Elephants and inspiration
I arrived at work one day to learn that our firm had been awarded the Oregon Zoo Elephant Lands project, a new six-acre development that was to replace the existing exhibit that housed a herd of seven Asian elephants. Suddenly, the reality of having to design structures to withstand abuse from elephants standing 14 feet tall and weighing 14,000 pounds settled in. Not finding “elephants” listed in the trusty old Table 4-1 of ASCE 7-10, it became quickly apparent that this was not going to be like any other project I had worked on. As it turned out, the elephants repeatedly reminded me of the many great things about our profession; lessons that serve to inspire me at work to this day.
Elephant lesson No. 1: Structural engineering is a CREATIVE profession
While it is sometimes easier and more profitable for us to design in cruise control, it is imperative for the future of our profession that we continually strive to build creativity and innovation into our designs. Overly prescriptive building codes and limited construction budgets can lull us structural engineers into allowing our designs to draw from a very small box of conventional solutions and standard details. Creativity on bread and butter projects in our offices is oftentimes limited to the selection of the optimal lateral force resisting system, offering input on the building grid, or at its most mundane, selection of the perfect post installed anchor. For me, it took one look at Packy, one of the largest Asian elephants in captivity at the time, to realize that I was going to have to put on my creative hat. Armed with my knowledge of engineering fundamentals developed by Hooke and Newton, I was able to design barrier fencing, shade shelters, interactive elements and buildings that could survive any loading scenario Packy could create while protecting animal welfare, meeting the architect’s aesthetic requirements, and allowing for an enhanced visitor experience. Packy precluded me from hiding behind the code and inspired me to think outside the box to form creative solutions on almost every aspect of the project. Demonstrating creativity is the key to elevating the status of the structural engineer in the design process.
Elephant lesson No. 2: Get to know the end users
As structural engineers, we can add more value to the design process by involving ourselves in the early discussions with the end users of the buildings we design. On building projects, the architect is typically responsible for determining the needs and desires of the end users or owners and crafting their design to meet those needs and desires. Packy and his herd taught me that the structural engineer can and should have more relevance in this discussion. Considering that people are inside buildings for most of their lives, it stands to reason that they would benefit from understanding what those buildings are made of and how they are expected to perform. In the case of Elephant Lands, the entire structural design was driven by the behavioral characteristics of the elephants. Zoo keepers provided anecdotal information on what worked and didn’t work in the old habitat, and we spent hours observing the elephants during design, making refinements to our design as we learned more about them. The result speaks for itself, as the zoo keepers and elephants are happier and safer than ever before. Architects and end users may initially resist or show indifference to our early involvement; however we need to push past this so that we can help ensure that our designs are effective at meeting the users’ needs.
Elephant lesson No. 3: Projects are opportunities to educate others
How many times have you gotten a phone call at work, and the caller says “I’ve got this project, and I was told I need an engineer to stamp it. Do you do that?” There are signs that our profession is trending toward commoditization, and one of the contributing factors is a lack of knowledge in the general public of what structural engineers do. Because of what was at stake on the Elephant Lands project, much of the spotlight was focused on the integrity of the structural design. Consequently, there were many opportunities for us to explain to non-engineers how and why we arrived at our engineering solutions. The display of genuine interest in what we do made me realize that all we have to do as practicing engineers is to be willing to take the time to explain how great and important our profession is, and to capitalize on all opportunities to do so. When the head elephant keeper introduces me to others as “Packy’s structural engineer,” another of these opportunities presents itself to me. Then it’s show time!
Elephant lesson No. 4: We make the world a safer place
This sounds like the title to a song that should be on repeat in our offices. However, it is relatively easy for us to get lost in our analysis and problem solving and forget about the impact our work has on the world around us. It took witnessing the elephants being introduced to their new facility for me to remember this. In their old facility, the elephants were confined to a relatively small space, so I had become accustomed to seeing them looking bored and lazy. When the huge door to the new outdoor habitat opened, the herd bounded out and began exploring their new space with vigor. According to the keepers, the elephants have never been healthier, and they attribute all of that to the design of the new facility. By being in a safe place that is designed just for them, they are flourishing. As structural engineers, we make this happen every day. Whether we are establishing, restoring or enhancing the safety of the structures we work on, we make the world a safer place when we show up to work every day. We must not lose sight of this, as it is our primary directive as structural engineers.
Parting elephant epiphany
Innovative structural designs and creative problem solving require some level of inspiration. In today’s workplace, it is difficult to find this inspiration amidst all of the noise of endless emails, compressed schedules and ever-changing code requirements. As the immortal Bob Dylan said “Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.” It may not be there on every project, but when you find it, capitalize on it and show everyone what you can do. I continue to draw inspiration from the elephants that I met a few years ago. Here’s to you finding your own Packy in the near future!