Professional Engineering Ethics: The Citicorp Tower case – reposted on Medium

The Citicorp Tower is a famous case in engineering ethics that is often celebrated as a positive example, rather than the more notorious case studies of ethical failures.  In this video, Dr. Michael Loui summarizes the highlights of the case, including the fact that:

  • The design flaw was revealed by a Princeton University engineering student who was analyzing the structure for a class project.
  • The structural engineer came to realize that the risk of building collapse exceeded all reasonable expectations.  He notified the building owner, admitted the error, and worked out an expensive retrofit paid for by his liability insurance and the building owner.
  • The discovery and remedy happened to coincide with a newspaper strike in New York City, which effectively suppressed publicity or investigation of the project.

As Dr. Loui explains it, the structural engineer took personal responsibility to protect the public safety.  However, given the interesting epilogue regarding the structural engineer’s liability insurance premiums, it’s not clear what aspect of self-interest the engineer placed at risk.

A more dramatic account of the case produced by PBS  includes testimony from William LeMessurier, the engineer responsible.  It’s available on YouTube in three parts, and reveals some aspects of the case that are not in Michael Loui’s account, and question whether the case is really the paragon on professional virtue it is celebrated to be, including the secrecy that surrounded the retrofit

The “engineer at the table” referenced in the above clip is Leslie Robertson, as this more concise account of the case recounts.  Robertson, a celebrated structural engineer in his own right who designed the World Trade Center, was directly involved in the Citicorp retrofit, but barely credited by LeMessurier’s accounts in these videos.  I met Robertson when I was a PhD student at Clarkson University, prior to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centers, but following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Robertson is in a unique position to comment on the eventual collapse of the World Trade Center and the controversy and speculation surrounding the subsequent investigation.

In the third video, one interview subject speculates as to whether LeMessurier actually had any choice.  It seems he is referring to the question of whether or not to retrofit the building, but there were clearly more choices to make that went beyond the question of the structural integrity of the building.

Lastly, there are several aspects of the story that are not revealed in the videos.

One of these is that the PBS special credits an unnamed male engineering student “in New Jersey”, when in fact it was a female student from Princeton University (which is in New Jersey) but remains uncredited by popular accounts, largely because LeMessurier himself pays little attention to who she was.

Addendum: The Diane Hartley Case

Author(s):  Caroline Whitbeck

In 1978 Diane Hartley was an engineering student at Princeton, studying with David Billington who was offering a course on structures and their scientific, social, and symbolic implications (subsequently titled, “Structure and the Urban Environment”). This course interested Diane Hartley early in her engineering studies and led her to pursue her undergraduate thesis with Billington, a thesis titled “Implications of a Major Office Complex: Scientific, Social and Symbolic Implications.”

In her thesis, Hartley looked into the Citicorp Tower, which had been recently built and was interesting to her for a number of reasons, including its innovative design. That design not only allowed a preexisting church to remain at ground level, but, because it left more open space at ground level, was permitted to be taller than zoning laws would otherwise have allowed.

When she contacted William LeMessurier’s firm (the engineering firm that built the Tower), they put her in touch with Joel S. Weinstein in their New York office, at the time a junior engineer with the firm. Mr. Weinstein sent her the architectural plans for the Citicorp Tower and many of his engineering calculations for the building. She reports that, at the time, she thought it odd that she did not see initials of another person beside those calculations, because the usual practice was for such work to be checked and initialed by a second engineer.

When Diane Hartley calculated the stresses due to quartering winds… .  Read more at the Online Ethics Center.  

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13 thoughts on “Professional Engineering Ethics: The Citicorp Tower case – reposted on Medium

  1. Hugo Ponsonnet

    This design flaw was a matter of public safety and therefore a public statement should have been made. That way, there would have been transparency between CityGroup and the people of New York. I do not like to play the “what if” game but in this case, what if the repairs would not have been enough and the building would have collapsed? People cannot be kept in the dark just because big corporations think that it is best that way. In the end, I believe that LeMessurier acted in an ethical way for taking the responsibility but should not have acted in such secrecy.

  2. Adrien Orlowski

    I do not think the responsibility lies on Le Messurier for this problem in the construction of the building. Since the design called for welded joints in the super structure of the wind bracing and they were replaced by bolted joints. It was the right thing to do for the safety everyone in and near the building for him to take it upon himself to design the solution to the problem and finance part of its implementation. Citicorp also acted in the best interest of the tenants by supplying people to work with Le Messurier to fix the problem, and in their own interest by starting litigation against Le Messurier.

      1. Adrien Orlowski

        As Citigroup became aware of the problem with their building they moved with Le Messurier to remedy the situation as soon as possible to avoid the loss of life as well as bad press. After the repairs were complete however they seeked legal action against Le Messurier. The ethical question becomes: was the litigation justified. Once the repairs were completed and the building deemed structurally sound, was there reason for Citigroup to sue Le Messurier since he came forward and admitted the flaw as well as helped to finance the repairs. The lawsuit would bring Citigroup some money, but would also tarnish the reputation of a good engineer.

        While writing this I was having an internal argument that because Citigroup is a publicly traded company they have an obligation to their shareholders, and that any bad press would potentially cause share prices to go down. Therefor the lawsuit was in order to save face in a way. Which begs the question does it have anything to do with ethics, or was it just business. The ethics I was thinking about were on a personal level if it was right for Citigroup to sue when Le Messurier did what he was supposed to.

        1. Sotero Guzman

          Whether LeMessurier admitted his mistake, he still made the mistake. The design he used for the building was innovative, so it was negligent of him to only comply with current building codes and not do further calculations. Also, the way he went along with the secrecy of the retrofit also conflicts with ASCE canon 1. His reputation would have been damaged more by not informing the public if the building would have actually failed. When there are thousands of lives at risk there should be no sympathy for someone just because they are a “good engineer”.

          1. Adrien Orlowski

            The mistake was made by the contracting company for changing the joints from welded joints to bolted ones. Without this change the building would have been able to support the wind loads. LeMessurier took responsibility because he was the chief engineer, not the one that made the switch. I do not suggest sympathy but respect for him doing so.

          2. Sotero Guzman

            How is it the steel fabricator’s fault that the changes were made? LeMessurier’s firm approved the changes, When a major departure from the construction documents is proposed for a critical system effecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public, the decision ought to involve the key persons in the design of the system.

  3. jonathanedgington

    I think it is a travesty that William Le Messurier did not actually know who the unnamed student was; Diane Hartley. It seems this would have been something a professional would have done as a courtesy for contributing to the saving of lives from a potentially catastrophic situation.

    In addition very suspicious that all the newspapers were on strike during the construction time frame. Further very ominous that all the work was being done at night in secret, although completely understandable from a perspective that it would have been a PR nightmare.

  4. Ken

    Politics are involved in everything. Especially when a large sum of money takes part. Of course they don’t go into details about the student, or whether or not LeMessurier had a choice. Bribery, corruption, and secrecy is expected in any major catastrophe. If the truth was free to be spoken, then people would panic and exaggerate what happened (which probably happened anyway) then it leads to chaos and questions. No body what’s that kind of attention. However, if the responsibility was taken like its said, then it was most definitely the ethical thing to do.

      1. Brandon Olson (@75Olson)

        I think money plays a role in all of those terms. The easy decision may not always be the ethical one and sometimes people act poorly. In this video, I think the concept of money was not a concern initially. To me, this shows that the people working truly cared about the safety of the city rather than the money.

        1. Madeline Sawyer

          I agree that people’s lives were definitely a concern; however, money was also a large concern. The PBS video claimed that if the tower were to fail under high winds, it would not crumble, but it would topple over. The tower’s failure would cause a domino effect and could potentially damage 18 blocks of the city. Not only would this kill a crazy amount of people (so yes, safety was a concern), but I cannot imagine the amount of financial repairs the city would have due to the disaster. I think money played a large role in the decision of fixing the connections of Citicorp.


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