When to use your head instead of your computer

Nancy Anderson
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Imagine walking up to any Engineer’s work station today and taking away the computer.


OK, now that your nerves have settled down a little, I’ll tell you why I asked you to think about that. In the building HVAC design department back in the days before computers (There really was such a time!), Senior Engineers would crank through pages of calculations and hand-drafted layouts with their calculator and a stack of pencils. You know pencils, those long thin wooden things with graphite in the center that early man used to make drawings on paper with?



Does anyone reading this even know what a “Ductulator” is? I mean the cardboard kind.


It would take days to calculate the air handling system capacities for a floor of an office building. No ductwork and controls, just the concept for distribution. In 2011 our bright young “Cad Jockeys” will see that as ridiculous. All you have to do is enter this number and that square footage, hit F10, then get the base layer from the Architect’s files on the shared drive, and basically connect the dots!
Sometimes there’s a bit of a problem with that.



Back in those pre-computer days the design was more tangible to the Engineer. To understand and calculate the air loads, then to hand configure the sketches, built a mind-body connection to what would become a physical, three-dimensional sheet metal miracle. You HAD TO figure it out, find the route, design it to deliver, and you literally developed a “feel” for how the system had to weave through the building. If you said “Computer Modeling” to one of us back then, we would have thought you meant building a toy replica of an IBM Mainframe!



This is not intended as a trip down memory lane. What I am doing is pointing out the difference in mental process between “owning” a project, and teaching the computer to calculate and design layout profiles. Does the latter method work? Much of the time it does in new construction layouts with predictable geometry. Almost every job still has a need for the human’s think time, especially renovations!



I have had the privilege of working with many brilliant young engineers. Like we all did, they make mistakes and occasionally learn the hard way. That’s called experience. What I see more often now though, is lack of analysis of WHY the mistakes were made. Ok, time to mentor. Teach them “When to use your head instead of your computer”. Does what you just drew even make sense?
Computers do an amazing job of calculations, distribution layouts, and itemizing, BUT, they can only work with what they “know”! When our young staff zooms in to a small part of the building without taking time to get familiar with the overall concept, interesting anomalies appear in the check set.


On one project’s final review set we found


  • A 24 x 42 return duct routed THROUGH a 48 inch concrete beam.


  • A 10” Rain conductors exiting above the ceiling of the first floor lobby


  • Chilled water supply connected to the sink in a Janitor Closet


  • A six floor toilet exhaust stack tapped into the air handler return air plenum.


  • A 10” laboratory fume hood exhaust connected to . . . nothing.

When these things were caught BEFORE the job went out we thanked heaven for the checking process. We fixed the documents before issue and then set about to fix the thinking process.
Time to teach “Concept and Overview” . . . next week!


By K.B. Elliott

K. B. Elliott is a freelance writer for Engineer-Jobs.com and Nexxt. Working many design positions in the Detroit area for over 30 years gives him a unique perspective on the process. His networking interests as an entrepreneur connect him with many new venture start-ups in Southeast Michigan. On the chance occurrence of spare time, you will find him building computers and airplanes, or restoring antiques. To read more of his blogs, please go to Engineer-JobsBlog.com, and be sure to check out the postings for jobs in nearly any industry at Nexxt

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