Tag Archives: Technical Paper

2016 TECHINCAL PAPER — A Strategic Approach to Reconciling Global Engineering Codes and Standards

Editor’s note: this essay is USC ASCE’s submission to the 2016 ASCE Daniel W. Mead Prize for Students. Justine Lee is current a sophomore at USC pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Engineering. Justine presented this paper at the PSWC 2016 Technical Paper Competition, winning 1st place out of 18 universities.

A Strategic Approach to Reconciling Global Engineering Codes and Standards

Justine Lee

In a rapidly globalizing world, even minute dissimilarities between available codes and regulations amplify the complexity of engineering design and decision-making. Engineering professionals are placed in or sent to foreign locations with growing frequency; even within their own countries, engineers may experience the complications of unreconciled industry standards through transnational project cooperation or international exchange of materials and technology. Engineering personnel are thus increasingly called to orient themselves effectively within the global arena, where they will need to determine the design standard that satisfies their ethical obligations for safety and quality while balancing local customs with global best practices. While project particulars prevent a catch-all solution, this paper outlines several techniques for developing a consistent strategy to address cases of criterial ambiguity: engineers should seek first to thoroughly understand and address the intent of relevant codes and standards, clearly document and communicate code interpretations and synthesis, and finally regularly review design actions.

Engineering standards and codes are related, but they have different roles. Standards are documents providing recommended specifications and procedures, and function as a reference in determining the viability and quality of similar processes, materials, products, and services (Yates, 2006, p. 163). By comparison, codes are a set of rules that often identify a minimum engineering standard. Codes become laws within a jurisdiction when formally adopted by appropriate governing authorities (National Fire Protection Association, 2016). Technical requirements determined for specific engineering projects are generally established either by law or by the standards cited and incorporated within contracts. International contracts will usually also include clauses addressing the project’s global nature, such as stating which legal system may settle disputes (Yates, 2006, p. 136). Although the details of drafting and navigating international contracts are beyond the scope of this paper,[1] engineering professionals should be familiar with the conventions that are enforced within the local jurisdiction, as code compliance is always the responsibility of the design engineer. However, some ambiguity is generated if local codes are less stringent than the standards with which the design engineer or sending organization is familiar. It is thus the responsibility of the design professional to appropriately consider the available codes and standards, and address those applicable to his or her project.

The arguably most crucial procedure when evaluating different standards and codes is to decipher the original authorial intent. Design codes are drafted as “living documents,” with clarifications or specifications amended and accrued over the years (Ching, 2012, p. IX). However, all sections begin with an author intending to solve a particular (existent or potential) problem. Therefore, when endeavoring to visually or spatially translate written codes, engineers should always ask why the code was written, and which problem(s) it attempts to solve. In a situation where engineers are confronted with foreign regulations, interpreting the reason for a code’s distinct wording might lend insight to the specific local (cultural, geologic, etc.) context. Whenever possible, local engineers and personnel should be contacted for collaborative assessment and to confirm integrity of authorial intent. This step not only enables suitably adapted designs, but also fosters multicultural engagement and working relationships crucial to project success. Engineers, too, have intent, and they create solutions according to some functional or applicational objective. Therefore, engineers should always measure their design goals against their best understanding of the code’s purpose and aim to harmonize the two intents (Ching, 2012, p. 9). In the international setting, engineers must recognize that codes employing similar language might stem from different motivations. Hence, document-specific code definitions should be consulted as much as possible to ascertain how particular terms are used; one should never assume that vocabulary carry the same meaning across documents. Where multiple codes apply, engineers should elect to address all implicitly proposed concerns. Neglecting to do so could lead to project delays and, in serious cases, not only jeopardize the engineer’s career and reputation but— more importantly— the safety, health, and welfare of society. Even when codes are prompted by the same issue, but differ only in standard or stringency level, engineers should ask the reason for the more exacting standard before deciding its applicability. These processes may be better conducted over a well-documented code analysis.

Diligent documentation is paramount when navigating and reconciling standards from multiple sources. Every engineering project, whether international or domestic, should contain within its project documents a code analysis detailing code citations and interpretations (Ching, 2012, p. 13). This document becomes expressly critical for monitoring the fulfillment of all defined requirements, while recording the dialogue and reasoning behind selections of certain standards over others. This will not only better position professionals to explain and defend the validity of their code synthesis decisions but also facilitate future conversations and plan reviews with inspecting officials or clients. In many ways, code reconciliation or synthesis may be compared to seeking code compliance via performance.[2] Both procedures could involve the introduction of new (foreign) technology, materials, or standards that cause deviation from local conventional systems. Thus, many permitting agencies may already have provisions in place for alternate compliance methods with detailed criteria by which officials may approve or reject deviations from prescribed design (Ching, 2012, p. 11). When appropriate, engineers should submit their analysis and project execution plans for review as early as possible to correct discrepancies before expending excessive amounts of time and energy on detailed design. In response to expanding global ventures, some organizations have also taken to compiling and harmonizing key design codes, creating comparison guides,[3] or drafting their own consensus-based standards. It is thus in the interest of engineers to determine if any agency has previously resolved similar code conflicts.

When working on a project with some global aspect, engineers may decide to adhere to widely accepted international standards; a few advantages and disadvantages of this strategy are briefly offered for consideration here. The most prevalent standards developing organization is the globally acknowledged International Organization for Standardization (ISO[4]), founded in 1947 at the Institute of Civil Engineers in London as an independent, non-governmental entity. ISO’s membership comprises 162 national standards bodies representing their countries, and ISO international standards cover almost every industry from food-safety to technology (ISO, 2012). The advantages of implementing international standards are: globally competitive and compatible designs, facilitation of communication and mutual technical understanding, and straightforward exchanges of technology. Major disadvantages include: additional internal costs for revision and modification of customary procedures and, if local personnel are unfamiliar with these standards, disruptions in project timeline or employee morale (Yates, 2006, p. 178). The added hassle of auditing and registration procedures might also deter engineers from adoption. However, a global movement towards wider usage of these standards would increase accessibility and simplify procedures over time; therefore, engineers and design firms might view international compliance as a long-term investment towards easier global trade. Currently, it would be up to the stakeholders to weigh associated benefits and setbacks to decide level of adherence.

During and after the code reconciliation process, engineers should regularly self-review with a few simple decision analysis tools to ensure continued integrity and satisfaction of ethical obligations as a professional. The first such tool, proposed by Noreen M. Surgrue and Timothy G. McCarthy, is called superposition of norms (2015). This method is especially useful when the norms of engineering design, local customs, or the sending organization are in conflict. The tool asks engineers to imagine a character who is equally biased[5] (and thus unbiased) towards all parties, and who is tasked to systematically consider the ideal solution from each perspective. In this way, the rationalized compromise maximizes the interests of all stakeholders.[6] Other quicker, simpler tests might include, but are by no means limited to: 1) Sleep Test, 2) Mirror Test, and 3) Newspaper Test (Chang, 2010, p. 466). Namely, engineers may ask themselves the following questions: Would this design decision keep me awake at night? How would I feel looking into the mirror? How would this look on the front page of the newspaper? These easy checks all have a similar basis— to provide an initial diagnosis of potentially regretful decisions— and can be conducted as often as desired. While failure of any of these tests should immediately encourage action and reorientation, engineers must ultimately recall that focus should not be given to merely meeting minimum threshold, but aspiring to safer and more effective designs.

In the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) code of ethics, the first listed fundamental canon reads that “engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties” (emphasis added). Rather than reluctantly fulfilling obligations, engineers should stake personal interest in the dependability and excellence of their design. Although codes and standards may appear tedious or even daunting, they enable engineering professionals to shape and advance their fields. Instead of reacting passively to written rules, engineers should adopt a proactive stance, becoming familiarized— and involved, when possible— with code and standard drafting processes, actively anticipating potential decision or design conflicts, and engaging in the global dialogue surrounding their profession. Through discourse and personal ownership, engineers may begin to resolve these issues on a consistent basis: global solutions require a corresponding ubiquitous sense of global citizenship and cooperation.

[1] For some useful resources pertinent to international contracting, see the standard formats for international contracts published by the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) and the Legal Guide for Drawing Up International Contracts for the Construction of Industrial Work published by the United Nations Commission on International Trade and Law (UNCITRAL).

[2] This is as opposed to the traditional prescriptive method of code compliance. The majority of codes, especially in civil engineering, are prescriptive— identified problems are assigned approved responses. On the other hand, performance codes, also called objective-based requirements, define only the problem and allow engineers to imagine their own solutions. An example is fall prevention codes; while prescriptive codes may specify minimum dimensions for guardrails, performance codes afford engineers the freedom to innovate new safety precautions such as installing elevated garden-boxes (Ching, 2012, p. 8). It may be argued that performance codes compel engineers to more critically consider the consequences of their design decisions and the intent of written regulations.

[3] An example of this is the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), who in collaboration with other international standards development organizations, created a comparison of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) boiler and pressure vessel rules (section III) alongside foreign regulatory codes (Terao, 2013).

[4] Since “International Organization for Standardization” would have different acronyms in other languages, the organization name is instead abbreviated as ISO, derived from the Greek isos, which means “equal” (ISO).

[5] This is achieved by establishing that the character is a composite member of one stakeholder group without knowing which, but with equal probability of it being any one group (Surgrue & McCarthy, 2015). While hypothetical in nature, this technique introduces a measure of objectivity to ethically ambiguous situations; for issues of code interpretation, designers might be motivated to heed otherwise unconsidered precautions.

[6] To illustrate this strategy in practice, Surgrue and McCarthy examine a case study in which the proposed site for a clean water project conflicts with local norms, as its proximity would disturb a site of religious significance during construction. The matter is resolved by building the project in an alternate location; although the engineering design was somewhat compromised, and the commissioning organization would have to account for additional costs, it is the only course of action that would not severely violate the major values or needs of any stakeholder group (2015).



American Society of Civil Engineers. (2006). Code of Ethics (Cannon 1). Retrieved from http://www.asce.org/code-of-ethics.

Chang, C. M. (2010). Service systems management and engineering: Creating strategic differentiation and operational excellence. John Wiley & Sons.

Ching, F. D., & Winkel, S. R. (2012). Building Codes Illustrated, Volume 6 : Building Codes

Illustrated : A Guide to Understanding the 2012 International Building Code (4th Edition). Somerset, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons.

International Organization of Standardization. (2012). The ISO Story. Retrieved from http://www.iso.org/iso/home/about/the_iso_story.

National Fire Protection Agency. (2016). A Reporter’s Guide to Fire and the NFPA (About Codes and Standards). Retrieved from http://www.nfpa.org/press-room/reporters-guideto-fire-and-nfpa/about-codes-and-standards.

Surgrue, N. M., & McCarthy, T. G. (2015). Engineering Decisions in a Global Context and

Social Choice. In C. Murphy, P. Gardoni, H. Bashir, C. E. Harris, Jr., E. Masad (Eds.),

Engineering Ethics for a Globalized World (pp. 79-90). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Terao, D. (2013). U.S. Government Use of ASME Codes and Standards. In K. Balkey, D. A.

Canonico, A. L. Guzman, P. F. Nelson, M. Webster, & S. Weinman (Eds.), ASME

Standards & Certification (pp. 10-11).

Yates, J. K. (2006). Global engineering and construction. John Wiley & Sons.

2015 Techincal Paper — The Future of Construction: Shared Responsibilities

Editor’s note: this essay is USC ASCE’s submission to the 2015 ASCE Daniel W. Mead Prize for Students. Sylvia Tran is graduating in Spring 2015 with a B.S. in Civil Engineering (Building Science) and a M.S.C.E. in Structural Engineering. She currently serves as Secretary of USC ASCE. Sylvia presented this paper at the PSWC 2015 Technical Paper Competition at the University of Arizona, winning first place out of eighteen universities.

The Future of Construction: Shared Responsibilities

Sylvia Tran

Almost every construction company lists safety as a top priority, yet according to the United States Department of Labor, 4,405 workers were killed on the job in 2013, averaging 12 deaths per day (United States Department of Labor. “Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”). While the number of construction related injuries and deaths has decreased over the last few decades, construction remains one of the most dangerous industries. Historically, the controlling contractor accepts responsibilities for all safety issues that occur during the construction process.  However, in recent years, society has turned to engineers, who may be more qualified to examine the “human costs” of building their designs, to be more intimately involved with the construction process. As the Engineer of Record becomes more involved in a project, dividing the responsibility of safety between contractor and engineer becomes more difficult. Nevertheless, the Engineer of Record is ethically responsible for injuries and deaths that occur during construction of his or her design and should share the associated legal responsibilities with the controlling contractor.

Today’s complex project delivery systems complicate responsibility for the “design.” A proper definition of “design responsibility” begins by examining the professional’s legal duties imposed by state laws, permitting agency rules, and professional ethical standards (Bender 2007). The Engineer of Record carries the responsibility of the structural stability of a building by sealing and stamping the documents, certifying that the licensee is competent in the subject matter and responsible for the work product. However, the obligations of the Engineer of Record continue after the initial drawing submittals throughout the life of the project. The engineer must also review the means and methods of construction and perform structural observations (Bender 2007). On April 23, 1987, the partially erected structural frame of L’Ambiance Plaza, an apartment tower in Bridgeport, Connecticut, collapsed, killing 28 construction workers (Heger 2006). The contract documents split the structural design responsibility between the contractor’s engineer and the Engineer of Record.  The L’Ambiance Plaza collapsed due to one improper design of the lifting collars, which was one of the responsibilities delegated to the contractor. Although a registered professional engineer should have sealed the contractor’s design, the Engineer of Record only sealed the contract drawings (Heger 2006). The American Institute for Steel Construction Code states that “the Structural Engineer of Record shall be responsible for the structural adequacy of the design of the structure in the completed project.” According to the ASCE Code of Ethics, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public… in the performance of their professional duties.” (ASCE. “Code of Ethics.”) Though engineers are legally responsible for the full design of the building, they should also take ethical responsibility for safety during and after construction.

Legally, contractors are currently responsible for the safety of both the builders and the public during the construction process. The contractor must provide safety training, personal protection, first aid training, job site inspection, and hazard reporting throughout the project in order to reduce unsafe conditions (Clough and Sears 2005).  Before construction, project-specific job hazard analyses can help identify hazards before they occur and to minimize potential dangers. During construction, project engineers, foremen, and safety managers are responsible for identifying and correcting safety hazards that may endanger builders or the public (Thomas Conroy and Frank DiGiovanni, personal communication, Oct. 6, 2014). Contractors are responsible for knowing the building code and are professionally liable to “build per design (Butch Shin, personal communication, Nov. 3, 2014).” In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) imposed safety and health standards on the construction industry. According to OSHA’s website, “Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace for their employees.” (United States Department of Labor. “Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”) General contractors are responsible for providing a safe workplace, tools, and equipment and exercising reasonable care in accident prevention throughout the construction process to meet OSHA’s standards, but despite all of their responsibilities, there will still be safety concerns that an engineer would be more familiar with.

Construction safety requires coordination between contractors and engineers. A close partnership and open line of communication between the contractor and the engineer are key to project safety and success. Current laws dictate the contractor’s responsibility to review the construction means and methods (Thomas Conroy and Frank DiGiovanni, personal communication, Oct. 6, 2014). According to Dimitry Vergun, a practicing architect and structural engineer for over fifty years, “reviewing construction is not [the engineer’s] specialty; it’s the contractor’s. It should be up to [them] to raise flags… if they think something is not feasible to construct.” (Dimitry Vergun, personal communication, Oct. 9, 2014) Contract documents should clearly identify and assign responsibilities to the Engineer of Record and the contractor’s engineer, since individual responsibilities of the owners, professionals, and contractors are integrated and interrelated (Bender 2007). Every member of the design and construction team needs to be qualified, responsible, and committed to the safety of the project; a strong partnership will result in a successful and safe project.

As designs become more complex, structural engineers need to provide constructible details and engage with the contracting firm to better understand the constraints of construction. Constructability is a key aspect that should be considered before any drawing or detail is stamped. Neglecting to provide these details may result in situations like the Kansas City Hyatt Hotel Walkway Collapse, which caused 114 deaths and over 200 injuries in July 1981. Jack D. Gillum, the Engineer of Record for the project, wrote that the structural failure occurred because “the connection that failed was never designed (Gillum 2000).” Gillum believes that the designed connection detail should have been on the engineer’s drawings and the fabricator’s shop drawings, and that its absence should have been noticed by the shop drawing check or during the engineer’s design recheck. This incident impacted countless lives and challenged the standards of the construction and engineering communities. Engineers should also keep construction constraints in mind when designing to control the difficulty and build quality of construction (Allison Yu, e-mail interview, Oct. 29, 2014). Conditions based on the geographic location of a project, such as high winds in Chicago or seismic activity in Los Angeles, also need to be considered during the design process. While the responsibility of the Engineer of Record is intended for the completed building, an ethically-responsible engineer will design with foreseeably poor construction conditions in mind.

Even with thorough preparation and due diligence, accidents occur. No one should take the blame in these situations. For example, contractors take precautions to protect members of the public who would like to observe construction operations. In spite of adequate safety precautions, people may still be injured (Clough and Sears 2005). Just as accidents occur despite appropriate precautions taken by the contractor, the engineer can only do so much to prevent injuries. Innovative designs inevitably incur new safety hazards and unforeseeable accidents. In these situations, it is important for incidents to become meaningful “lessons learned” that will translate to the engineer’s next project. If the appropriate safety precautions are taken, neither the contractor nor the engineer is at fault. Society should understand that accidents happen and mistakes occur, despite planning and safety preparations (Thomas Conroy and Frank DiGiovanni, personal communication, Oct. 6, 2014).

Engineers should be responsible for their own work and ensure that the construction methods for their designs are correct. Reviewing the means and methods of construction muddles the question of responsibility of safety during construction and requires coordination between the structural Engineer of Record and the contractor (Heger 2006). On July 10, 2006, a ventilation duct ceiling panel in Boston’s I-90 highway tunnel fell onto a vehicle and killed a woman. The investigations of the Big Dig Ceiling Collapse found that fast-set epoxy had been used to hold the anchor bolts in place instead of the standard-set epoxy that the company originally ordered (Wallis 2006). The fast-set epoxy dried quickly, but lost its bonding strength within weeks. Despite testing the strength of the bolts, the builders did not discover the problem because they attributed failures to installation errors rather than the epoxy (Wald 2007). The inspection report attributed the collapse to “poor design specifications, inadequate management of construction, improper load testing, and unauthorized deviations from [the specifications] (Wallis 2006).” This incident could have been prevented if an Engineer of Record had reviewed the means and methods on this project or requested a method of construction from the contractor to see if the necessary precautions and procedures were in place.  Tragedies like the Big Dig Collapse demonstrate the lack of proper oversight of the construction means and methods.

The Engineer of Record must also perform structural observations. These consist of on-site inspections reported to the building department (Dimitry Vergun, personal communication, Oct. 9, 2014). The engineer should observe critical moments during construction of complicated configurations to ensure that the structure is built according to the design. Structural observations allow engineers to see if the contractor is creating structural hazards in an attempt to save time or money. In Chicago in 1979, the arched wooden roof of the Rosemont Horizon Stadium suddenly collapsed without warning, killing five workers and injuring sixteen (Abernethy 2012). The investigation examined whether the plans provided sufficient support for the roof and whether the builders had properly followed these plans (“Chicago, IL Rosemont Stadium Roof Collapse, Aug 1979.” 1979). OSHA revealed that, “the building was in such unstable condition that anything could have set off the collapse.” Inspectors later found that less than half of the required connection bolts on the building’s roof and less than a third of the steel plates were properly installed, which may have been prevented if adequate structural inspections were in place (Abernethy 2012). Proper construction requires proper oversight, but even the best of contractors are susceptible to making mistakes (Gillum 2000). The project team should determine the need for structural engineering services beyond the submittal of the permit documents, which may include conducting structural observations and reviewing shop drawings of structurally significant elements throughout construction, to prevent injury and death during construction (Bender 2007).

Currently, the Engineer of Record is legally responsible for performing periodic structural observations and reviewing the means and methods.  However, maximizing the role of the engineer would improve safety during construction. Introducing more legal risk and liability would increase engineer involvement by making them a more significant stakeholder in the project (Butch Shin, personal communication, Nov. 3, 2014). Existing code committees should encourage practicing engineers to review all provisions relating to public and construction safety (Bender 2007). Building regulations should require a permit for construction methods and means to be designed by a licensed engineer who would be specifically responsible for structural safety during the construction process. Another beneficial addition to the law would require the construction of any structural component to be observed by either the Engineer of Record or a qualified structural engineer familiar with the project’s design requirements (Heger 2006). Qualified engineers should be involved throughout the construction process and rewarded in proportion to the amount of responsibility they take on and the amount of time they spend on a project. Further beneficial additions to the law could require that the construction of any structural component be observed by either the Engineer of Record or a qualified structural engineer familiar with the project design requirements (Heger 2006). By revising current laws to require more review of construction means and methods and more structural observations, engineers will become more legally involved with creating a safer construction process.

Who is responsible for safety? Everybody. According to the ASCE Code of Ethics, engineers are called to hold safety as their top priority (ASCE. “Code of Ethics.”). This means that both structural engineers, including the Engineer of Record, and project engineers are responsible for construction safety.  In order to improve safety, today’s design and construction process requires changes in the law regarding minimum design standards as well as building regulations. The Engineer of Record should be more involved with the construction process, and therefore, share more of the legal responsibilities with the controlling contractor for any injury or death that occurs during construction.



Abernethy, Samantha. (Aug. 13, 2012). “One For The Road: The 1979 Rosemont Stadium Roof Collapse.”Chicagoist. Chicagoist. (6 Nov. 2014.)

ASCE. “Code of Ethics.” <http://www.asce.org/Leadership-and-Management/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/> (Nov. 2, 2014).

Bender, William. (2007). “Defining and Allocating “Design Responsibility” in Complex Projects.” SkellengerBender, <http://www.skellengerbender.com/publications/PDFs/construction_design/designResponsibilityComplexProjects.pdf> (Nov. 2, 2014).

“Chicago, IL Rosemont Stadium Roof Collapse, Aug 1979.” (Aug. 14, 1979). Daily Herald Chicago Illinois, <http://www3.gendisasters.com/illinois/19347/chicago-il-rosemont-stadium-roof-collapse-aug-1979> (Nov. 6, 2014).

Clough, Richard H., and Glenn A. Sears. (2005). “Project Safety.” Construction Contracting: A Practical Guide to Company Management. 7th ed. Hoboken, N.J.

Gillum, Jack D. (2000). “The Engineer of Record and Design Responsibility.” Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities, 14.2:67.

Heger, Frank J. (2006). “L’Ambiance Plazza.” Engineering.com Library 85.168. Engineering.com. ENGINEERING.com, Inc. <http://www.engineering.com/Library/ArticlesPage/tabid/85/ArticleID/168/LAmbiance-Plazza.aspx> (Nov. 2, 2014).

United States Department of Labor. “Occupational Safety and Health Administration.” <https://www.osha.gov/> (Nov, 2. 2014).

Wald, Matthew L. (July 11, 2007). “Collapse of Big Dig Ceiling in Boston Is Tied to Glue.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/11/us/11bigdig.html?fta=y&_r=1&> (Nov. 4, 2014).

Wallis, Shani. (2006). “Public Demand for Big Dig Accountability.” Direct by Design. TunnelTalk. TunnelTalk. <http://www.tunneltalk.com/Safety-Sep2006-Ceiling-panel-collapse-in-Boston-Big-Dig-tunnel.php> (Nov. 2, 2014).