Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.

Structural Engineers are Homeless Bums

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Sun, January 01, 2012 23:39:12
The wise readers of this blog know that I am fond of input from outside; outside of construction, of Sweden, of engineering research - anywhere but from where I am immediately comfortable in my own knowledge. Learning from others is at the heart of creativity. Today I have invited Glen Cooper, a Structural Engineer from St Albans, UK, who writes engineering related blog posts at The topics which he takes on are varied, but he discusses with vigour the essential softer and less technical side of our industry. You can also find him @avatarengineers and email him at With no further ado, here's Glen's reflection.

Structural Engineers are Homeless Bums
For us Engineers, LinkedIn is fast becoming a virulent breeding ground for many cool existential engineering debates. It is also managing to provide us with a forum capable of bearing the seeds from a few perplexing engineering problems too.

Off the back of a LinkedIn discussion around the pay & wages of Engineers [here], has come some rather rare opportunities to take an engineering analogy or two for a test spin. Let me share with you a great attack, parry, and riposte if I may.

It was mentioned that a fellow Engineers suggestion to "stop moaning about pay and just get out there and make some money" was akin to telling a homeless person to get a job or asking a depressed person to cheer up. Facile and less than constructive. [Kat Lai, LinkedIn Discussion, Structural Engineer – Group]
I believe that we are more like homeless people than a person with depressive tendencies, but they are in some way linked.

One of my close family members was made homeless for a while. He was a great guy - but there is no easy way to help someone who does not wish for or indeed need the assistance. You see I had come to the conclusion years ago that those of us who find themselves becoming trapped in these ill-conceived circumstances, will follow one or several of these lines of action;

1. Shocked into taking action. This appears as an explosive reminder to avert a life disaster, and they use this realisation to do something about it. Most of these will find a way to resolve their problems, and self-heal along the way. Highly motivated, if in a retrospective capacity.

2. Making do. Critically this involves the down trodden to loose self-belief and eventually accept their circumstances. Upon further investigation you will find that they genuinely believe that this is all they deserve out of life. Any attempt to help them needs to first tackle the key reasons why they are content to languish, before galvanising them for their triumphant return to status.

3. Addiction. The person is addicted to a particular 'thing' or 'way of being' which works against their currently held status. It is inevitable that they will fail. Until the addiction has been broken, then they will continuously fall short of the necessary motivation to raise their status back to the norm.

4. The Tribe. Some people choose this way in life because the alternatives are way too complicated. In society, we build highly dynamic groups of friends, where status, empathy and acceptance form a social understanding which can be tiring to some. The thought of becoming a member of an uncomplicated tribe who never judges you, is an enticing idea. No internal judgement, status free, uncomplicated.

There are of course lots of reasons why someone might become homeless, and the majority of them offer opportunities of return to status. For example, loose a job - find another job. This is obviously not as easy as just writing it.

For this post, I would like us Engineers to think on the 4 points above and try to understand how we can turn our need for greater 'pay and status' into a plan for the future.

"Homeless people, like the rest of society, have goals that, if not met, can lead to feelings of loss. Even though homeless people may have some supports, their disconnection from society and inability to achieve basic goals may lead to low self-esteem" Frederick A. Diblasio , John R. Belcher

If we are 'making do' with our position, then we have to understand the hidden reasons for our inaction. If we are addicted to a 'way of being', focussing only on our own business and career, then we have to begin to wean ourselves off this selfish behaviour.

Finally, if we plan on making this philosophy the secret mantra of our 'tribe', as many generations of Engineers have do so before us - simply because it is a less complicated existence... then it's about time we admitted to it. Time to move on, I think.

Dan's comment
My fabulous older brother (who is in construction management in the UK) used to lovingly call structural engineers like me and our dad cannon fodder. He used the example of the London Millenium Bridge which went from being called the Foster Bridge by his colleagues to the name the Arup bridge the second it showed instability. And yet, Arup can boast of maybe the most influential structural engineer in construction since Thomas Telford, namely Cecil Balmond. If you haven't read Informal, you need to do so.

When it comes to the role of engineers in the ongoing transition of construction, I think Glen really is on to something in his post. There are too few engieers who use their skills in order to openly question the comme il faut. Engineers are trained to creatively solve problems and optimise their solutions. But we are not trained to do business from those skills. We do charge clients for our services, but to be perfectly honest, we're not very good at it. In fact, we're so poor at seeing the value of our work that we tend to accept the situation where our skills are not only priced less than deserved, they're valued less than deserved. Time to change that, engineering brothers and sisters. If you're home is the regular engineering silo, get out of there and find the home you deserve. THen make it known that you have moved in.

Credits: Text and image copyright Glen Cooper, 2012.