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Let’s pay heed to Larsen C

Need to look beyond copy-pasting engineering designs…

| | Feb 22, 2017 | 5:03 pm
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About two years ago, we ran a story on the proliferation of black mould in a high-rise building in the UAE. It was about to be handed over to the client, when he discovered the problem and sought expert advice. Scant attention to orientation, dysfunctional control valves and a doctored commissioning report relating to FCUs and readings had led to the situation. Further investigation revealed a more serious issue – the building was meant to have come up at another site but had been relocated. Faced with a lack of space at the new site, the consultant had rotated the design orientation by 90 degrees, without correspondingly changing the original design.

Everything about the project stank of a hurriedly executed copy-and-paste job, with complete disrespect for engineering design; it resulted in a costly and time-consuming remedial process.

It would be easy to vilify the copy-and-paste approach, as a whole, and call for its banishment, but that would not serve the purpose. When questioned, stakeholders in the construction industry say it is harmless – even beneficial – if applied selectively and cautiously, such as to copy and paste the conceptual design, as opposed to spending time and effort re-inventing the wheel. Scott Coombes of UAE-based AESG points to the Emirati architectural heritage, characterised by thick walls, narrow corridors that encourage ventilation and small windows. Those features, he says, were uniform and the result of design that had been refined over several years. The regionally specific design worked well and so was replicated across entire habitats. It might not have, if a particular structure had needed a change in scale – and that’s precisely the point.

In other words, there is a narrow band in which copy and paste works splendidly well; anything outside requires detailed engineering attention, simple as that. The trouble begins when consultants choose to cut and paste calculations, for example, to determine the cooling load required for a particular space, without considering the orientation, angle of the sun or the height of the building. In other words, the schematic design and the detailed design simply ought not to be copied.

What we are seeing, though, are abhorrent instances of a lack of discrimination relating to what can be replicated and what ought to be engineered, as per the specific requirements of a project. It would be easy to lay the blame on developers as demanding a shorter delivery time, but that is where the integrity of a consultant needs to come to the fore. When pregnant with a multitude of assignments, the easy route for consultant firms would be to palm off the task of preparing the detail design and specs to a junior engineer, but doing so comes with perils – resulting in poor indoor environmental quality and building inefficiency, contributing to higher carbon emissions.

Oil prices tend to be cyclical by nature. There will come a time when prices stabilise and projects are aplenty, once again. The onus is on consultants to adopt a measured approach and to answer to their conscience. In December 2016, scientists from the United Kingdom reported that a rift in the Larsen C ice shelf, one of the largest in Antarctica, had widened by about 20 kilometres and that it was only a matter of time before the rift caused about 10% of the shelf to break away. The resulting break-up would make the remaining ice shelf unstable and likely expose the glaciers held back by the shelf from floating into the sea and melting, causing the level of water to rise. It can be argued whether we contribute to climate change or not, but Nature neither has the time nor the respect for attritional speculation.


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