Structural Engineers

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The Truth About Online Education

Recently I’ve seen a series of advertisements on late night TV for a “For Profit” institution about their online Master’s Degree program.  It shows a woman happily doing her work on a laptop at the beach, another of a parent with their child in their lap while doing her school work, and such type images.  The insinuation is that an online degree is easy to get, which it isn’t.  A true degree from an accredited institution obtained online is not easier than going to school on campus.  I obtained my Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Columbia University, New York online, and Columbia has the #1 rated online program in engineering for veterans according to U.S. News and World Reports.  This is what I’ve learned:

  1.  Going to school online allows you to get education that would be physically impossible otherwise.  If I tried to go to school at a physical campus for my master’s degree, I would have to commute to either Georgia Tech, which is an hour and a half trip from where I live, or Kennesaw State, which is about 2 hours.  I have to make a living, so that kind of commuting time to class would make getting a master’s degree impractical.  Instead, online I was able to get a graduate education from a world class Ivy League school.  That is an advantage that can’t be understated.
  2. Getting an online degree requires a LOT of self discipline.   At Columbia, lectures were recorded you watched them over the Internet on your time.  That’s helpful, but the problem is if you were sloppy you might find yourself falling behind in watching lectures.  There were also the homework assignments given that you had to turn in a certain time frame, and if you were late there was a score penalty.  If you are attending class on campus, there is something to force you to be at the lecture at a certain time, and this helps you schedule yourself to do your homework and study.  Online there is nothing to do this.  I found I had to schedule myself to watch the lecture on a scheduled night each week.  Homework had to be done the same way.
  3. Watching a lecture online can be much more boring than watching it in person.  Although I have to say this wasn’t a problem in most of my classes at Columbia.  I took a math course that in my opinion wasn’t taught so well, and the lectures were agony to watch.  Instead, I found lectures on YouTube that were given by the author of the book that my class used.  This is more of an issue of the professor though, not the medium.
  4. It helps to be able to get to the campus of the institution you are enrolled in for many reasons.  I found I had to go up to New York regularly.  In my first course, Elastic and Inelastic Structures, I was having a very hard time.  I hadn’t taken an engineering course in probably 30 years, and I was doing really bad.  I had to go up to Columbia and go over problems with the professor to be able to make it through.  It was also my last course in the program, I wasn’t happy about how I did, so I repeated it.  I flew through the course the second time.  I also went to New York for other courses, not because I was having problems, but sometimes it really helps to attend a lecture in person.
  5. Forget about doing your class work at the beach, or while paying attention to your children, or other non-conventional settings.  Recently I was on a job site, it was late in the afternoon and cloudy.  I STILL had a hard time reading the screen on my laptop. If you find a laptop where you can read the screen on the beach, I want to know the brand.  I’ll buy it.  As far as having your child sit on your lap – no.  You’ll be too distracted.The point is, you need to focus, just like when you went to a school on campus.  That means working in a specific study area that is set up for you. Sure, you can do your school work while traveling, but it is hard.  I did try watching lectures sitting on my patio, but it had to be at night so I could see the monitor well, and it attracted mosquitos.
  6. Since you aren’t wasting time commuting to campus, you can actually take a higher credit load.  I carried 6 credit hours/semester at Columbia, which I could not have done if I tried to commute to Georgia Tech.  Figure if I took a class at Georgia Tech, and it lasted three hours and was once a week, it would require 6 hours of time counting commuting.  That’s just for class.  Figuring studying in engineering requires at least two hours for each class hour, I had to study 12 hours each week for two courses.  That would have meant 24 hours a week.  That’s tough.  At Columbia, I spent about 18 hours a week working on two courses.  That’s hard, but doable.
  7. The biggest disadvantage to online learning is you don’t get the advantage of asking questions during the lectures or discussing the subject matter with your fellow students.  On the other hand, I never saw anyone ask questions in the classes I took at Columbia, and I don’t recall discussing course work with other students when I was an undergraduate, or when I took my MBA studies on campus. So, I don’t know if that is such a big deal.
  8. Because of diploma mills, online degrees have had a poor reputation.  As more universities embrace online education, and even if you are getting your degree on campus you may take some online courses, the stigma is going away.  However, it is something to consider when you choose your school.  A lot of For Profit institutions have a poor reputation.  You may spend a lot for your online degree and find it does little good.  The “brand” of your degree is very important.
  9. The cost can be high.  My degree at Columbia cost more than $60,000.  Part of that was paid for by the Post-911 GI Bill because of my service when I was activated from the Reserves, but it was still expensive.  If you attend a state institution and get in-state tuition it will be cheaper.  If you go to a for profit institution, the cost can be very high.  You have to decide if it is worth the cost.  For me, the cost of my Columbia degree was definitely worth it.

My advice if you want to obtain online degree is to understand it takes work and discipline.  Choose your institution carefully, I would stick to public or non-profit institutions, and go with ones with a good reputation.  Figure out how you are going to pay for it, and if it is worth the cost.

George

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Things I Wish I Had Been Taught In School

I would have to say I have an excellent education.  I have been well educated in Catholic schools through high school in literature, various religions, writing, and the sciences.  In college (the University of Maryland and then on to Columbia University, New York and Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh) I’ve studied math, physics, engineering, management, marketing, and accounting.  All of those are excellent, but here’s a few things that would have been nice to have been taught in 8th Grade:

1. There are bad people.  In grade school we were taught all people are basically good, but they make bad choices.  Given the attention, and proper therapy and instruction they can reform.  Maybe so, but what was neglected was that there are people that are Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psycotics through probably a combination of environment and heredity.  These people are seldom, if ever, reformed, and can do serious damage.  Spotting people with these personalities and disorders can be fairly straightford, and a day or two of instruction would have saved a lot of us a lot of problems.  My understanding of the different personalities is as follows:

  1. Narcissists – Consider the world to revolve around them.  They tend to be entitled, egotistical, and inconsiderate.  They are also very manipulative, and often are very destructive.  Steve Jobs may have been a narcissist, but for every one of him there are probably a thousand like your uncle who’s been in 5 marriages, can’t keep a job, and spends all his money on fancy cars and expensive clothes.
  2. Sociopaths – My understanding of a sociopath is this is a person who has no conscience.  A sociopath is the kind of person who fires an employee the day before she is vested in the company retirement plan, or totally guts a company to make the stock price rise so he or she can make money exercising stock options.  They are very dangerous in business because of their total lack of concern for others, and their lack of moral compass.
  3. Psycopaths – From what I’ve read, a psychopath is like a sociopath, but doesn’t think through the consequences of what he or she does, and has a need for high stimulation.  I knew a guy in high school that was probably a psycopath – one day he was walking down the street and he saw a family in their living room singing Christmas carols.  For no reason at all, he picked up a brick and through it through the picture window.  Just did it for excitement, he didn’t know who the people were.  He did other stuff too, like broke into houses and stole cars. You don’t want to deal with these people at all because their lack of concern for consequences can lead to serious problems for those around them.

If you could at least understand early on that these people exist, it could save a lot of heartache in the future.  Generally in life most of us can avoid the psycopaths, and we can often spot the sociopaths pretty fast, but narcissists are not so easy, and a bit of instruction on them would go a long way in saving a lot of pain.

2.  There is no “Get Out of Jail Free” card in life.  In many religions there is a hell for bad people to go to, but they usually have an out.  Various forms of forgiveness is granted, or if you go through some sort of ritual like a public baptism, you get granted forgiveness for whatever you do in advance.  It’s very convenient if you want to do bad things, because you can take advantage of that forgiveness to avoid Eternal Damnation.  A “Get Out of Jail Free” card for the Afterlife.

I’m not going to argue the theology of this, or whether spending an infinite amount of time in torture is an appropriate punishment for any conceivable crime (consider just how large infinity really is).  The point is, you can get forgiven all you want, but it won’t apply here.  FBI Agent Robert Hanssen sold a significant amount of secrets to the Soviet Union and also was a devout Catholic.  He reportedly confessed his sins of being an agent for the Soviets, and he also attended Mass regularly.  This may lead to his forgiveness in the Afterlife, but he is still serving 15 consecutive life sentences.

The fact is, most of our rules of morality like compassion, honesty, loyalty, and care for our fellow man are older than any religion and are based on hard experience.  Human societies where people show these virtues do much better than ones where people routinely kill and steal from each other.  It’s just how it is, you do bad things and bad things happen to you.  Maybe not right away, but then you can jump out of an airplane without a parachute and you don’t hit the ground immediately.  It doesn’t mean you are in orbit.

3. Things don’t happen for a reason.  I hear the stupid saying all the time here in the Southern US – “I believe everything happens for a reason” and “I don’t know what God’s plan is for me”.  If either of those statements were true, there would be no such thing as Free Will.  Awful things can happen to people for no other reason than they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There is no greater reason for the suffering of people in Haiti, and if I doubt any God would have a plan that included their day to day suffering.

We can debate why this seems to be true, but it doesn’t matter.  No deity is rewarding you for being a great person by your success in life, nor is any deity punishing you because something went wrong.  If your house got flooded out in a hurricane, it probably is because it was built in a flood plain, not because there is an injust God, or you are a bad person.

4. Our brains don’t think logically.  When I was in the Army in Military Police, I saw horrific domestic disputes.  Often our patrols would be sent to the same quarters repeatedly.  There was a Sergeant in my unit that was always seeing our commander for various domestic issues.  Seems he married a prostitute when he was in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and she continued her business when they came back.  He was forced to leave their on-post quarters and move back in the barracks, while she continued “entertaining” men.  He’d periodically break in, get violent with her, and get hauled off by his fellow MP’s.

None of this stuff made sense.  First, why did guys hit their wives?  Why did they abuse their children?  Why didn’t their wives leave them?  With that Sergeant in my unit, why didn’t he divorce his wife and be done with it?  He had no children, and the woman clearly didn’t care for him.  There are some rational reasons why wives don’t leave abusive husbands (where would they go?), but there is no rational reason for a guy to beat his wife (or abuse his children), or vice versa – there are significant numbers of men that get physically abused by their wives too.  The fact is, people think with their emotions.

What’s important about knowing this, is that I may be thinking with my emotions too.  Did I take that business deal because it seemed exciting?  Am I renting out office space I don’t need to put on a big front? Am I borrowing ever greater amounts for my business that will never make a profit because I don’t want to admit defeat?

5.  When you make a decision, how will you look at it in the future?  This one is a killer, and I will drum this into my grandchildren.  It’s hard to know how any decision we make today will affect us further in life.  I was interviewed in my last semester in college by a recruiter for a major oil company.  He was kind of a jerk, and one of his more idiotic questions was “George, where do you see yourself 20 years from now?”  I almost busted out laughing at the dumb question.  How should I know?  I made up something I thought he’d like to hear and shared the idiotic question with my fellow students.  20 years from that day I was in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.  I’d been an Air Force Reservist, and it was 2001.  I was called to active duty after 9/11 and was given a number of all-expenses paid trips the the Middle East and Central Asia.  Could I have answered that stupid question with “Well, I see myself as being a Civil Engineering Squadron Commander on a small airbase in a Middle Eastern desert and my business being totally ruined because of a terrorist act on the US?”  No, that was a really stupid question.

The better question would be “George, 20 years from now, what will you see as the best thing you have done in your life so far?”  I would know that answer and it would stay the same.  It would be “There are two, I served in the US Army and I am getting a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering”.  So, if you are in college partying your way through and taking some easy major so you don’t have to work that hard, do you think 20 years from now you will look back and consider that was a great idea?  If you are considering cheating on your spouse, do you think in 10 years that you will look back on it and be glad you did?  It kind of changes the way things look, doesn’t it?

So, it would have been nice to have been taught the above, either in school or by my parents.  However, there are some things I was taught when I was young that I’ll cover in another post.

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Why I Think Crawl Space Encapsulation is Unnecessary

Typical Crawl Space Encapsulation from Basement Systems

In my work with foundation repair for houses, I run into a lot of marketing hype about crawl space encapsulation.  Encapsulation of a crawl space is done generally by laying down a very thick water proof membrane across the bottom of the crawl space and up the walls.  The crawl space is sealed with this membrane, all the vents are closed.  A dehumidifier is put in the encapsulated space to make it dry.  It makes the area very nice to enter into, it’s clean, dry, and bright (the membrane used is always white).  It’s easy to move around in because you’re not crawling in dirt and trash like you find in many crawl spaces.  What I like about the system is you get a really dry crawl space that is free of mold and other issues.

The problem is it is really expensive.  The other problem, which is not an issue with the system itself, is it often sold to unsuspecting homeowners as a solution to problems totally unrelated to crawl space moisture, or they are not properly installed.  The worse case I’ve seen was when a salesman tried to sell a homeowner a crawl space encapsulation system as a solution to cracks over a large archway – which were caused by a header beam that was too small.  The homeowner would have spent $25,000 to for a “solution” that would not solve the problem.   

The other issues I’ve seen is encapsulated crawl spaces put in without attempts to solve the incoming moisture problems in the crawl space.  If a crawl space is flooding, you need to take care of that with drains/sump pumps and so on before encapsulating.

So, other than improper installation, is it worth it to encapsulate your crawl space?  I’m going to run through the logic of it in this article and let’s see where it takes us.  Also, for a contrary view, please watch this excellent video.

First off, we want encapsulation to cut down moisture, water infiltration must be solved separately.  Moisture presents problems in crawl spaces when it condenses on the underside of the floor and insulation.  Once the moisture condenses into water droplets the wood floor can rot, insulation loses its insulating value and begins to fall, mold grows, and a great environment is provided for termites.

What makes the moisture condense?  When the temperature of the air goes below the dew point moisture comes out of the air and will form on solid surfaces.  That’s why in the summer when the temperature goes down at night you will find dew on the grass, your car, and other surfaces.  The same happens in your crawl space.  In the summer, warm moist air will come into your crawl space, and it gets cooled by your floor system (which is cooler because of your air conditioner).  Moisture then condenses on the surface of the underside of your floor.  In the winter, you have cold air come in, and warm moisture migrates through your floor, comes in contact with the cold air, and condenses.

The traditional solution is to provide ventilation in the crawl space, and place a vapor barrier such as a sheet of polyethylene plastic over the floor of the crawl space (which is almost always dirt).  This is supposed to circulate air through the crawl space, which lowers the vapor pressure in the crawl space, which allows the condensation that forms a chance to evaporate.  The plastic on the ground is supposed to keep water in the soil from evaporating into the crawl space and increasing the humidity.

Vapor pressure is the pressure in the air formed by the evaporated water (it can be any evaporated liquid, like gasoline, but we’ll focus on water).  When the vapor pressure is at its maximum, the air is saturated with water, and water can no longer evaporate.  If we circulate air into the crawl space with a lower vapor pressure, we can evaporate the condensation.  What’s important to know is that warm air has a higher vapor pressure than cool air.  So, if we hit maximum vapor pressure on air at let’s say 50° Fahrenheit (10° Celsius), it is at 100% relative humidity.  If we heat that air up to 70° F (21° C), our relative humidity will be much lower.  The air is dryer now, which is why your house is so dry in the winter.

The argument given by proponents of crawl space encapsulation is that when we ventilate a crawl space, we are bringing in more humid air, which adds to the condensation.  In the winter that doesn’t make sense, because the cooler air will cause the condensation that forms to evaporate quickly, because that cooler air is heating up in your crawl space.

What about summer?  Here we are bringing in warm air that is high humidity, and we cool it down in the crawl space.  Yes, that’s a problem.  You could argue that air movement from the ventilation would keep the vapor pressure down, which will evaporate any condensation.  This is the argument I’ve seen for crawl space fans.  I’ve recommended crawl space fans be put in, and they seemed to work well.  However, to really know you must observe them operating over time.  Also, if we have a wet day where the outside temperature is close to that of the crawl space, you are not getting any advantage from air circulation, since you are circulating saturated air throughout.

So, I think we’ve got some good logic for encapsulation.  The other question I have is, can we go short of crawl space encapsulation?  What if we place a vapor barrier on the ground, and put in a dehumidifier?  In such case, we need the crawl space vents open to comply with Code.    I’ve seen this work well on one job where we had serious warping issues in the floor due to humidity in the crawl space.  However, to make a judgement, we really need to do a controlled experiment of a number of houses.  I think this makes sense because in crawl spaces I’ve entered where water infiltration is controlled, there really isn’t a moisture issue.  So, encapsulation could be overkill.

Now, if we do encapsulate a crawl space, the cost of the membrane installation is very high.  Also, to comply with the latest Code, the following requirements must be met in Georgia:

  1. Exposed earth is covered with a continuous Class I vapor retarder. Joints of the vapor retarder shall overlap by 6 inches (152 mm) and shall be sealed or taped. The edges of the vapor retarder shall extend at least 6 inches (152 mm) up the stem wall and shall be attached and sealed to the stem wall or insulation; and
  2. One of the following is provided for the under-floor space:

     2.1. Continuously operated mechanical exhaust ventilation at a rate equal to 1 cubic foot per minute (0.47 L/s) for each 50 square feet (4.7m2) of crawlspace floor area, including an air pathway to the common area (such as a duct or transfer grille), and perimeter walls insulated in accordance with Section N1103.2.1 of this code;

    2.2. Conditioned air supply sized to deliver at a rate equal to 1 cubic foot per minute (0.47 L/s) for each 50 square feet (4.7 m2) of under-floor area, including a return air pathway to the common area (such as a duct or transfer grille), and perimeter walls insulated in accordance with Section N1102.2 of this code;

    2.3. Plenum in existing structures complying with Section M1601.5, if under-floor space is used as a plenum.

I haven’t seen any of this done in the encapsulations I’ve examined.  All of the encapsulated crawl space I’ve looked at were totally sealed, which is a violation of Code in this state and most other states that use the International Residential Code or its variations.  That doesn’t mean the system is bad though, it means you need to assure your contractor is following the Code.

Based on the above, I don’t think crawl space encapsulation is bad.  You must solve the water infiltration first, you don’t encapsulate a wet crawl space.  Also, the encapsulated crawl space must be ventilated.  My issue is, is it cost effective compared to a simpler method of controlling water infiltration, a vapor barrier, and possibly a dehumidifier?  In my opinion it isn’t.

I’ll go one step further.  If you have problems with moisture in your crawl space, you have the water infiltration problem anyway.  Laying plastic on the ground in your crawl space isn’t expensive at all.  A dehumidifier is not prohibitively expensive either.  If that solution doesn’t work, you won’t be spending much more to come back and encapsulate the space.  You are going to be out the minor expense of laying plastic on the ground, and possibly a few hundred for the dehumidifier if the contractor won’t leave it in the encapsulated space (which it can be, there is no “special” encapsulated crawl space dehumidifier).

Therefore, I will almost never recommend encapsulating a crawl space when I make a structural assessment.  It’s an expensive solution that may not be necessary.  Now, if you are a contractor that puts in these systems and you disagree with me, please send a rebuttal to me at georger @runcon.biz.  My opinion is not written in stone, and I am interested in counter arguments.  

George

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Shipping Container Engineering

This is a brief video of how we do the structural engineering of a shipping container building.  If this video is received well, we will post a more in depth video.

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Center for Civil Rights, Atlanta, GA

This project involved engineering a number of different types of panels to give the architectural effect.  We worked under Seco Architectural Systems, Inc on preparing the shop drawings.  The project involved determining the wind loads on the panels to determine if they would be able to meet the required span, and determing the required connections.  This was unusual because in the front the panels are perforated to provide a screen effect, which made working out the connections and the checking of the spans challenging.

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That Seventies House

In my years of evaluating properties, one type of house that has always amazed me is the one that time forgets.  The house gets built in a certain period, and it stays that way, no updates, no modifications.  When I get into them they’ve usually been vacant for a while and they can be in pretty rough shape. That’s not an idication of how they were taken care of, a vacant house can deteriorate very fast.  This house is time frozen in the Seventies, which I thought was kind of cool in its own way.  It was also sad when I thought about the people that lived in it.  Here we go:

A panoramic view of the basement.  The ceiling is false, the real ceiling is actually above the ridge beam.  Apparently they put in the false cathedral ceiling to make the room look a bit more proportional.  The ceiling tiles are of a wood veneer I've never seen anywhere else.  At the time this house was built, I worked in a building supply store, so I thought I'd seen everything awful from the period, but I guess I missed something.

A panoramic view of the basement. The ceiling is false, the real ceiling is actually above the ridge beam. Apparently they put in the false cathedral ceiling to make the room look a bit more proportional. The ceiling tiles are of a wood veneer I’ve never seen anywhere else. At the time this house was built, I worked in a building supply store, so I thought I’d seen everything from the period, but I guess I missed something.

A built in entertainment center.  This was the rage among people my parents age.  Younger people liked the stereo components type systems where you had separate turntables, tuners, speakers, and 8 track tape player.  So, whoever built this was probably either of WWII or Korean War generation.

A built in entertainment center. This was the rage among people my parents age. Younger people liked the stereo components type systems where you had separate turntables, tuners, speakers, and 8 track tape player. So, whoever built this was probably either of WWII or Korean War generation.  That means when the house was built, the owners were probably already in their mid-fifties.

The carpet hasn't aged well.  Sadly, this looks like something my mother picked out.  Sadder still, at the time we thought this was rather attractive.

The carpet hasn’t aged well. At the time we thought this was rather attractive.

This was a picnic pavillion on a slab behind the house. It was probably really nice in the day.  Sadly, it looks like it was never updated, and was in bad shape for years.

This was a picnic pavillion on a slab behind the house. It was probably really nice in the day.  I’m sure they had some really cool parties there in the day.

Another smaller picnic area.  This is in a nice part of the yard, well shaded.  I'm sure it was nice in the day.

Another smaller picnic area. This is in a nice part of the yard, well shaded. I’m sure it was nice in the day too.

Whenever I see a house like this, I wonder what happened.  It looks like whoever moved into a place put a lot of care into building it, and then never did anything to update it over the years.  Did the people get sick?  Did they start getting old, and let everything go?  Did they have financial issues?  Usually the story is the people live in the house much longer than they probably should, lack the ability to maintain it anymore.  Should they have gone into an assisted living facility?  I talked to an elderly lady about this once, and she said she figured she had about 5 years or so to live.  She was going to spend that time living in her house where she was comfortable, and whatever happened to her house after that didn’t concern her the least.  So, I guess I have to agree.  I’d rather spend my last days in a house that looks like this rather than go to a retirement home and live in the sterile unfamiliar environment there.

George

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