If we were being charitable, we could call the Silver Spring Transit Center debacle a wonderful learning experience.
In fact, that’s how architects, engineers and stone masons from centuries ago learned: They’d build something — a cathedral, a bridge, an aqueduct — a little differently from how they built the last one, and if it stayed standing, they had invented a new technique. If it fell down, well, they knew not to do that again.
“Those people all learned by having things collapse,” said Matthys Levy, a structural engineer and co-author of “Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail.” “There was no other way of learning then, no schools of engineering.”
These days, we prefer a less dramatic way of training our construction professionals. And, of course, the $117 million transit center hasn’t collapsed. Yet.
But it certainly seems snakebit, what with the cost overruns, the time overruns and the report that says concrete is too thin in some places, too thick in others. And that’s not even mentioning the parts of the center that lack reinforcing steel, although I guess I just mentioned them.
Levy, who was in Vermont when we spoke, is fascinated by big things that fall down and go boom. Things such as the gothic cathedral in Beauvais, France, whose builders wanted tall spires (closer to God, etc.) and thin buttresses (let more light in), only to have some of its vaulting collapse in 1284.
There’s the civic tower in Pavia, Italy, which toppled one day in 1989, the result of a caretaker making some alterations to his room on the ground level.
“The guy was scraping away at the many layers of brick to increase the size of his room and also to bring some light into the room,” Levy said. “At one point, he went too far and the tower collapsed.”
Domes can be particularly pesky. What was then C.W. Post College on Long Island had a shallow dome over an auditorium. The designers figured it was foolproof, even when covered with snow. But on Jan. 21, 1978, the dome collapsed. The wind had blown snow from one side of the roof to the other, creating an asymmetrical load. That was enough to doom the dome. Luckily, no one was injured.
I figured that engineers and designers would be well versed in such disasters, learning about them in college and swapping cautionary tales like pilots in the officers club. Apparently not.
“It’s not something that is taught in schools,” Levy said. “They’re more concentrated on what works, how to make it work and those kinds of things. . . . Failures are very rarely discussed.”
He thinks they should be. “There are groups of architects and engineers I know who are promoting the idea of having a class in forensics, essentially studying how failures occurred and why they occurred and what the consequences were.”
Levy said there are three major reasons for failure. The first is design error. The second is construction error. “And the third is simply not being aware of certain physical problems that can occur: earthquakes, wind.”
I imagine lawyers will fight over what category the Silver Spring Transit Center falls into, er, is in. On the bright side, in Levy’s experience, buildings very seldom need to be torn down completely and rebuilt from scratch.
But this really is a mess, isn’t it? I think I may have a solution. If Foulger-Pratt and the other firms Montgomery County is pointing the finger at really think the transit center is safe, let them put their mommy where their mouth is. Construct a house in the middle of the transit center. One family member from Foulger-Pratt, as well as family members from the Robert B. Balter Co., the concrete inspectors and the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, must be inside the house at all times.
If they think the place is safe enough for their own mothers, fathers and children, then it’s safe enough for us commuters. Right?
I took my second trip to the Tidal Basin last week. The cherry blossoms still weren’t out. Plenty of tourists were, though, and some were engaged in egregious behavior.
Despite signs reminding them not to climb on the cherry trees, plenty of kids were. I think that every spring D.C. residents should be authorized to make citizens arrests.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.