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Building Blocks

The imagination of children playing in a sandbox is magical. Your sandbox may have been a carefully selected plot of dirt in your backyard. As children, we created, built, stacked and leaned material in a carefully selected arrangement. Kids play alone or with friends to make their projects unique and different each time. In many cases gathering additional materials from the garage or other household items is necessary to add the final touches to their creations. Children are also quick to observe why things don’t work, don’t stand up or how easily they are impacted by outside influences such as the yard sprinklers. They learn and get better each and every time they create their masterpieces.

For some, a sandbox or a patch of dirt may not have been the setting, but rather a room full of blocks, an erector set, a unique dollhouse design or even the limitless possibilities of a pencil and paper. We all have, at one time or another, spent time creating something.

To a structural engineer, our sandbox just got a whole lot bigger! The imagination of a child continues to be our imagination as adults. We get to make things stand up, to make things tall, span great lengths, withstand outside forces and look cool! We are able to wake up in the morning and go out and see what we have done. We can experience the tangibility of what we do. We show our friends and children our creations. Like children, we too can become better each time we do it. There was never only one solution then, and so it is now.

We get to use all sorts of materials to accomplish these tasks, and it’s amazing what different materials can do. Some materials are great in tension; some are really good in compression. A number of them are flexible, while others are stiff and brittle. Some materials are light and others are very heavy. Several are fairly inexpensive and some are not practical. Tremendous strides have taken place in material science, which gives the structural engineer many more options.

Math allows us to combine the properties of materials with identified loads to span distances, create volumes, support loads and withstand the forces of Mother Nature. Experience allows us to do this efficiently, economically, safely and in harmony with the other demands of the structure. Imagination allows us to be unlimited by our experience.

Look outside; it is amazing some of the accomplishments that structural engineers have achieved. Just imagine what progress the future holds if we as structural engineers share our knowledge and play in the sandbox with the next generation.


This article is part of a series written for The Enterprise news publication by Dunn Associates, Inc. owner and founder Ronald H. Dunn, SE. We know him as Ron 🙂


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