Category Archives: Ethics

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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