In the life-or-death world of combat flying, a Navy pilot once related when he was going through flight training that there was a limit to how low they could fly, say 500 feet off the ground. He made up his mind that he would never descend below 1,000 feet (except when landing, of course), thereby assuring himself he would never come close to the actual boundary, leaving himself plenty of room for some error. He didn’t ever want to run the risk of being busted out of becoming a pilot if he was found to be flying at 499 feet.
Just how close to the edge of the cliff would you dare to get, to get the straight-down look into the abyss? Where are the limits? Each of us every day probably face even small, incremental decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong. And each of us has our own lines we won’t cross, things we don’t even give a second thought to.
So who didn’t raise their hand on Harmon and say something was wrong? It’s trickier, isn’t it, when it’s a little bit more nebulous? And everyday, aren’t there little things that go into building curtainwall or windows that we rely on each other to do? For example: the limit of deflection for wind load is L/175 or ¾”, whichever is less. So what do you do if the deflection is 1/32” more than ¾”? Reinforce the mullion, or let it go? Both ways may not be jeopardizing the public safety. But more importantly, where’s the limit? If you’re willing to go over by 1/32”, will you turn your head at a deflection that’s 1/8” over? What about ¼”? When do we say “enough?”
There are other things, too, that jump out at us in the glazing industry every day. For example, take the over/under cut-to-length tolerances on interior trim. That happened on a project once, where the trim was fit up on the windows before they shipped. When they got to the site, they were 3/8” short of nominal, and quite unsightly. The shop had let them go without anyone saying that it was past the QC limit of +/- 1/32”
There wasn’t any public safety involved, no one was going to get hurt if the trim’s going to be a hair (or more) under the cutting/machining tolerance. So do you pack and ship the parts, or do it over? Or if it’s not caught until the material gets to the field, do you install it, hoping that it won’t be caught? The quality of one’s work (and reputation) probably suffers exponentially to the amount the parts are cut out of tolerance. If we give in once, is our limit for acceptance a little bit higher the next time?
PEs have a professional responsibility when they see something wrong to alert the owner, the professional boards, the GC’s, the authority having jurisdiction or whomever they think is the responsible party. I saw this happen once on a multi-phase project. The engineer was making us do some things on our work the previous phases hadn’t done. I was using the argument, “Well if they didn’t have to, why do we?” It was going to cost a lot of money, some of which was not covered in the estimate. So we made a trip to the jobsite, he and I. In his professional opinion, the previous phase wasn’t correctly done, and he wrote letters to the owner and GC about it, and copied the PE who had stamped the work. Eventually, the previous work had to be retrofitted to bring it up to all the stuff that had been skipped. And my argument for not having to do what he was requiring be done on our phase disappeared. It cost the job time and money, some of each we didn’t have to begin with. But the installation hasn’t blown off the building, either.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out with the Harmon. By the sound of it, too many people let too many things go by. They say some pretty smelly stuff runs downhill. If we let it roll by us, we’re as big a part of the problem as the original cause. The one question we all have to ask ourselves: Just how wrong does it have to be before I’ll stand up and say it’s not right? Bill Swango said we had all the time we needed to do it right the first time. Although fixing a situation upfront isn’t going to be cheap, it’s always cheaper to fix it now than it will be later. Always.