Tag Archives: connection design

Misplaced Confidence

What do you get when structural steel connection design deadlines and blogging collide for a workaholic engineer and amateur blogger? Worldview analysis doesn’t pay the bills like engineering analysis, so you get… this week’s post.  But a couple of recent projects did get me thinking about the things we put our confidence in.

Engineers don’t like to reinvent the wheel, so once we get something laid out to our satisfaction, we reuse those details whenever we can. One typical detail I see over and over again from engineers all over the country is for column moment connections with stiffener plates but no web doublers. For this post, let me just say these are 2 different configurations of reinforcing that mostly address different conditions. These engineers  feel like they’re covered for their designs and can sleep well at night because they required the fabricator to reinforce that area. “When in doubt, make it stout”, right? But then they delegate the tedious part of actually designing the connection to the fabricator, who hires me. But I have to actually go beyond just the conceptual intent and make the connection actually withstand the specified loads and be buildable. And I have to provide calculations to the Engineer of Record (EOR) proving that what I came up with actually works. And that’s where problems begin to crop up. Too often, the stiffener the EOR showed in his typical detail is reinforcing for a failure mode that isn’t even close to governing. Panel Zone Shear is often the limiting condition, but those stiffener plates do nothing for that. The engineer telling the fabricator to install stiffener plates but not doubler plates has a misplaced confidence. He’s trusting one component to protect against a certain type of failure, when the column will fail in another way first. The extra work he’s creating for the fabricator (and me) actually isn’t helping because it’s not putting reinforcing where the critical load is. To borrow a military analogy, it’s like putting all your guards at the front gate while your enemy sneaks in the back. Well, too often, by the time the project gets to me, the columns and beams  are already ordered from the mill, and it’s too late to go changing sizes because of the connection design. While they are adequate for the overall building design, the framing  may be sorely undersized for addressing the bottleneck of load paths at the connections. To quote the maestro of connection design, Bill Thornton, “Many, if not most, collapses are caused by inadequate connections… Yet, connections are often an afterthought.” [1]

Do we do the same? Too often we put our confidence in things that will let us down. Sometimes, it’s because we really did try to investigate thoroughly and failed to see some significant problem. But often, we do it because we never even bothered checking; like those tedious connections, it was an afterthought. But in spiritual matters, finding out you were wrong after it’s too late has the most serious and eternal consequences. That’s why Pascal, in the 17th century, considered this such an important task: “The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter.”[2] Are you putting your faith in ungrounded atheist dogma that there is nothing to be concerned with after our physical bodies die? Or, as is a common error in our time, trusting in an almost magical “science” to solve everything, assigning to science properties it never has had, nor ever can have? Are you trusting that the human race is getting better and better, and that we’ll eventually evolve to ever higher forms of life?

Everything that depends on fallible humans can disappoint you and let you down. In the end, there is only One whom we can always be confident in. An encounter with that One led the Apostle Paul, a former opponent of Christians who did everything he could to stamp out Christianity, to become a Christian himself, and later say, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” [2 Tim 1:12] Paul was able to go to his death for being a Christian, with no regrets, and no fear, because he knew he had placed his confidence in the one true God – the only infallible, perfect, sovereign Creator and Ruler.


[1] Bill Thornton, “Connections: Art, Science, and Information in the Quest for Economy and Safety”, Engineering Journal, 4th qtr, 1995.
[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensée # 427, from Peter Kreeft’s “Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained”

Being Able to Answer

Moses & Aaron Speak to the People - James Tissot c.1900
Moses & Aaron Speak to the People – James Tissot, c.1900

As I left the office this past Saturday, I thought about why I was there on a beautiful fall weekend instead of working on home repairs (or this blog). I’m actually giving a presentation on delegated steel connection design to an audience of my fellow structural engineers shortly, and this was critical prep time for that seminar. This upcoming presentation and the preparations for it got me thinking about how we as Christians make our presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ to a skeptical world. I see 4 parallels to consider:

  1. Preparation
    • I’d be a fool to think I could stand up in front of 40 or 50 other engineers and explain something to them without having spent any time preparing. Even having several years of connection design experience doesn’t necessarily translate to being able to effectively communicate that knowledge to others. It takes both knowledge of what to say, and practice in how to say it.
    • Likewise, as a Christian, it is prudent for me to do my homework before I need to explain to someone what it means to be a Christian. And just sitting in a church pew listening to preachers expound on God’s Word, even for decades, doesn’t necessarily translate to me being able to do that clearly when I’m asked. Knowledge and communication are two different things. Speaking and answering questions on the spot takes practice. Have you thought through what you would say if you were asked about what you believe and why you believe it? In my case, I was asked how I could call myself a Christian and an engineer at the same time. Weren’t those mutually exclusive? I hadn’t prepared for that, and it caught me off-guard. Don’t miss an opportunity to speak truth into someone’s life merely from lack of planning.
  2. Motivation
    • In my job, I’ve been focused on structural steel connection design for several years now, but knowing I’ll be presenting on that topic, and that there will be a Q&A time afterwards, is motivating me to confirm my typical assumptions to make sure I know what I’m talking about. I’m reviewing things I haven’t dealt with in a while to refresh my memory in case they come up in the Q&A. As I build the slides for my presentation, I’m digging down into those specifics to verify I’m not saying anything inaccurate, and to deepen my knowledge in those areas that might generate more questions. Anticipating tough questions changes your attitude toward preparation.
    • In the same way, writing this blog every week the last 2 years, knowing that I’m opening myself up to any and all questions and criticisms, has forced me to prepare accordingly. If it hadn’t been for this, I probably wouldn’t own half the books I own now – books on systematic theology, church history, doctrine, apologetics, logic, science books (from outside my field of engineering), and books from atheists and skeptics diametrically opposed to my views. I probably wouldn’t be trying to learn Greek and Latin either if it weren’t for engaging in apologetics. And now, when I go to church each week, it’s not something to check off the task list; it’s a trip back to my “base” to resupply with vital life-giving insights before heading back out on patrol for the week. Are you just looking to “coast” through life, or are you “on point”?
  3. Reward
    • In college, my Metallurgy III professor had us students rotate through teaching 3 days that semester. We were each assigned 3 different alloys and had to develop a lesson, slides, and handouts for our fellow classmates for each of our teaching days. He then graded us on how well we’d researched it and presented our findings, as well as our presentation. Standing up and lecturing on the weldability of titanium alloys was far tougher work than just being tasked with reading the textbook and working out some homework problems. As far as I can recall, that was the only class I ever had where the professor had the students teach most of the class, but it forced me to learn so much more that way. And as I’m being reminded in my current presentation research, that still holds true.
    • As a Christian, being “prepared to give an answer” [1 Peter 3:15] also has some great rewards. Each week of writing blog entries and doing research for future posts has gotten me reading and learning things I never would have otherwise. And even if nobody ever challenges me on some issue I invested a bunch of research in – even if nobody ever reads this blog! – wrestling with tough questions and the whole preparation process of digging deep into God’s word and into His magnificent revelation of Himself in the world around me  has been richly rewarding. Just like training for a marathon, some rewards simply aren’t achievable without serious investment and hard work. Are you a Christian missing out on those kinds of rewards in your life? While I wish I’d started earlier, it’s not too late! Jump in!
  4. Attitude
    • Presenting always requires an attitude of humility. None of us know it all, so there’s no point acting like we do. Even if I were generally more knowledgeable in my specialty than an audience, someone in the crowd may have direct experience with a peculiar issue I haven’t dealt with or studied yet. And of course, in spite of all the preparation, you can never anticipate every question. Rather than putting up a show of nonexistent knowledge, the better response is to simply say “I don’t know, but let me dig into that and get back with you.”
    • Likewise, whether presenting the gospel message to one seeking salvation, or “contending for the faith” [Jude 3] with an aggressive skeptic, we should share the “truth in love” [Eph 4:15], answering their questions with “gentleness and respect” [1 Peter 3:15]. Speaking the truth in love means telling someone the truth, even if it’s something they don’t want to hear, but in a way that demonstrates that you value them and care about them. The truth can be brutal at times, but we are to share it with gentleness. Respect means treating them with the same courtesy we would want. That entails not being condescending or lying to them and acting like we know stuff we don’t. It means actually looking for answers to their questions we don’t know and then following-up with them. Sometimes, my own presentation style is my biggest enemy. May our attitude never be a hindrance to someone recognizing the truth of the gospel.

Jesus commanded His disciples to go and make disciples [Matt 28:19-20]. Peter tells all Christians to be able to give an answer to those who ask the reason for the hope that we have [1 Pet 3:15]. Jude tells Christians – not “special forces” Christians, just Christians – to contend for the faith [Jude 3]. All of these involve being able to communicate God’s truth to a waiting world. You and I may never be preachers or traveling evangelists, but that doesn’t mean “spectator” is a job description in God’s kingdom. So like Timothy, let’s dig in, and be diligent to be workmen not needing to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth [2 Tim 2:15].

“Breadth and Depth”

Breadth Depth“Breadth and depth” is a term used to denote the knowledge expected of applicants for the Civil Professional Engineer exam. The morning exam tests for general engineering knowledge over a wide area (breadth), while the afternoon exam wears you out in one area like structural or water resources (depth). I took an online class on structural connection design last fall from Dr. Bill Thornton, one of the leading experts in the world in that area, that reminded me of this distinction. While he is a very capable engineer in general, I probably would not have signed up for the class if he had been teaching on concrete design, or timber design. I’m sure he could’ve taught me a thing or 2 in those areas as well, but the draw of his class was that he has devoted much of his long engineering career to one specialty, structural steel connection design, and become a world-renowned expert in that area. He has exemplified having a wide general knowledge base and a thorough specialty knowledge. What lessons are there for us here?

While academic and professional learning is beneficial, and striving for the higher end of the spectrum is admirable, there is an area of learning that can yield rewards far beyond one’s career, even into eternity. In Paul’s final letter before his execution, he tells Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”[1] But how do you handle accurately something with which you aren’t familiar? Your first time using any new tool, toy, computer program, or any other unfamiliar item is often pretty clumsy. How do you get better? You study it and practice it. So then, as Christians charged with the solemn responsibility to “go and make disciples of all nations”, we have to ask ourselves, are we striving to develop “breadth and depth” in our spiritual knowledge? It seems there is a spectrum of different degrees of knowledge possible, both in the secular sense (like Dr. Thornton’s career) and in the spiritual sense (like our daily walk with Christ):

  • Shallow knowledge over a narrow area – Are you an “amateur Christian?” Is this Christian life just a Sunday hobby for you? John 3:16 is powerful, but the Bible is an inexhaustible gold mine of truth being overlooked if that’s as far as you’ve explored your beliefs. God will not be a hobby for anyone!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area – Are you a “jack of all trades and master of none”? Do you know a lot of different Bible stories and comforting verses, but only scratched the surface in terms of meaning, significance, and connection? All those separate stories are joined up below the surface as part of God’s big story. Dig deeper!
  • Deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “specialist”? So fascinated with eschatology (end-times), angels, or some other narrow field that you’ve neglected all other areas? Focus on an area of study is great for growth, but just like an athlete that only trained one arm or one leg, unbalanced growth isn’t necessarily good. Diversify!
  • Shallow knowledge over a wide area & deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “hybrid”? Both a specialist and a generalist? Have you dived in and become an “expert witness” in one area (i.e. the historical reliability of the New Testament), but are still able to answer general questions outside that area? Great! Now pick a new area to grow in!
  • Deep knowledge over a wide area – If you’re in this boat, quit reading my blog and start your own! This level of knowledge is a rare and special blessing not to be kept to yourself, so start applying all that knowledge! Every generation needs a Charles Spurgeon, or a C.S. Lewis to shed God’s light on all different subjects in profound ways. Is there a point where you’ve “made it”? No, not this side of heaven. But like I said earlier, God’s Word is inexhaustible, so never stop learning!

So which one are you? More importantly, which one will you become? “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.”[2] Here in America, one can easily, relatively cheaply, and with zero risk to one’s life, accumulate a biblical reference library that many preachers in other countries couldn’t amass in a lifetime, and might very well die for if they did. We have multitudes of Christian radio stations that are illegal in other countries. The internet has opened the floodgates of study materials, podcasts, blogs, curriculum (often free), and even online degree programs. We have more ability to study and understand God’s Word and share with others than humans have had since Jesus was here to ask in person. We are… without excuse.


[1] 2 Timothy 2:15, NASB.
[2] Luke 12:48, ESV.

Back to Basics

Free Body Diagrams, Shear and Moment Diagrams, & Equilibrium EquationsI took an online class this fall taught by one of the leading experts in the world on connection design. He chairs several structural committees and has written much of the reference material for connection design for 30 years. I was struggling to follow what he was doing, and some other people were too, judging by the questions being asked. He chided us – rightfully so – for having become too reliant on computers and forgetting our “first principles”. For the structural engineer, these are things like free-body diagrams, moment and shear diagrams, and the equilibrium equations. These are foundational analysis methods for us, and it’s incumbent on the engineer to be familiar with the basic principles at work in complex situations. Sometimes, we might get lost in more advanced classes because we didn’t really comprehend the basic material when we studied it. Other times, it’s a case of never using it in practice and forgetting it. But in either case, the engineer lacking in these areas is responsible for correcting the situation, whether by studying hard to learn it anew, or refreshing old memories. In a class, it might be embarrassing to not remember the basics, but on the job many tragic engineering failures were ultimately traceable to neglecting basic principles.

Likewise, Christians have “first principles” that are critical for them to understand. Doctrines about the Trinity, our sinful nature, salvation, justification and sanctification, and the deity of Christ, are not just “Christianese” buzzwords or dry, musty subjects for seminary classrooms. These are not concepts reserved for the “professional Christians” to preach about on Sundays. Rather, these are foundational explanations of what it means to be a Christian, and our understanding of them impacts our daily lives whether we know it or not.  Like my class instructor, the writer of the book of Hebrews also chided his readers, saying, “For even though by this time you ought to be teaching others, you actually need someone to teach you over again the very first principles of God’s Word. You have come to need milk, not solid food.” (Heb 5:12). There is an expectation of all of us to continue growing and maturing in our faith, both for drawing closer to God in our own lives, and for being able to pass on the what we’ve learned to those we care about (which should be everyone, by the way). 

So how do we start living this out? Consider what Luke wrote in Acts 17:11 about when Paul came to speak at the Jewish synagogue in Berea: “Now these [Bereans] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”  When you hear a preacher, do you zone out, or think about your shopping list or tasks to do later? Does the sermon go in one ear and out the other? Could you remember the main points after a few days? How can you apply lessons in your life that you don’t even remember? Instead, let me suggest taking a page from the Bereans’ playbook of intentional listening  – take notes, go home to study each day, and confirm the truthfulness of what was said and how it can apply in your life. Just like notes and homework help reinforce our academic lessons, we need to internalize and comprehend far more important spiritual lessons.

Or maybe you are striving to learn, but getting watered-down milk  at your church and left craving some meatier material to sink your teeth into. Then be proactive.

  • Seek out mature Christian mentors to learn from. They may be old with the wisdom gleaned from a long life, or they may have packed a lot of painful lessons into a short life while attending the “school of hard knocks”. Be prepared to learn in humility from whoever has something to teach you, always verifying their teaching against God’s Word. And remember, discipleship doesn’t happen in an hour every Sunday. It’s usually a long-term, committed, intensive, small-group or one-on-one training.
  • Read the classics. If there’s one benefit to our “Information Age”, it’s that many of us have more resources at our fingertips than most people throughout history have had even if they traveled to large historic libraries.  Our problems often aren’t as unique as we like to think, and you may find your question was actually answered centuries ago.
  • And above all, follow in the footsteps of the Bereans and go back to the source: Scripture. Like them, that is the standard we measure everything else against.

I say this not as a criticism of anyone, but rather as a challenge to all Christians – myself  included – to ensure we understand the groundwork of first principles that provide a foundation for an unshakeable faith.


An Engineer’s Perspective on the Great Commission

Great Commission SG EL Paso smallStructural engineers in the United States have some options when it comes to designing structural connections (i.e. the bolted or welded joints between beams, columns, and braces, and such). They can a) do the design themselves when they design the rest of the structure, b) provide the loads and let the fabricator’s steel detailer pick standardized connections out of the AISC Steel Manual, or c) provide the loads and delegate connection design responsibility to the fabricator’s engineer.
In my job, structural steel fabricators come to me because the Engineer Of Record (EOR) has chosen that last option. The EOR has basically given the fabricator a general concept of the types of connections desired, and the load capacity needed, and given them freedom to accomplish that per their own preferences, as long as their engineer (me) provides calcs showing that it will work and signs off on them, and the final design is compatible with the EOR’s intent. In the end, though, the EOR is called the engineer “of record” because he is the one taking responsibility for the entire structural design. So he’ll review the reports, drawings, and calcs from different parties, and approve or reject them based on whether their work conforms to his design intent. Sometimes, the EOR rejects something because the fabricator or a specialty engineer misunderstood his intent. Other times, they understood what was needed, but simply made a mistake. But generally, the end result is that the EOR utilizes the particular expertise of each delegated design professional to contribute to his overall design in their own unique ways.

So what does all that have to do with the Great Commission from Jesus?? And what was the Great Commission again?

Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

The delegated design process actually reminds me of how God seems to work here. He desires that all should come to know Him and He is all-powerful. He could certainly make Himself apparent to all.  So why doesn’t He? Why does He choose to work through very fallible humans like us? I’m not going to claim to know the reason God might have for doing something, but here’s some possible reasons I see from my own experience as to why He would delegate responsibility to us.

  1. I care more about the outcome of a project when I have a personal investment in it. Our firm may not be the EOR for a particular project, but when I am involved in a project as connection designer for another firm, I care about the project and usually  keep up with news of the project long after my role is done. It’s not just another jobsite I drive past. It’s one I had a role in making successful. Likewise, when God allows us to play a role in His plan, we become personally invested in His work. We accomplish His work, but in so doing, we also are worked on and changed.
  2. I think one of our great joys in heaven will be to see the people who are there because of what we said or did in service to God. The apostle Paul talked about the Thessalonian Christians he had preached to being his crown in which he would glory in the presence of Jesus when He returns. Maybe you’ve gotten a little taste of that in this life, having followed a mentor into a vocation, or having been able to introduce someone to a group who followed in your footsteps. As nice as it might be to hear someone say, “I went into engineering because of you”, how much better to see a crowd of people in heaven saying “Thank you for sharing the gospel with me. We’re here because of you!”
  3.  The Bible tells us that we were created to bring glory to God, and that He has given each of us different gifts. An EOR might coordinate a group of different specialty engineers to create an elegant and efficient building utilizing the knowledge and skills of each specialty engineer even though each one only focuses on a certain niche. None of them may be able to accomplish the total design individually, but the building comes together when they are all coordinated. Likewise, God may build a more inspiring and beautiful structure when He uses each of us to play a part than if He simply overwhelmed us with His power and knowledge. I may very well get to heaven and be simply floored to find out all the intricate ways God has designed my life to draw me to Him,  and then used me to draw others to Him.

So is that the reason God gave us the Great Commission? Not necessarily, but it is one engineer’s thoughts on why the greatest Engineer of Record of all time might have delegated His plans to us the way He did.