After listening to Ed Huston's presentation at last week's meeting of The Masonry Society, I'm somewhat worried about the future of masonry construction. Huston, a Seattle, Washington-based structural engineer, reported on the status of several impending code change proposals—and if these changes were adopted, how they would affect our industry. Huston's audience was somber.
Huston has been monitoring a number of concurrent efforts to help draft standards to make building structures safer. Since 9/11 the code writing community has been attempting to answer the question"What is safe?" amid concerns of future terrorist attacks. These code-writing groups, who claim they are representing the public interest, are drafting guidelines that require engineers to plan for every possible calamity.
Dr. Richard Klingner, past chairman of The Masonry Society's Masonry Standards Joint Committee , sums up the design dilemma this way:"Structural engineers are caught in the debate of investment versus life safety." No one wants to create something that will be unsafe, but how can a structure be designed to encompass all possible types of dangerous occurrences. For example, what magnitude earthquake should we anticipate? What happens if a comet hits the earth?
Huston expressed a tougher stand."Many of these design changes are inappropriate when related to the likelihood of the potential cause." He reported that within the last four years, code-writing organizations have approved more than 300 significant revisions to building codes that affect structural design. These changes typically add costs and complexities to buildings. Then there is the question of whether these changes really make the structure safer.
But there's something greater at risk than the cost of the structure: the restriction of opportunity for structural masonry to retain its beauty."If some of these engineers had their way, structures would look like concrete bunkers," said Huston.
Traditional masonry has survived because its structures project strength, beauty and purpose. To accomplish this, structural engineers like Huston must be free to adopt innovative approaches to their designs.
Fortunately for masonry, we have some hope. At the same program on which Huston spoke, some of industry's best young engineers presented their research on several topics. Zezer Atamturktur showed her work on preserving historic masonry vaulted and dome systems. Bo Kasal outlined his work on the effectiveness of insulated block concrete basement walls. And James Davidson on reported his work about blast-resistant residential wall systems.
The problem, as I see it, is not with the code writers. Our industry faces a serious lack of research-funding sources. Competitive materials such as steel and wood outspend us in research. And it's research that the code writers want.
David Abrams, a professor from University of Illinois, said that only one research proposal in 10 has any chance for funding."We have only about 1/5 the level of masonry research going on now, as our industry had in the 1980's," said Abrams.
Instead of complaining about what the code writers may do, we need to be directing. It's time to revive our research activity.
(In a few weeks, The Masonry Society will post the presentation from the Annual meeting, featuring the research reports mentioned in my note. You can view them at www.themasonrysociety.org.)