November 5, 2020

Structural Integrity

I have worked with a lot of building renovation projects, both as the one drawing the “plans,” and the one overseeing the construction—often on the same projects.  One of the most common problems with renovation is the danger of unforeseen conditions.  We’ve discovered undocumented pipes hidden in walls and in the ground, multiple layers of interior finishes, and even had a contractor bore through an outdoor sidewalk to find out (almost too late) that it was actually a concrete roof over occupied (underground) space below.

But one thing that’s fairly easy to document, and yet something that can be a real concern when you start tearing into a building, is the location and configuration of critical components of the building’s structure.  Clients like to say, “Why can’t we just open this wall and make this room much larger?” Or, “Do we have to keep this post in the center of this room? It just gets in the way.”  When that happens, we’re forced to start using words like “load bearing” to describe the difficulty in simply eliminating certain walls, beams and columns. For the most part, clients understand; but they aren’t always happy with the cost associated with changing them.

Structural systems are what makes a building a building. Sure you don’t often see the columns, beams, trusses, joists, and footers, but they’re there just the same. And without them, there is no building. Structural systems are designed carefully and deliberately with just the right amount of mass, substance and connections to work together as a cohesive unit to hold the building’s shape during times of stress, be it internal shifts in load caused by movement and redistribution of people or furnishings, or external loads like high winds, snow, and even the occasional earthquake.

A well-designed structural system can be downright beautiful in its functional elegance.  Each component piece of the structure works with all the others, in its own place, to protect the safety and well-being of the building’s occupants.  Everything is there for a reason and contributes to the integrity of the whole.  Should a well-meaning designer or contractor come along and oblige a request from a client to remove a wall or pull out a column, the integrity of the structure could be compromised. In that case, the builder and the occupant may find themselves at the center of a pile of rubble. Or worse.



But if the same contractor took the time to assess the desired need and then find a way to work it into the structural system by (for instance) adding a column and footer, or a header beam to span the room, etc., it might be possible to achieve the same goals while preserving the carefully balanced structural integrity of the original facility.  To simply apply changes without considering how they might impact the whole of the structure is irresponsible, at the very least; and could even be dangerous.

This brief entry here isn’t intended as a lesson in structural engineering or effective project management.  As you’ve guessed by now, there’s a reason I bring up this important lesson.  Recently, as my wife and I have been taking an online college course that includes a detailed study of the US Constitution (and related history and context), it has become apparent to me that the Constitution is an incredibly and skillfully written document that provides a (here’s the word) structural framework for our governmental system that both protects its integrity and provides strength and resilience in the face of challenges—both inside and from without.  The more I study the Constitution, I’m in awe at how the Founders arranged and interconnected each component of government to achieve such operational perfection.

And like the structure of a building, the Constitution cannot simply be amended or ignored without extreme care taken to think through the impact of desired changes and build back into the processes a new structure that works perfectly within its existing framework and provides the same ability to protect the rights of each citizen as the original.

The US Constitution isn’t simply the latest in a series of ideas floating around the country as to what we should do and how.  It’s not a dynamic or “living” document that can be changed on a whim. Rather, the Constitution is the base structure of our Republic that makes our country the United States of America.  To dismiss it or change it into something else would mean America would cease to be what it is today.  And, like randomly pulling out a column in a building because it’s “in the way,” such an action would leave us all in the midst of a pile of rubble of what once was “a more perfect Union.”


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