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The Truth is Everything Fails.

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

As an Engineer, I know eventually, even with sound maintenance, equipment fails. My job as an Engineer is to ensure that the failure does not occur prematurely, and when it does, that it occurs safely and where the systems I design support critical operations, that back up systems are provided to take over.

In my job as a Forensic Engineer, I see the results of failure all the time. Sometimes the failure is catastrophic. Sometimes people get hurt, or worse. Often, the damage caused by failure costs money, and results in legal actions. I work every day with lawyers and insurance companies, together navigating through the process of who is responsible. I see the results of failure.

But…… the statement says the truth is everything fails. That got me thinking…….

For a high performance business, or a high achieving individual, this is a hard concept to accept. Does everything fail, including me, or my projects? To an extent, yes it does.

Let me scroll back to my younger years. All my experiences as a toddler, walking, opening cupboards, tasting, relationships, all were developed by experience – to a greater or lesser extent, through failure - ouch that’s hot, or that does not taste good. Not all those experiences were successful. My parents told me I once stood up in my high-chair, and promptly fell out, landing on my head on the concrete patio. I clearly learned something from that failure.

Scroll that forward to my days at school. I did ok at school, but I was a late bloomer. I am from a generation where people did fail at school, and I would argue that defined those of us that experienced that upbringing. The problem I had was that failure was a negative, when actually, it should have been positive. I can see now, as an adult, an Engineer and a business owner that I learned from all my failures, and all my experiences.

Today, society has developed into everyone gets a medal, no one fails. These attitudes are born out of honest intention. It is hard to watch the same people winning all the prizes. It is psychologically hard to fail. It hurts. Instead, I would argue, we need to embrace failure, make it positive and learn from our experiences. Does the student learn more from getting 100% in a test, or from getting 75% and studying and learning from their mistakes and learning for the next time?

I imagine that when James Watt perfected the steam engine, or when the Wright Brothers built their first plane, they failed. If their prototypes worked first time, the human race would already have perfected the steam engine or invented the airplane. Instead, I am sure these pioneers failed many times, and learned from their failures.

I did not learn my trade as an Engineer from University. Sure, University provided me with the technical basis, but I arrived at my first job as a green Engineer in Training. Over the years, I listened, observed, worked closely with others and tested my work and gained experience. Sometimes, I made a mistake and through supervision and quality control, these mistakes were caught. But, the main thing is that I experienced these mistakes, and learned from them. Everything fails, even Engineers.

So, how is this relevant to my working life, and particularly the construction industry. This is an industry that demands perfection and while perfection is hard to achieve, our experiences benefit the industry every day.

Back to my experience as a Forensic Engineer…….

I piece together tiny parts of failed equipment. I have sifted through ash looking for the most minute piece of evidence and I have stood looking at a building, burned to the ground, and discovered why it failed.

I once visited a hog barn, constructed from wood. All that remained was the joist boards and nails. 3000 hogs died. 3000 hogs surrounded me as I completed my work, delicately piecing together the cause of the fire. I analyzed burn patterns, and mapped the tiniest arcs in electrical wires to determine the location of the origin of the fire. I worked with people who even analyzed the condition of the hogs, down to expression, to further refine the origin.

Several times I have re-built parts which have failed. Sometimes these parts are manufactured from complex materials such as ceramics and I work with world renowned experts in their fields, gathering experience and learning from failure.

That experience of failure results in benefits on every project I am involved with.
I have investigated something like 20 fires resulting from failures of construction heaters. These are the heaters many people use in their garage, with an electric element that looks like the element in an oven. Like everything, these heaters fail. The problem is that more than a decade ago, it was discovered that these heaters fail in a manner that can be dangerous, and the element’s failure can result in sparks being blown from the heater while the fan continues to operate.

How is this relevant to a building or a construction project? Well, things fail, but they must not fail in a manner that is dangerous. I work on hospital projects, where patients’ lives depend on the availability of electrical power. The means by which that power gets to the hospital is complex, and relies on many systems, which span across our Province. Eventually, between the hydro-electric generating station, and the receptacle on the wall in the patient’s treatment room, or in the operating theatre, something will fail. This potential for failure makes of paranoid, and requires us to routinely analyze failure scenarios and balance the risk of these scenarios with the cost of mitigation. We use this knowledge to design systems with redundancy to ensure that on failure a back up power source is available.

Floods and in particular, the restoration of mechanical and electrical systems after a flood forms a significant part of my work. I see the results of locating mechanical and electrical systems in basements, often with no regard for the effects of floods. Equipment does fail. Pipes corrode. The ground and foundations shift. When it does, basements quickly fill with water, sometimes right to the top.

Without the mechanical and electrical systems, buildings in our climate cannot be occupied. Moreover, mechanical and electrical systems are often essential to the building’s life safety, yet we put these systems away in a basement, and tuck them away in our minds. We put them at risk of flooding and damage. This damage is often catastrophic, resulting in large insurance claims, and disruption for many months or years. Sometimes the flood causes other issues such as mold, and when the building is older, the result of the flood is that it is not possible to re-construct the building to its original standard, it needs to be upgraded to meet the latest codes and standards.

After a fire, often the greatest damage is due to smoke damage. The fire fighting efforts also produce a lot of steam, and the steam often carries contaminants. During the combustion of plastics, most notably PVC, the smoke produced can be highly corrosive and when mixed with moisture from steam, can result in flash corrosion of steel. Electrical and mechanical equipment can sometimes be cleaned, but often with electrical equipment such as circuit breakers in particular, replacement is required. Like flood damage, the disruption can be significant.

Separating electrical and mechanical systems in to separate rooms can reduce the scope of smoke damage. While not all electrical and mechanical equipment needs to be installed in fire rated room, smoke sealing of such rooms is essential, to reduce the amount of smoke contamination. Maintenance staff must also take note, and ensure equipment enclosure doors are closed. Such a simple measure significantly reduced smoke damage.

Through years of exposure to failure, electrical and mechanical systems have become more reliable. The exposure to catastrophic fire and flood scenes results in better designs, and a better understanding of the means to mitigate the risk.

We work hard to avoid failure. We have extensive quality control processes to catch issues before implementation, to mitigate the possibility of failure. Eventually, everything does fail, but the experience gained through failure brings a wealth of benefits to projects.

Chris Hewitt

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