Google Library

Sci-Fi author and blogger Cory Doctorow has written an excellent article at BoingBoing on why Google Book Search is one of the greatest things to ever happen to the internet. Typical of his writing, it’s well worth the read and he demonstrates, at least in this case, how Google’s building of the new Library of Alexandria is good for all of us, even writers and publishers. If you haven’t tried using the Google Library feature yet, you should check it out. I have been amazed at just how large of a collection they are serving up.(I had begun a post on Google’s Book Search for media week, but never got to posting it since last week was also insanely-busy-at-work week. Doctorow makes a better argument than I ever could, anyway.)

If you haven’t tried using the Google Library feature yet, you should check it out. I have been amazed at just how large of a collection they are serving up. According to Wired, this doesn’ t yet include the disputed works. I’ve been able to find some very obscure engineering texts as well, but just typing in the name of the book and searching.


So far, this feature is not unlike the "Look Inside The Book" feature at Amazon. However, having the world’s texts in searchable format has the potential for enourmous change in research. Of course, it will take someone like Google to sort out all the information and actually find something relevant.

Design With Social Purpose

Katrina Cottage by Shawn Lea (Flickr)

Katrina Cottage by Shawn Lea of Everything and Nothing (szlea at Flickr). Image CC2.0 Shawn Lea, January 2006

Flipping through this week’s ENR, I saw a blurb about the "Katrina Cottage." This 300ft² structure, designed by architect Marianne Cusato (article at Dexigner) has one bedroom, living area, kitchen and bathroom. The design is such that the small home can be built quickly and for roughly the same $35,000 as a FEMA supplied mobile home1.

Of course, one immediately realizes that a mobile home can be much larger for that price tag. However, the design requirements for mobile homes are considerably more relaxed than those of fixed-place structures. For example, the hurricane design wind for the Gulf Coast region, according to the 2003 International Building Code (current here in VA,anyway), range from 110mph up to 150mph. According to an old college professor of mine, a mobile home is typically only designed for 70mph, which is the maximum speed it sees on the highway. No, that’s no joke. What’s worse, in case this wasn’t readily apparent to you, wind pressure is a function of velocity squared. That means the mobile homes aren’t designed for at least 50% less force, they’re actually designed for at least 150% less force! Now, I think, you might understand why I think that sacrificing some living space has its advantages over the alternative.

Many designers over the years have shown us that pre-fab needn’t mean poor quality or unsightly. This small structure is a great example of that kind of design philosophy. Note the large windows leading to a front porch with integrated seating. Other photos show a ceiling fan on the porch. The architecture of the building is very reminiscent of Deep South Style, even if we may never see President Bush and Senator Lott sipping ice tea on this porch. Cusato has even considered owners adding on to the structure for a permanent home and has also integrated the ability to repurpose the structure if owners decide to build a separate, permanent dwelling.

Of course, this is a prototype of the structure, so results may vary. Also, I would like to know more about the materials that go into this structure as well as how it will be anchored to a foundation. Those details not withstanding, this is a great example of design benefiting people who usually aren’t afforded that kind of luxury. It is a tragedy that so many people were displaced by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. However, it is fitting that they benefit from mass design and production.

Update (2006-02-03): Here is the website for CusatoCoggages, including how to go about ordering one as well as more photos.

  1. As reported last week in the Orlando Sentinel. []


The worst part about being an engineer, is that a lot of your calls are because something has gone wrong. People are already upset due to the fact they are having to hire you and the very best outcome if that you can make everything as good as it was before. This was especially true when I worked for BellSouth. Then, by the time anyone reached me as the engineer, they were already really pissed.

In my new job, we get a lot of clients for new construction, and they just want things done as cheap as possible. That’s understandable; it’s a major part of my job to make a building stand for as little as money as possible. No, safety is never knowingly sacrificed. That’s also a part of my job. However, we engineers are taught that if we are just over-designing everything then we aren’t doing our due diligence to look out for our clients, and that is the same thing as stealing from them.

We’ve been working on a especially difficult job here in Richmond. This is one of those dream/nightmare jobs (depends on if it’s an even or odd day of the year) that has just about every twist and turn a structural engineer can imagine. It is a very old building (over 100 years). Further, it is made of wood and masonry, but will have steel, concrete, and reinforced masonry added to it as part of the re-use. It has been extremely time-consuming and difficult work to plan with our client to make this building meet the current building codes with the absolute minimum amount of work to be added. There were times when I would feel completely ridiculous showing the results of my labor to my boss, knowing how much we were asking the client to add to the structure of this building.

Now, with all that background in mind, let me tell you about the phone call my boss received yesterday. The client had hired two different engineers to take a look, both in the physical and analysis senses, at the building in question. Not only did they both agree with what we had recommended was required, they had also concluded that what we had come determined we had done it with about the minimum amount of work that could be done. Now, it was very possible the client might have found someone who would have said that none of this was needed and we were wasting time and money. There are people who believe that because buildings stood under existing laws and codes, that it is a waste to try and meet modern laws. Of course, that is, by definition, not practicing our profession under the law. Fortunately, these two groups or individuals (I don’t know who they are) and our company made a consensus that this is needed and it feels great to know that what I was doing was good work. My boss was ecstatic, as was I.

Grand Canyon Skywalk

The Native American tribes of the Hualapai Nation are building a giant horshoe-shaped glass walkway on part of the reservation in order to attract tourism. What makes this even more amazing is the fact that this part of their land is 4,000 feet above the base of the Grand Canyon. The bridge is a structural engineering marvel you’re shure to see some Discovery Channel specials about in the future. I can’t wait to walk across this when completed early next year (2006).

This structure is so incredible as to have an entire article devoted to it at, the internet myth clearing house.

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West Houston’s KATY Freeway

Over two years ago, I began working on part of the design team for the IH-10 and Beltway 8 interchange West of Houston, Texas.

[I’ve been meaning to do a lot more of this, but better late than never. This is one of the posts on a project I’ve was involved with at my former employer. However, for what it’s worth, this is the first structure I’ve designed that has yet to be built.]

Over two years ago, I began working on part of the design team for the IH-10 and Beltway 8 interchange West of Houston, Texas. I spent about three months down in Tampa and then another 4 months on and off back here in Richmond working on the job.

KATY Freeway Tall Piers

A view of some of the tall piers at the IH-10/BW-8 Interchange. Note the Texas star detail cast into each pier.

My role was as structural engineer for the left-turn fly-overs. Those are the highest portion of the overall interchange (.pdf file); the ones where you exit one freeway to the right to "fly over" the rest of the interchange to head left onto the intersecting freeway. I did the structural design for approximately 1.2 miles of bridge, with spans up to 375 feet. All the bridges were single lane. Also, the structure type was a double steel tub-girder. These are some very clean-lined structures once finished. I can say that, as I had no decision in the structure type and layout whatsoever. I simply decided how thick to make all the plates. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

The KATY Corridor project is a huge construction project, widening and renovating roughly 20 miles of IH-10 between Houston and Katy, TX at a cost of $1.44 billion (yes, that’s a B). The section this interchange is in, called Contract D, came in with a $250 million price tag. That’s a rather large civil project, by any terms.

This was a great project to learn on, as curved bridges have some force effects due to gravity that many other bridges don’t experience. The portion of the bridge that sweeps out beyond the straight line connecting the supporting piers creates an immense twist throughout the bridges length (think of wringing out a dishtowel). This is resolved within the superstructure by that tub (or trapezoidal) shaped box section. The level of force is tremendous, as is the size of steel plates involved in the bridge girders. Two steel boxes which are 8′-6″ deep and 8′-0″ wide (at the top) carry a concrete road deck and vehicular traffic up to 375 feet between piers at 85 feet in the air. There are three levels of traffic below the bridge at it’s highest point. It is a symphony of steel and concrete that takes years to design and build.

My part in it was rather small, but I learned so much from it. I had the pleasure of working with great engineers who truly wanted a safe and aesthetically pleasing bridge. I realize there was, and remains, a great deal of controversy involving this project. However, in the end, I hope the citizens of Texas can enjoy and appreciate their road. Structures such as this one are a product of a society that cherishes the automobile almost as family. It’s nice when we can have pleasant roads and bridges with which to put them on.

Like Passing A Stone

I found out today that I passed my Professional Engineer exam, which is great news! Oddly, I don’t feel any different…

I found out today that I passed my Professional Engineer exam, which is great news! Oddly, I don’t feel any different. It’s been 11 long years since I started college, just to get to this point. I suppose this has all been the preamble to some much larger and longer set of events. At the end of the day, I was still doing about the same stuff I was doing before. Now, I have a seal, though, that says at least I’m not a total idiot. Okay, I still actually have to purchase the seal, but whatever.

I still have this nagging suspicion that this is all just some mix-up, and that once the Commonwealth of Virginia gets everything sorted out, they’ll send me my letter stating how I really didn’t pass. Knowing me (and I do), I’ll have that same feeling even after they send me any letter stating that I passed. I’ll probably feel that way until the statute of limitations has run out on such letters, and even then I may always wonder… (Well, that’s about enough self-doubt for one paragraph.)

Just as a side note, I have some other professional goals that go beyond this point. However, this is a big deal to me. Virginia isn’t a state that seems to care much one way or the other about professional licensure among engineers. However, in Tennessee (where I grew up and went to college), they really made it a big deal. The word "engineer" is reserved for only those people who have passed a similar exam (well, it would have been the exact same exam in my case). I think that’s pretty cool. The fact that I’ve held the title of Structural Engineer for the past 3-1/2 years kind of takes some of the air out of actually passing an 8-hour exam (which required 4 years of experience to even apply for). I suppose now I’ll actually say what my job is in more than a passing mumble and without the asterisk in my mind that says *not really, not yet anyway.

Fast-Paced First Week

I can hardly believe that five whole days have gone by since I started my new job. I have to say that I’m feeling a great deal more optimistic since my last post, too.

My Office View

Looking out the window at my new office onto the snow from the last two days in Richmond.

I can hardly believe that five whole days have gone by since I started my new job. I think that even after psyching my self up for a month, I wasn’t prepared for the quick pace of work here. I got on a project first thing on Monday morning, and I’ve been busy with it pretty much the entire time since (well, at work anyway). I have to say that I’m feeling a great deal more optimistic since my last post, too. It’s not that I thought I’d made a mistake, it was just that sinking feeling of realizing just how much I was stepping backward, in a career sense.

My boss and I did get to make a site visit downtown Richmond on Tuesday, though. It was about 20º F, in the sun with 15-20 mph winds. I have a whole new level of respect for those construction guys out grouting lintel seats and hanging structural steel. Insane. We’ve had snow the last couple of days here in Richmond, so I doubt they’ve had much of a chance to continue. This photo is looking out my new office window. I took it around lunch on Friday. I realize it’s not a spectacular view, but since I couldn’t see any daylight from the desk at my old job, I feel as though I’ve moved up in the world.

I’ve spent the week learning all about RAM International‘s Structural System design software package. I have to say, I’m pretty impressed thus far. I’ve used a number of software solutions for structural analysis and design, and RAM has lived up to its billing as a one of the best. It is very much geared to the building industry, and therefore can tailor its solutions accordingly. I miss some of the open ended-ness of some of the other packages I’ve used (STAAD, GTSTRUDL) or even the more straight forward frame input of other building design software (RISA 3D). However, you trade all that for the speed and complete-ness that RAM offers. Sure, I can’t custom edit elements to create out-of-plan beams, for example. What I can do, though, is enter in and design an entire two-story school building in a manner of hours. Pretty slick.

The other task this week was learning a little more about building construction. Fortunately, the education system for the structures portion of civil engineering is catered to the building industry. I got to spend the last 3 years learning a good bit about bridge design (albeit, only steel bridges). Now, I get to actually use some of the things I learned in school towards design. Now, if only I could start using LRFD steel design.

Just as an aside, I’m using a new utility for WordPress called FlickIt. It simply adds a quicktag to your editor allowing to easily insert a hyperlinked Flickr image. It’s not perfect, but works does exactly what it claims to and is free (after they got into a little trouble with the company that owns Flickr for charging). Anyway, I mention it because I know a lot of my friends use both WordPress and Flickr and might want an easier way of getting them to play together.