Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Taking Responsibility

Have you ever seen the Citicorp Center in New York City? The architect, Hugh Stubbins, Jr., had a daunting challenge: how could he fit a 59-floor skyscraper onto a small plot of ground, which already hosted St. Peter's Lutheran Church, an historic edifice sitting squarely where one corner of the building was to go? Stubbins' elegant solution was to raise the new building high above the church on nine-story tall columns.

But an architect's dream is an engineer's nightmare. The architect designs the building, but the engineer has to make it work. William J. LeMessurier, the famous structural engineer, first sketched his plans on a napkin in a Greek restaurant in Cambridge. He went on to design a system of strong wind braces that would form the skeleton of the building.

The building was erected in 1977. In June of 1978 he received a random call from an architectural student. Something in the call nagged at him. He reexamined his calculations and realized the building's sensitivity to quartering winds (those that strike the corners of the building) had been miscalculated. He dug a little deeper and learned the construction team had decided to bolt the braces together rather than weld them as the design had specified; this, consequently, formed a much weaker joint.

After careful calculations, these two details led LeMessurier to conclude the weakest joint in the structure was on the 30th floor. A storm of sufficient strength would send the building down in a catastrophic collapse. But how often could New York City expect to see such a freak storm?

The engineer consulted historic weather reports for New York City. He calculated that on average, such storms struck the city every 16 years.

Now the tough question: what would you do? The building is occupied and in use, and your reputation is on the line.

LeMessurier considered several options. He could be silent -- betting people's lives against the odds. But there were too many lives at stake. He also briefly contemplated suicide, but considered that a coward's way out. He later recalled, "I had information that nobody else in the world had. I had power in my hands to affect extraordinary events that only I could initiate. I mean, 16 years to failure -- that was very simple, very clear cut. I almost said, thank you, dear Lord, for making this problem so sharply defined that there's no choice to make."

Working with other architects, the president of Citicorp, and the City of New York, he oversaw the fortification of the building over a period of several months. An impeding storm during that period nearly forced an evacuation of the entire building, which would have been a PR nightmare, but the repairs were completed without incident.

Here is a man who put the concerns of others ahead of his own. He did the right thing even though it could have cost him everything.

What is a tough decision you've had to make?

Life's full of them.

Take a minute, click here, and tell us about a difficult decision you have been faced with.

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