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Learning the hard way


Learning lessons from mistakes of the past is one of the most important parts of the engineering design process.

The profession could do more to respect this fact.

This week's catastrophic fire in Madrid came just months after a similar incident in Caracas. Both are reminders of the dangers of serious fi re in tall buildings and the role good engineering must play to create live-saving escape time.

But these fi es also remind us that it is nearly three and a half years since the world Trade Center collapse - the worst fireinduced structural failure the world has ever seen. Three and a half years on and we still have no defi nitive report on the failure mechanism and so no hard facts on which to base future design decisions.

This is far too long for an industry to wait for such important information and holds back the learning process.

The fact that doubt has already been cast over the US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) investigation methodology and conclusions leaves us in an even worse state.

Right or wrong, it will be hard for anything coming out of NIST to be ever described as definitive.

It is a familiar pattern. Big structural collapses, in general, lead to large amounts of commercial activity as clients, designers and contractors rush to protect their position and limit exposure to blame and financial ruin.

Time and time again we see the parties involved retreat behind the blanket of secrecy as clients save face and lawyers build defences. The fear of prejudicing a future legal case or harming a defence means that it is rarely possible to extract real engineering learning from the events until years after.

But it is possible. This week's report into last May's Charles de Gaulle airport terminal collapse highlights that it is possible to fast track the investigation process and return the learning back to the engineering professionals sooner rather than later.

Similarly, the response to April's catastrophic tunnelling collapse in Singapore highlights what can be done if there is the will to cut through the legal and commercial barriers.

Neither have been totally transparent, of course, but real information and learning has been fl owing quickly from investigations in parallel with commercial discussions over who is liable and the technical debate over what to do next.

We need to create a system in the UK to ensure that, whenever things go wrong with structures, the profession can get access to the causes and learn lessons quickly.

Such a system has been discussed informally for some time.

Put simply we need to be able to appoint an independent investigator to deliver a technical report ahead of any commercial or legal processes.

Government sponsorship will be vital to give investigators the power to call witnesses and provide the resources to ensure facts are uncovered without blame, prejudice or fear of prosecution and to ensure a report is delivered within weeks not months.

Putting such a system in place will not be easy in our complex environment of contracts and commercial sensitivities. But this complex environment means that without such a system the profession is hamstrung.

The public looks to engineers to design the best infrastructure possible and this means taking on board all the lessons of the past. Without question this is becoming increasingly difficult.

We must act now to ensure access to this vital information is guaranteed.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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