Mid-Air


Engineers share one trait with large-animal veterinarians: when we want to see our subjects in person, we have to go to them because they can’t come to our offices. “The Building Inspector as Action Hero” in the New York Times discusses two issues: the importance to the safety of NYC of having tall-building facades inspected on a regular basis, and the growing popularity of non-traditional methods and especially rope-climbing as a way to perform those inspections.

The NYC Department of Buildings rules for facade inspections require “hands-on” inspection of “representative” portions of the facades. What does that actually mean? First, that you learn more about the condition of the materials and assemblies – whether brick, stone, terra cotta, precast concrete, glass, or metal – by being able to see them up close, grab onto them, sound them with a rubber mallet, and perform any other simple test made possible  by being a foot away. I once listened for damage to some steel beams by hitting them with a steel hammer: the undamaged ones gave me a nice clear note, the damaged ones gave me a dull thud. (The act of hitting gave me a short-live ache in my forearm.) Second, there’s an assumption that if you’ve performed a visual inspection of the entire facade, that having additional information about a portion of it allows you to extrapolate about the conditions of the whole.

Rope-climbing is, according to the article, used on well under ten percent of inspections, but that number has risen in recent years and will almost certainly rise further. I expect (I could well be wrong) that it will always be a minority approach. First, there are a limited number of people qualified to perform facade inspections and there are a limited number of people capable of being and willing to be certified for rope climbing. The number of people who are simultaneously in both groups is obviously small. Second, it is not necessarily the cheapest method although it often is. If a building is easy to rig with a traditional hung scaffold or is easy to reach with a truck-mounted lift, the advantage for rope-climbing is reduced.

The article emphasizes the large number of women working in rope-climbing. I doubt this is because, as suggested, that women are less afraid of heights than men. My personal theory – and I doubt we will ever have anything better than opinions – is that new fields are easier for women to work in because of the lack of entrenched old-boys networks. And finally, on a general note, I hate the title of the article. Headlines are usually not written by the reporter, so it’s probably an editor to blame, but this is terrible. The whole point of safety trying for rope-climbing or for scaffold use is to make things as unexciting as possible. Safety is not exciting.