Invent Civil

Civil Engineering news, technology, and opinions

02 Dec, 2008

Acting as a Civil Engineering Journalist

Posted by: Skylar In: Uncategorized

I just checked my email inbox, and there’s a note from the ASCE about some sort of press release.  Unsure of how they decided to send this information to me, and at the same time somewhat flattered, I’ll post it out on the ‘net.  Only because that’s what they seem to want.  From the inbox:

November 20, 2008

Implementing Lessons Learned from ‘Big Dig’ Tragedy
National Civil Engineering Society Proposes Changes Based on Lessons Learned from NTSB Findings

A section of Boston’s Interstate 90 connector tunnel’s suspended concrete ceiling became detached from the tunnel roof and fell onto a vehicle July 10, 2006, killing one person. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the probable cause of the ceiling collapse was the use of an epoxy anchor adhesive that was not capable of sustaining long-term loads.

In an effort to address the NTSB’s findings and help educate the profession on lessons learned, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) formed the Task Committee to the NTSB Initiative to review the final investigation report and develop recommendations. After nearly a year of review, the task committee’s report, which was released today, acknowledged the role of specifications as “essential for complete understanding of the work to be performed by the builder.” Engineering judgments, decisions and practices affect the safety, health and welfare of the general public. Specifications are the vehicle through which these decisions and practices are incorporated in construction. Specifications also help determine the compliance of the design with codes and ordinances.

“The safety, health and welfare of the general public is dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes and devices,” according to the task committee report. “Specifications are the vehicle through which these decisions and practices are incorporated in construction.”

The task committee’s report identified four challenges to providing accurate specifications:
Technology outpacing knowledge;
The use of “Sole Source” and “or Equal” proprietary specifications;
Prescriptive vs. performance goals in specification writing; and
Lack of an appropriate forum for the development of construction product criteria in the transportation sector.

To overcome these challenges, the task committee recommended that, as part of their continuing education, design professionals should stay informed regarding new materials and construction products through proactive research and interaction with suppliers, trade and technical associations. They also recommended that, whether drafted on a sole-source or “or equal” basis, specifications reflect the unique requirements of the project using all available resources for the establishment of relevant properties and performance. It was also noted that specifications should include a reasonable level of jobsite quality control mechanisms including inspection and testing and evaluation criteria be better coordinated in order to provide consistent guidance to design professionals in the development of effective specifications. And finally, it was recommended that ASCE conduct and publish a “best practices” review of evaluation, qualification and training processes used outside the United States for the regulation and use of proprietary construction products.

Members of the Task Committee on Response to the NTSB Initiative were:
David Nash, committee chair, president, BE&K Government Group, Inc. and chairman, Jordan-BE&K Federal Group, LLC;
Gene Balter, chief operating officer, HDR Construction Control Operation;
Marco Legaluppi, executive vice president, WBCM;
Rayford W. Jenkins, Jr., senior project engineer, Whitman Requardt and Associates, LLP;
Jim Roskie, chief engineer, Construction, Weeks Marine, Inc.;
David Rothenberg, senior project manager, Clark Foundations, LLC; and
John F. Silva, director, Codes & Standards, Hilti North America.

Go to for more details about the Task Committee on Response to the NTSB recommendations.

Founded in 1852, the American Society of Civil Engineers represents more than 146,000 civil engineers worldwide and is America’s oldest national engineering society. For more information, visit

So, if you’re still with me – I decided to go ahead and do a little research on the issue.  Here’s an original 2006 article from USA Today.  And here’s a bit of an editorial from the Boston Globe that blames it on the lack of an independent “owner’s engineer”.  While I’m always curious where the problem occured, you don’t have to blame anyone to know that the anchors were inadequate and should not have been selected for this particular application.  That’s why I like the Highway Accident Report posted by the ASCE, which gives recommendations to the various parties involved.  It also tells me why I received this email:

To the American Society of Civil Engineers:

  1. Use the circumstances of the July 10, 2006, accident in Boston, Massachusetts to emphasize to your members through your publications, Web site, and conferences, as appropriate, the need to assess the creep characteristics of adhesive anchors before those anchors are used in sustained tensile-load applications. (H-07-XX)

4 Responses to "Acting as a Civil Engineering Journalist"

1 | Geoff Fletcher

December 17th, 2008 at 2:08 am


I have been following closely the engineering issues behind the Big Dig failure for some time, and I think there are major items still not addressed which pose unmanaged risk. Industry responses to date will do nothing to stop recurrence of Big Dig-type conditions. Not many people want to hear that. I have published and presented about this in Australia.
Pls see below verbatim text of a piece I was asked to submit to the (US) PCI Journal in August but which I suspect has been bogged in “peer review”. If you can get some attention for it, good luck! :

“Once we look beyond the significant personal & commercial tragedy resulting from the tunnel ceiling collapse in the Boston Big Dig in July 2006 it seems to me there is much that all engineers can learn in various areas of the profession, not just those in the concrete & more specialised precast and anchorage fields.
Based upon the excellent report issued by the NTSB it is clear that the failure had little to do with the product merits of adhesive anchors as a class of structural solution and even less to do with prequalification or acceptance criteria. If I could distil the key message of the NTSB report down to the key points for future action so that similar circumstances will not recur I suggest the following :
1. Civil Engineers must be conversant with creep – material susceptibility and required load environment – and that falls to training institutions for undergraduates and industry bodies offering ongoing professional development. It really shouldn’t be a foreign concept to civil engineers given that we all should have studied that both concrete and timber can be creep susceptible. It is not a new behaviour nor a new technology.
2. Product manufacturers “must submit inspection procedures to verify proper usage” as AC308 already calls up. Regarding adhesive anchors & the Big Dig this extends beyond items like void-free injection to include other measures whereby the correct adhesive product can be readily identified even after packaging has been disposed of. Perhaps a unique colour for each product within a given manufacturer’s range – at least to distinguish the creep-rated from the non-creep-rated? And any such procedures must be applied so that without such instructions any product supplied which requires user installation should be considered incomplete. Appropriate proof-load testing would be the best verification (by definition).
3. Regarding proof-testing there is an urgent need to develop Code provisions which are relevant to assessing creep on site. Instantaneous and short-term proof-loading (measured in seconds or minutes) is useless as the Boston experience shows. Proof testing has to prove the performance of the behaviour concerned. And with creep this means time is involved. Perhaps the prequalification tests can include key early measurements & limits (at 12hr?, 24hr?, 48hr?) for quick reference to verify performance on site?
4. Perhaps most tragically at Boston there was a failure of many in the process to say “STOP” until a satisfactory explanation was found for the irregular observations which started 7 years before the incident. This returns us to engineering competence but also goes to other fundamentals (to understand cause & effect AND to insist upon understanding it) and also the area of ethics – doing what is right. This is also a cultural issue and all individuals and organizations in the profession have a duty to reinforce to those learning and to those under pressure to compromise that where the risks of not knowing outweigh the risks of delaying until we know we either stop progress or bring in the expertise needed beyond our limit of competence. Having limits is not a failure – choosing to work beyond them IS. Clearly the creeping anchors could not progress indefinitely and this was not some self-limiting system as we might see with load redistribution in some structures.
There, but for the grace of God, go many of us and there is no pleasure in seeing fellow concrete engineering professionals getting caught up in a preventable tragedy. The best response is not recrimination but a commitment to learn from errors & apply our collective expertise to get it right in future so there is no “next time”.
Geoff Fletcher CPEng
Melbourne, Australia”

2 | Skylar

December 17th, 2008 at 8:46 am


Thanks for the valuable resource. I particularly like the affirmation that we need “to understand cause & effect AND to insist on understanding it”, and that “Having limits is not a failure – choosing to work beyond them IS”.
As a young engineer myself, it’s important to know my own boundaries and seek help when it is needed. It applies to all engineering industries, and it’s an important lesson that may not be taught in school.
Thanks again,

3 | Geoff Fletcher

December 17th, 2008 at 6:13 pm


I hope what I am saying IS genuinely helpful and if so that it will have influence in the right places. I have attempted dialogue with many people but I fear that this preventable failure incident will continue to grow into a grave systemic failure in which the key learnings will not be applied.

My bottom line for the concrete anchoring industry and profession : 1. although AC308 calls up provisions for inspection & verification it doesn’t seem to be well understood or applied, 2. AC308 fails to address creep behaviour under the on-site proof testing provisions.

If via this network you can stimulate debate and get responses to this I would be professionally grateful. I have only received any substantial response from ASCE via the White Paper recently issued and which you also received.

4 | Skylar

December 17th, 2008 at 7:18 pm


It seems that with situations like this, it’s all too easy to get information out to the public when there is still a “buzz” around the topic. Then when the dust settles and some basic conclusions and recommendations have been established, mass media no longer has any interest in the matter.
While my site does not see a very significant amount of traffic, and much less from the structural field – I am glad to help where I can.

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