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Big Dig - One of Engineering's Greatest Mistakes? 379

Enggirl1 writes "Design News discusses Boston's Big Dig and begs the question - is it one of engineering's greatest failures? The article reveals that forums and blogs are popping up all over the Internet as vehicles for engineers and contractors to discuss, under the guise of anonymity, their skepticism, thoughts and reactions to one of the biggest infrastructure failures in the news today." From the article: "One blogger, whose profile notes that he is an ICC Reinforced Concrete Special Inspector and an ICC Pre-stressed Concrete Special Inspector, among other specialties, says he has nearly 20 years of experience performing both placement and post-placement inspections of rebar, post-tensioning systems, concrete, masonry, etc. He says if structural engineers who specify epoxy for dowels and the like believe that the work is being done correctly then they live in a world unfamiliar to him."
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Big Dig - One of Engineering's Greatest Mistakes?

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  • by aussersterne ( 212916 ) on Saturday July 29, 2006 @11:45PM (#15809026) Homepage
    I have a relative who is a civil engineer that has done high-profile (space program, public construction, etc.) work for both the public and private sector.

    From the sound of things, I'd guess it's not an engineering failure so much as a management failure. The things I know about public construction are scary. Like when an engineer can't finish a design under the schedule that management wants, management steps in after hours, "throws in numbers" and tosses together a design, then sends it out with the engineer's seal on it. Or when an engineer refuses to sign off on an incomplete or incorrect design, the manager brings in a new graduate because they're more "cooperative" (read: will sign anything to get a paycheck) and they go ahead and build it that way.

    The cost and political pressure in public engineering projects often leads to engineers being the least powerful people that have input in the design (i.e. ass backward).
    • by DrMrLordX ( 559371 ) on Saturday July 29, 2006 @11:57PM (#15809085)
      The Big Dig was also plagued by graft and corruption. Much of the work was probably done improperly or on the cheap because contractors and workers alike kept walking off with materials and money (or opening the door for others to do so).
      • There are 2 aspects to the construction of the Big Dig. First is the obvious one: engineering, which includes research and development. Since this structure is city project, we can be certain that it was engineered by engineers who have been certified as professional engineers. Professional engineers must pass a professional engineering (PE) examination; this level of certification is needed to guarantee the quality of work. Several professional engineers must have examined, thoroughly checked, and sig
        • Do you think that a public-works project would have a greater, lesser, or similar proportion of illegal aliens working on it?

          Does anyone have any info on this?

          • Well, the "public" doesn't get up and work on it, they contract this the works out to the lowest bidder.

            You do the math.
            • by RexRhino ( 769423 ) on Monday July 31, 2006 @01:15AM (#15815143)
              Virtually all public works projects are required to use union labor, and contracts are doled out by political patronage. It is absolutly impposible to get polical support for a project without support from the big labor unions. Most of the construction workers working on bug public projects earn more than your typical Slashdot software developer. Illegal immigrants are just not an issue in this kind of situation.

              While a normal company, operating in a free market, there might be strong pressures to use the cheapest labor possible - This is a total and complete non-issue with projects like the Big Dig. Big public works projects are a love affair between big government, big buisness, and big labor, and the labor part isn't going to let illegal immigrants mess with the gravy train. Normal economics do not apply.

              That being said, even if your fantasy was true and the Big Dig was being entirely staffed by people gathered on the streets of mexico city and secretly shipped in via cargo container... that was not the problem. There are more than enough native born white skinned morons in America to fuck things up big time without having to blame things on illegal immigrants.
        • by servognome ( 738846 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @06:23AM (#15810332)
          On any project that involves public safety, an English-speaking, literate, educated worker is much more preferable than a non-English-speaking, illiterate, uneducated worker.

          You create a false dichotomy, because there are many American construction workers who can't read the instructions for assembly.
          Quality isn't an illegal immigration issue. Doesn't matter if it's a Mexican illegal or American just off the farm, if they don't have the skills its the problem with the construction company. They didn't do a sufficient job of ensuring their laborers had the skills and ensure the quality of work. Illegal immigrants are just a pool of labor, the impact they have is on the value of labor in certain industries. Those who make hiring decisions are the ones responsible for sacrificing service and quality for price.
          • get what you pay for (Score:4, Informative)

            by zogger ( 617870 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @08:55AM (#15810654) Homepage Journal
            I'd trust a kid "off the farm" to be able to do construction work before about anyone else the same age. You grow up building and repairing big structures, welding, operating equipment that costs as much as most folks houses, etc you appreciate how to do things properly. Any random 20 year old kid off a farm might easily have ten years experience in what would be considered adult professional work in most of the trades. He's grown up wiring at high voltages, working on very large and complex plumbing installations, doing all sorts of carpentry, cement work, equipment maintenance, etc. It's a pretty thorough and complex process to keep a large farm operating. And today's farm kids are using automated and computerized devices, all the way to GPS enabled equipment that uses robotic steering. maybe it is past time to put that "country bumpkin" meme to rest, it no longer applies.

            With that said,back on subject, that entire big dig project has a long history of controversy and accusations of weirdness around it. I am (somewhat) surprised it has taken this long to start to fall apart.

            As to the illegals versus legals and so on, it's a crapshoot. I have worked on jobs with illegals that were a menace,totally incompetent and dangerous to be around, hired merely because it was a body to throw at a job for cheap pay obviously. A few have been quite good from recollection, most are pretty common, some skills, but a lot of enthusiasm. They come from a culture of lower resources, recycling old junk more, cob jobbing as normal, etc. I think it is just too large a variable to really be able to quantify it adequately. What can't be denied though, is that hiring illegals in a general sense is a cost cutting measure so the boss class can skim a few more bucks off the project, and when that becomes the primary focus on a job, the job suffers. Jobs should cost what they cost, not the lowest crap possible then cut corners from that point. You get your "problems" then. When you have something as important as a big dig styled project, you shouldn't screw up. If it is deemed to be unaffordable to do correctly, don't do it.

                If your new garage roof sags and leaks after a few years because you hired the local cut rate guy with his "crew" of casual pickups from the home depot parking lot..well, it's no big deal to anyone but you and not a major threat. Something like the big dig is a totally different situation.
            • Inherent Skills (Score:4, Interesting)

              by Mark_MF-WN ( 678030 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @04:26PM (#15812922)
              It suprising how skilled some groups of people are without any training. I mean, individuals with inherent skill crop up everywhere, but groups, not so much. I read about how people who grew up on military bases often have an unusual penchant for engineering, because as children they tended to get themselves underfoot in places where vehicles and machines were repaired. They could screw around with parts, figure how things went together, and construct strange godless machines that crossed lines man was not meant to cross. I wouldn't be surprised at all to find out that farm kids had a knack for electrical and mechanical work, and I'll bet more than a few take to chemistry pretty fast -- farming is remarkably chemistry-based. The biology side of farming is a no-brainer of course. Another surprising one? The children of clergy -- many church groups got into networking quite early, using BBSes and early list servers to get information around. Plus, nearly every church minister has to be a part-time desktop publisher to make all of the church's bulletains and whatnot, so clergyman had computers before a lot of people. So you can find church-brats that developed unusual aptitudes for computer technology.
            • As to the illegals versus legals and so on, it's a crapshoot. I have worked on jobs with illegals that were a menace,totally incompetent and dangerous to be around, hired merely because it was a body to throw at a job for cheap pay obviously. A few have been quite good from recollection, most are pretty common, some skills, but a lot of enthusiasm. They come from a culture of lower resources, recycling old junk more, cob jobbing as normal, etc. I think it is just too large a variable to really be able to qu

            • by StikyPad ( 445176 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @10:27PM (#15814566) Homepage
              I know it's satisfying to point out a source for all our problems, but illegal immigrants are just an easy target to point at, and then make up reasons after the fact, aka scapegoats. If illegal immigrants are such a problem, then we should see a significant amount of our structures failing, at least in proportion to their 14% representation, if not higher. Since they're probably somewhat evenly distributed, then we should actually expect a lot more structures to fail, since there should be at least one or two illegals with their "grubby mitts" in the mix on just about every project. In reality we don't see anything near 15% of our ceilings collapsing, or 15% of bridges falling into the water.

              Anyway, your union rep talking points might feel good, but anecdotes about farm boys and who you'd trust with your firstborn in a Home Depot parking lot do not a rational argument make.
        • Bzzt (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward
          Yeah, you can find a lot of illegals doing roofs, painting, gardening, light construction and so on.

          But the Big Dig used almost 100% union labor. Good luck trying to join a union if you are in the US illegally.
        • "If you have no English skills, the probability of a screw-up is very high."

          There's hardly a need to go to such complicated explanations. It's enough that the instructions are tedious, and that the 'right' way to do it is more time consuming than the 'fast' way to do it. Combine time consuming work with tight schedules and penalties for failing deadlines, and guess what you get...

          To paraphrase on of the engineers in the linked article; if the engineers on the project actually thought epoxied bolts are insta
        • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @10:00AM (#15810853) Homepage Journal
          Several points I think you got wrong.

          First, it's not a city project. It's a Federal highway project.

          Secondly while there are a large number of illegals in the construction industry, this has nothing to do with the project. The project wasn't done with day laborers and cheap fly-by-night contractors. It was done 100% union labor with major engineering firms directing.

          Finally, it's too early to call the project a failure. The fatality was the result of a single bad design element, after all. From a traffic standpoint, the artery works far better than I expected. The question is, what other design elements are faulty? The waterproofing issues I think were ones that the engineers doing the actual grunt work ere expecting, although politics forced management to take an excessively hopeful view. The bolt failure that killed the unfortunate worman is a bigger concern. It's not so major a concern in itself, because the design in question was used only on one section of the project, a connector tunnel to funnel turnpike to airport traffic off the main artery. Furthermore, it is likely that this will be resolved; it will be expensive, but no in the overall context of the project.

          The concern is that this raises questions about the management process that directed the project's engineering. Are there other design elements which had similar faults?

          There's no question the fatality was a result of bad engineering. You don't put a design element in that requires perfect craftsmanship to install, and that kills somebody if it fails. The bolts in question fail on both counts. First of all you have a situation where workers are supposed to drill in a uncomfortable and dirty environment. Then they're supposed to clean the hole very carefully so they're expoxying the bolt to rock, not milliions of dust particles. And the workers are supposed to do this overhead. And in an almighty rush. Even the best and most conscientious workers cannot be trusted to do this at better than 99% perfection, and 99.99% perfection wouldn't be enough.

          The second problem is that you don't design things that fail in ways that kill people. Civil engineers do this all the time: when this beam fails, the floor should sag not collapse. The bolt that failed held up a concrete panel. The panel was a nonstructural component that was there to create an air return plenum. The plenum was needed because you'd poison any motorist who had a break down or was stuck down there in a traffic jam. The dividing element had to meet a number of safety requirements, the most important had to do with fire. That's why you couldn't use a lightweight panel. But the design should have resulted in a visible but non-fatal failure on failiure of any single element, not a cascade of bolts pulling out of the ceiling. And you have to plan that if one bolt is bad, all the bolts around them are bad too. Remember that worker who's drilling overhead holes and supposedly cleaning them perfectly before applying the nasty and finicky expoxy mixture. Imagine he's had a bad day. If he fails on one bolt, you have to assume he fails on a series of them, maybe all the bolts he did on that shift.

          So, this was one piece of bad design. The fact that it was in a non-structural element probably explains, if not excuses the bad design. You don't make mistakes on things like girder design because everyone is thinking about the possibility that bridge will collapse or the tunnel implode. It's a small, easily overlooked design element that, it turns out, given the right circumstances can kill somebody.

          We computer guys understand this phenomenon well. It's an error that comes from complexity. This incident may become the Therac 25 error of the civil engineering world. If the right engineer had been assigned to look at this at the right time, it wouldn't have happened. The fact that the right engineer was never tasked with checking the design was a management error. It was a rush job.

          For this reason, I expect there are other flaws of this sort in the project: small details that weren't got right.

        • by monteneg ( 901462 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @12:04PM (#15811500)

          Having moved around the country a bit I found that in LA the construction has a lot of Latinos, in Atlanta it is largely African-Americans, and in Boston (where I now live) it is largely White people. While I don't expect any illegal aliens from Mexico worked on the Big Dig, there is a very large (white) Brazilian population here and I wouldn't be able to tell if they are on construction sites or if it's Boston natives. In any case, this area is heavily unionized, and I expect the government insisted on "higher skilled" union workers.

          Having said that, and being half-Mexican myself, you're a moron if you think that some low paid white trash who thinks he's underpaid is going to do a better job than a Latino worker happy for the chance to make some money. Your comments remind me of Governor Ronald Reagan's idiotic comment about Mexicans thriving in the fields (for which my dad never forgave him). In any event, it is more likely that Bechtel and the like had their heads up their a@@ (you'd think after the Big Dig the gov't would have known better than to hire them in Iraq), while Italian-American owned construction companies were probably cutting corners on jobs they got based on connections.

        • You're pretty clueless.

          A public works project in Massachusetts isn't going to be hiring companies that employ illegal aliens... they usually mandate that you use union labor paid at the "prevailing wage" set by the union. Nobody is going to pay a illegal $75/hr to do masonry work in Boston.

          Engineers are less regulated and are more likely to be at fault in this case. The government doesn't employ as many career engineers as they did in the past, and most design work is contracted out to politically connected
      • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @11:40AM (#15811347) Homepage Journal
        The Big Dig was also plagued by graft and corruption.

        Technically, this is not correct.

        At least by the standard of "indictable offense".

        The story is this: the original central artery was inadequately engineered from a traffic standpoint, as well as being put in a just plain stupid place. Boston is a historically maritime city; the artery sliced off the waterfront into a thin ribbon of land backed up against a ugly, dirty eleveated highway. San Franscisco is fortunate to escape this fate becuase of it's geography; imagine a huge elevated highway cutting off the Fisherman's wharf area, leaving a strip barely 100m wide in places.

        The Boston Central Artery also cut off the North End from the rest of Boston. The turnpike connector to the artery was driven through neighborhood of Brighton, destroying a massive swath of the neighborhood and cutting it into pieces. At the same time there was a massive "urban renewal" project destroyed the historic West End neighborhood -- just the kind of neighborhood we now recognize as human scaled and economically vital. The pedestrian friendly brick neighborhood was razed to create a maze of giant concrete builings, the kind that look inviting as architect's models but turns out to be an icy, windswept urban wasteland.

        These disruption of these massive engineering projects created a new generation of Democratic political activists. It may also be responsible for the neutering of Republican party in a state in one of its historical strongholds.

        Which leads to the old artery's engineering inadequacy. It had been designed as part of a network of highways, which were now politically impossible to build. It was never designed to work without a proper bypass. The artery therefore created massive traffic jams, with their associated (but hard to measure) productivity costs and of course pollution. One section of eleveated highway feeding the artery was built because under the contracts it was cheaper to build than cancel, and then planners tried to keep it closed, because it simply would not work. However the political stink this raised made them reverse the decision, which resulted in daily traffic jams that were miles long.

        Now we finally get to the issue of venality, if not corruption.

        With the state Democratic party through the congressional delegation playing a major role in the Democratically dominated US House and Senate, activists who cut their teeth fighting the bypass set about fixing the problem of the ugly, dirty, stupidly sited Central Artery.

        It turned out that days of the Democratic control of Congress were numbered. But the Republican Congress, which loved to rail against the Big Dig as a massive and wasteful pork barrel project, proved powerless to rein it in. Why couldn't a Republican congress exert control over a funding a huge project in the heartland of their political enemies? Simple: the lions share of contracts went to engineering firms with deep Republican connections.

        This is not to blame the Republicans for the mess, which would not be fair. The genesis of the problem goes back to the late 40s. But mainly you could blame Tip O'Neil, the speaker at the time Federal funds were approved for the project. Tip was often depicted in Republican political ads as fat, out of touch, and a bit stupid. He was fat, but he was neither out of touch nor stupid. He had power and he knew how to use it and the money it controlled to get things done. It wasn't just Republicans who got a payoff. It was everybody in sight. Unions. Neighborhood activits. Minority businesses. The project's finances were carefullly engineered so that everybody had a friend with a fat slice of artery money coming to them.

        Now the funding is at its end, and everyone is calling abandon ship after the ship has sunk.

        So that's the venality. Nobody could stop the project without hurting an important ally.

        But to set against that, it's not clear that the project could have been done any other way. In

    • >management steps in after hours, "throws in numbers" and tosses together a design, then sends it out with the engineer's seal on it. Or when an engineer refuses to sign off on an incomplete or incorrect design, the manager brings in a new graduate because they're more "cooperative" (read: will sign anything to get a paycheck) and they go ahead and build it that way.

      Although its caused by management, I think these are the failure of an engineer living up to his professional responsibilities.
      • Although its caused by management, I think these are the failure of an engineer living up to his professional responsibilities.

        Don't people who go by the title "engineer" have legal requirements? As in if the thing they design explodes and kills people, they're liable? At least that's the case in some places, according to the completely unreliable rumors I've heard. So I hope these kids aren't actually signing things they know to be dangerous.
        • by Anonymous Coward
          Fields in civil engineering are highly specialized and individual experience counts for a lot. Getting someone who specializes in high-vibration manufacturing plants to design a bridge (or vice-versa) is a disaster, even though both may have the same license.

          It's years of experience in a particular area of civil engineering, working under more experienced professionals, that often gives an engineer the body of solutions and tools from which to work.

          New kids come out of degree programs and have lots of theor
          • I'm sorry, you don't have the faintest fucking idea of how engineering works.

            The guy who designs high frequency vibration stuff (such as me) would not attempt to seal a bridge design.

            Because, by signing, it makes you PERSONALLY and LEGALLY responsible for that design. You become the focal point for all legal actions from then on.

      • But in this case as in many, that responsibility wasn't backed by the authority the engineer needed to properly carry out that responsibility.
    • by UnknowingFool ( 672806 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @12:31AM (#15809235)

      "throws in numbers" and tosses together a design, then sends it out with the engineer's seal on it. Or when an engineer refuses to sign off on an incomplete or incorrect design, the manager brings in a new graduate because they're more "cooperative" (read: will sign anything to get a paycheck) and they go ahead and build it that way.

      I'm not saying those things don't happen. I'm saying that they are highly illegal and not common place. Signing off on a design for an engineer is like preparing legal documents without being a lawyer or giving medical advice without being a doctor.

      To sign off on any engineering or construction documents, an engineer must be licensed as a Professional Engineer (PE). The requirements vary by state but in most states new engineering graduates do not qualify to be PEs. The norm is an engineering student must pass an exam (FE) near graduation, then work under a licensed PE for several years, then pass the PE test. In most states like MA, it is 4 years minimum between passing the FE and even qualifying to take the PE test. Engineers who are not PEs can do some of the work in construction and design fields but are expressly forbidden to do certain things like sign off on plans.

      I agree with you that management is most likely to blame but for another reason. As projects like this become complex, it requires very good management to ensure that the important details are not overlooked. With as many problems as the Big Dig seemed to have before completion, it would seem that the management was not up to the task.

      In the case of the collapse, I think the most likely scenario is that the specifications were wrong or changed at a later date. The load required was specified to be 1/2 of what it needed to be. The engineer approved a wall thickness of so many feet that was later modified and built without approval. The specifications for the wall never included withstanding water (hydrostatic pressure), etc.

    • Signing off on blueprints that you know contain design flaws that could possibly be dangerous is quite possibly the most stupid thing a professional engineer can do (with sleeping with the boss's daughter running a close second). Not only is it unethical, but it could land one's ass in jail and one's bank account in the hands of the victims' lawyers if something goes horribly wrong.

      For that matter, not blowing the whistle when such designs get approved by other less scrupulous engineers is also unethical.
      • Ethics (Score:2, Insightful)

        by hackwrench ( 573697 )
        Ethics gets the short shift at every level of education, at least in America. I've graduated from High School, got an Associates Degree, not once took an ethics class. A little bit of ethics has to seep into classes, though and they hope maybe parents have some clue and just leave it at that. There's really not much of it though.
    • From the sound of things, I'd guess it's not an engineering failure so much as a management failure. [...] Or when an engineer refuses to sign off on an incomplete or incorrect design, the manager brings in a new graduate because they're more "cooperative" (read: will sign anything to get a paycheck).

      To me you just described an engineering failure (i.e. the "cooperative new grad" made a failure of judgment unbecoming of a qualified engineer).

    • Like when an engineer can't finish a design under the schedule that management wants, management steps in after hours, "throws in numbers" and tosses together a design, then sends it out with the engineer's seal on it.

      That is illegal.
  • by r00t ( 33219 ) on Saturday July 29, 2006 @11:46PM (#15809027) Journal
    So it has a few bugs to work out. So it was delayed.

    It beat Duke Nukem Forever and even Vista. It's probably better quality too, and will last much longer.

    Patch it up and it'll be fine.
  • by umm qasr ( 72190 ) <<leith> <at> <>> on Saturday July 29, 2006 @11:46PM (#15809031) Homepage
    I think you'll find most of the problems with the big dig do not stem from any one dumb engineer, but the huge amount of contractors that are awarded contracts by the corrupt locat and state governments. No where in the world have I seen contruction contractors living so well as in Boston.
  • by xXBondsXx ( 895786 ) on Saturday July 29, 2006 @11:48PM (#15809038)
    One of the main problems the team had on the Boston Dig project was that some genius decided to hire the same contractors for both the construction and the inspection of the tunnel. Consequently, the inspector gets put in an awkward position, for if he finds anything wrong, he can either...

    A) blow the whistle, cost the company extra money, and then get fired for "undisclosed reasons"
    B) look the other way like a good little puppet of the company, get paid, and never have to really deal with the consequences face to face

    Seriously, whoever thought that it was a good idea to hire the same company for both construction and inspection is a little naive. Would you let McDonald's do the FDA testing on their own food?
  • by mytrip ( 940886 ) on Saturday July 29, 2006 @11:49PM (#15809046) Homepage Journal
    I believe that the question should be phrased differently. I would like to ask whether or not it is one of quality assurance's biggest mistakes. I routinely find work that was planned well and thought out well only to have a half way job done by whoever was checking work done by the lowest bidder to cut costs.
    • Come on! Quality assurance?! Anybody with even rudimentary real-world construction experience knows that you don't hang two ton panels from epoxy systems and expect reliability forever. There are concepts such as fatigue, deformity and composition that dictate the reliability of such hanging methods. Outside of the effects of vibration and the tunnel's humidity, I would guess that installation methods weren't perfect. Epoxy hangers are mounted in hardened concrete, which means that holes have to be drilled.
      • by mabhatter654 ( 561290 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @12:28AM (#15809220)
        but the epoxy would be far tougher than the cement it's bored into. In small quantities epoxy is more than strong enough.. in fact much stronger than cement. What you described would make perfect sense and save tons of time and money by not requiring the anchor points be painstakingly welded to the internal rebar of the concrete. Now I can see really quickly where the QA trouble is. Epoxy is NOT a magic bullet where you just super glue the stuff together and it's automaticaly invincible. But there's no need to continue to use 50 year old construction techiniques that require huge amounts of manpower and multiple rework just because some guys on the ground refuse to update their work practices.
      • And qa should have caught it. I used to work in the aerospace business and qa was active in the process of construction of parts and identifying problems with things before construction on very complex things even began. QA on large airplanes is done inside a computer before parts are ever ordered. One of the interesting tidbits from my days in aerospace is the 777 was assembled piece by piece in CATIA (cad software on rs/6000) before the first part was ever ordered. And you know who checked it out first?
      • by mvdw ( 613057 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @07:30AM (#15810462) Homepage
        I think you're wrong. The alternative is dynabolts, which are unsuitable in a number of applications. Ramset makes fasteners called chemsets, which are premixed glass capsules filled with epoxy mixture, and there's a german company who make similar devices. They are very good in some applications; their main drawback compared to "normal" dynabolts is their higher cost. Read the specs. They are especially good in wet holes IIRC, and they also work reasonably well when the base material is fractured.
    • I would like to ask whether or not it is one of quality assurance's biggest mistakes.

      Who do you think does the "quality assurance" on an engineering project? Engineers do! Granted, that would mean the mistake was made by the construction engineer instead of the design engineer, but that would still count as an "engineering mistake."

      Disclaimer: IANA engineer yet, but I am a civil engineering student

    • Haven't you heard? Jobs done with CAD are always perfect and do not require checking.
  • that goverment officials are not spending their own money. That is why these big projects fail. They are more concerned with giving out the contracts to their campaign contributors and getting jobs for their union buddies than actually making things work. I think the model to follow is that of the DARPA grand challenge. The prize was $10 million as opposed to billions and the good to humanity (in the form of huge advancements in AI) were far greater in my opinion. Our government really needs to modernize the way they do business it is now the 21st century.
  • "Design News discusses Boston's Big Dig and begs the question - is it one of engineering's greatest failures? The article reveals that forums and blogs are popping up all over the Internet as vehicles for engineers and contractors to discuss, under the guise of anonymity, their skepticism, thoughts and reactions to one of the biggest infrastructure failures in the news today."
    Gee, you got me.
  • The first Tacoma Narrows Bridge was a bigger mistake. It was actually destroyed. The big dig hasn't completely collapsed. (yet)
  • About rock bolts (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 30, 2006 @12:04AM (#15809122)
    Rock bolts are a staple in the mining industry. There are darn few failures. Of course the rock bolts are specified by engineers who work for the mining company and installed by miners whose safety depends on them. You tend to do things better if your life depends on it.

    In the case of the big dig, you have contractors who are trying to make the maximum possible amount of money. I also bet that there weren't enough government inspectors or that they weren't properly qualified. Cutting costs is just as dangerous in the government as greed is in the private sector. The Canadian province of Ontario laid off all their government water inspectors and a bunch of people died in the town of Walkerton. If you don't give folks the tools they need to do a job then you shouldn't be surprised if the job doesn't get done.

    The concrete ceiling tiles were used to create a separate space for supplying air to the tunnel. This is typically how you would do it in a building. In the case of the Chunnel between England and France, they dug a separate tunnel for that purpose. People have wondered why the panels had to be made of concrete. Something lighter would have worked just as well and might have been cheaper and safer.
  • by eliot1785 ( 987810 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @12:06AM (#15809132)
    As a Boston resident I've been following this semi-closely, and it seems that the main problem is not so much the engineering itself, but the way in which the overall planning occurred. This project was started in the late 1980's, and was supposed to cost something like $3 billion and take a few years. Now it has taken more than 16 years and cost tens of billions of dollars.

    It wasn't just a bad estimate - it was that they gradually expanded the scope of the project and added new goals once the project was underway. As a result it took longer and cost more money. Then came the double-whammy - because it took so much time, and occurred at a time when people were moving back into the city making overall traffic worse, they had to revise the project again to make it even more ambitious. Otherwise, when it was done the traffic would still be bad and people would wonder why they spent so much time on a project that didn't solve the problem. So the Big Dig has always been in a race with time, which paradoxically has caused them to take more time than they otherwise would.

    Most of the problems that have happened with the Big Dig have been due not to poor engineering, but use of the wrong materials and deliberate corner-cutting by the contractors. The woman who was killed a couple of weeks ago when the ceiling fell on her car died not because of poor engineering, but because the ceiling part was held up with substandard materials. They actually realized that this was a problem and changed the materials, but not before that part was built, and they never went back and fixed it.

    So the contractors cut corners to make more money than they otherwise would, sometimes illegally. But my theory is that the underlying reason why they were able to get away with it is that the ballooning costs (remember it expanded by a cost of something like 900% in money and 400% in time) made accounting that much more difficult.
    • by eliot1785 ( 987810 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @12:15AM (#15809175)
      Another thing I would add to my previous post is that the irony is that the traffic alleviated by the Big Dig will come back within 5-7 years. The bottleneck for the Central Artery is the part where it actually goes underneath a skyscraper (technically it does this twice, but the other part isn't as crowded). They can't make it any wider there because it would eliminate the foundation of the skyscraper enough that the whole thing could collapse. This limits the size of the entire Central Artery and will eventually force the city to develop ways for people to get in and out and around using completely different traffic patterns.

      The one major improvement to traffic that the Big Dig accomplished was diverting traffic going to the Airport through a separate tunnel (the one that just had part of the roof collapse). That reduced traffic in the Central Artery by something like 50%. Ironically, that was also the least expensive part of the Big Dig.
    • You've got to consider how fully planning even the smallest renovations is near impossible, let alone something of that scale. Watch a show where people flip houses; hell, start a case mod. A lot of this can be summed up in two words: shit happens. Don't get me wrong, there's no excuse for dangerously cutting corners, but no rational person can expect a project of any size to go exactly as planned, and certainly not tearing up half of the roads in Boston.

      Anyone who's lived in New England for more than a
    • An article stated that the concrete slabs for the roof were chosen because they cost less. I believe that the article stated that for this type of thing, other tunnels have used metal panels coated with ceramic. These type of panels are much lighter.

      So it sounds like massive cost overruns leading to low cost components being chosen, failure to install properly where epoxy wasn't a good idea in the first place, recognition of the problem, and then the problem being left in place to avoid further expenses.
  • As a disclaimer, its not like I am in any way qualified to have an opinion on this matter.

    Now, as far as I kow, the big dig needed to happen, because Bostons traffic situation was essentially untenable. It was a daring solution, and one that was difficult, but at its core, it was probably the best idea to run with.

    The problem is that someone wanted it done faster than was reasonable, or cheaper, or both. So corners were cut.

    If the problems that currently exist are the sort that can be fixed with repairs,
  • He says if structural engineers who specify epoxy for dowels and the like believe that the work is being done correctly then they live in a world unfamiliar to him.

    So what exactly is an engineer supposed to do? Add another factor of 4 or so tolerance to the design or something? Make the design even more expensive than it already is?? It already has to account for variations in materials strength, weather, overloading, safety factors, etc.

    The more the engineer attempts to account for such things,

    • An engineer that doesn't have the brains to get out in the field and check that things are done right is not an engineer but a peper shuffling beaurocrat! True engineers get their hands dirty and know what is being done because they are there.
  • not even close (Score:4, Informative)

    by Kevinv ( 21462 ) <kevin AT vanhaaren DOT net> on Sunday July 30, 2006 @12:17AM (#15809183) Homepage
    The big dig is still open and operating. That's hardly a failure.

    Even if it eventually is a failure, the Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse in Kansas City killed more people. _collapse []

    If engineers signed off on the use of the epoxy for the panel supports then those engineers are at fault. Engineers don't hand off designs to construction crews and wipe their hands of it from then on. They have to approve changes in the design and do their own inspections of the construction to make sure it meets the design.
    • If engineers signed off on the use of the epoxy for the panel supports then those engineers are at fault. Engineers don't hand off designs to construction crews and wipe their hands of it from then on. They have to approve changes in the design and do their own inspections of the construction to make sure it meets the design.

      not at all, it's the engineers job to specify the materials, and the contractor's job to go back to the engineer if there are unforseen deviations... more than that, it's the inspector

  • by lawaetf1 ( 613291 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @12:29AM (#15809223)
    One thing that has yet to be explained is why the engineers elected to suspend these massive concrete tiles from the cieling. Seriously, why did they need to be so thick and heavy? Or made of concrete for that matter? It just seems unnecessarily Damoclesian to have these slabs dangling from the roof of the tunnel.
    • Seriously, why did they need to be so thick and heavy? Or made of concrete for that matter?

      Why do I write cgi scripts in ksh? Because its what I know. These guys build things out of concrete. Thats their job. I am sure that they go home on the weekend and construct patios and garden furniture out of the same stuff.

  • by MostlyHarmless ( 75501 ) <`artdent' `at' `'> on Sunday July 30, 2006 @12:42AM (#15809274)
    The Boston Globe has been writing some surprisingly in-depth analysis of the failures related to this disaster. Here's what I remember from their reports:

    • Yes, the epoxy-and-bolt system is extraordinarily dumb. It is not yet clear whether the epoxy was installed correctly, but even if it was, they should not have been relying on it. In some of the other tunnels, they built steel I-beams into the sides of the tunnel to hold up the ceiling panels -- a much more sensible system. The tunnel where the panels fell was not originally supposed to have ceiling panels, but they decided later on that they needed them for ventilation purposes; it was now too late to install the more sensible system, and they used this mickey mouse anchoring system instead. (That being said, there were any number of better and epoxy-free ways to design the anchors.)
    • One of the subcontractors looked into using lighter (and significantly cheaper) steel panels instead of the heavy concrete ones, but they ran into problems with vibration. They eventually figured out a solution, but now the steel system would have been almost the same price as the concrete, and another authority (I forget which) had already signed the contract to buy the concrete.
    • The bolts were supposed to be tested to hold twice the weight they would actually be supporting. Instead, they were tested to a margin not much greater than the weight of the concrete panels. Furthermore, it is not clear how many of the bolts were actually tested; this may have gotten swept under the rug due to the extreme cost pressure the project was under.

    As usual with engineering disasters of this sort, the failure seems to have been caused by a confluence of lesser mistakes that would not have been tragic in isolation. The root causes, however, seem to be:
    • Changing requirements late in the game (as any software developer would warn you against)
    • Cutting corners on safety checks due to budgetary concerns
    • Bad design
    • Incompetence and/or curruption on the part of the contractors. Most of the fingers right now are pointing at Bechtel, but who knows what later investigations might reveal.

    Anyone who has lived in Boston can tell you that this is only the latest in a string of cost overruns and management failures. The actual mode of failure (i.e. the bolts) and the immediate causes of that failure should not overshadow the idea that the contractors who screwed this one up should be held responsible. The ongoing investigations should reveal whether the contractors were merely incompetent or whether they willfully ignored problems like these and crossed their fingers that nothing would happen.
    • It seems to me that most of the problem is with allowing these huge firms to do whatever they wish with little consequences. Bechtel does not have to do a good job because their is simply no incentive. I mean even in the hugely irrational frenzy after 911, Bechtel was and still is allowed to do security work despite ties to Bin Laden. Even with all it's past problems, Bechtel was allowed to do no bid contracts for Katrina. And now we are going to see some public officials reprimanded, but how much is Be
  • Man, we've been building stuff for like 5 thousand years. Stuff we built 5 thousand years ago is still standing. Bridges and roads the Romans built have lasted over two millenia. You telling me a bunch of guys with 21st century material and engineering know-how can't build a road and tunnel system that will hold up more than 5 years?

    Oh well, mismanaged projects are nothing new either. No one talks about the pyramid they built 5100 years ago that fell down after 21 years, I suppose. I bet none of the appro

    • Stuff we built 5 thousand years ago is still standing

      Practically everything built 5 thousand years ago has since fallen down. Only structures which were massively overengineered (possibly because the people building them didn't know what they were doing) are still standing.

    • Re:How's That Work? (Score:3, Informative)

      by Guppy06 ( 410832 )
      "Man, we've been building stuff for like 5 thousand years. Stuff we built 5 thousand years ago is still standing."

      Some of the things we built 5000 years ago is still standing. Consider, for example, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; only one of them is left, wich gives us a 14.2% success rate. I'm not sure I like that number when it comes to something to be used on a daily basis.
    • No one talks about the pyramid they built 5100 years ago that fell down after 21 years

      That's just because it's no longer news: Collapsed pyramid []

    • Re:How's That Work? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Detritus ( 11846 )
      Hammurabi had the right idea:

      The Code of Hammurabi (circa 3000 BCE)

      229: If a builder has built a house for a man and his work is not strong, and if the house he has built falls in and kills the householder, that builder shall be slain.

  • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @01:03AM (#15809365) Journal
    Currently a scandal in The Netherlands, although far smaller, is pretty similar. In Amsterdam a new complex involving a shopping area, apartments and a plaza build over an underground parking garage has been evacuated because of fear of collapse. It was just completed but now it appears that it was not build according to design specifications.

    The exact story is still being discovered but it seems that the original builder was replaced by someone cheaper who cut corners.

    In itself bad enough but stories are starting to emerge that this kind of stuff has been going on all over. Not a real suprise, we have had a couple of incidents of collapsing balconies because of shoddy building but because this scandale is so public the stories off other scandals also gets more attention.

    Then again it is nothing new. Every time there is a disaster like an earth quake anywhere in the world you will learn that some building collapsed because the builder did not follow regulations or even the blueprint.

    Cost cutting is almost everytime the reason and who is to blame for that? Well us. We want our buildings build as cheaply and as fast as possible so we hire the guy with the lowest contract and then expect to get quality.

    Nobody on the world would expect a ten dollar watch to have the same quality as a ten thousand dollar watch so why do we expect the guy who can do the job for a million to be as good as the one who wants two million?

    The fact that a live was lost in this Boston incident is tragic. That it involved such a god awfull amount of money makes it however fortuanlly headline worthy. If we a truly upset about this we will demand more and better inspection of every building project and demand very stiff penalties for those who ignore regulations. Oh and we won't mind paying extra for it.

    Did you hear just hear that massive sound of everyone taking a step back? Yup, we want the best but at the least cost. That is how it is supposed to work in a free market. Sadly it doesn't.

    Shoddy building by the lowest bidder is nothing new. Just because this one involves a costly project that has already been controversial does not make it new. Shoddy building will go on as long as contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder.

    But why doesn't it work to go for the lowest bid? Because it is an ongoing race. There is always another party who wants the contract who is just going to have to find some way to lower costs. At a given point there is no more fat to trim and you have to start cutting in essentials. Think of it as anorexia. When all the fat is gone you can only loose weight by reducing vital organs and tissues until finally you die. In losing weight you need to know the limit, the point were you simply cannot loose weight anymore. In lowering cost you also need to know that limit. Were any further cost savings are coming from critical areas like following the blueprint to the letter, proper inspection and using the right materials. It can be as simple a something as continueing work on days to hot/cold/humid for some materials to properly set. A great cost saving but a gigantic risk.

    This woman paid the price for our penny pinching and the great joke? Now the costs are going to be much higher to us all then if the job had been done right by the non-lowest bidder in the first place. Yet how much do you want to bet that in a few years time the next boston city goverment contract will again go to the lowest bidder?

  • and I quote (Score:3, Funny)

    by krunk4ever ( 856261 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @01:05AM (#15809374) Homepage
    from Armageddon:

    Hey Harry, you know we're sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good doesn't it?
  • by rufusdufus ( 450462 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @01:13AM (#15809410)
    Probably the biggest mistake that ever happened in China at Shaanxi where the people had riddled the Loess Plateau with Yaodongs (dwellings). The earthquake of 1556 [] killed over 800,000 people, many of whome were crushed when the Plateau collapsed onto dwellings. Makes the Big Dig's problem seem pretty small in comparison.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 30, 2006 @01:18AM (#15809427)

    Posting anon here - I worked on the Big Dig (environmental) during peak construction (1997-2000) and I'm currently contracting with another MA state agency, and I don't want to ruffle any state feathers. I also want to write a book someday ;)

    First a couple of general statements:

    • As another poster mentioned, the Big Dig needed to be built. The traffic situation was untenable. Widening the elevated artery wasn't possible because of space and structural issues. Tearing the existing artery down first and building a conventional cut-and-cover tunnel would have been faster, at the cost of completely destroying the Boston (and MA) economy. Building another highway through Boston wasn't going to happen. [] A slurry wall tunnel was the best of several bad options, but make no mistake - it was going to be hideously complex and expensive.
    • Contrary to popular belief, there where several major transit upgrades that were (and still are) being built to help offset the traffic on the Big Dig. More transit would have been nice, but transit brings its own set of issues. []
    • As for the accident: it was tragic and the responsible party (or parties) must be help accountable. But please don't think that because several MA politicians (including one presidential hopeful [] and one gubernatorial candidate []) hold daily press conferences, that we are any closer to knowing all the facts. It's a complicated problem and it's going to take time.

    Now back to the facts - I have no knowledge of roof panel construction (I spent little time in that area), but I will note that working on the project during 1999 and 2000 was an interesting experience. Already at the point there was heavy pressure on project managers and contractors to reduce costs (this was before the national stories hit that led to the ouster of James Kerasiotes). It got to the point that office supplies were locked up - you had to get the office manager's permission to get a notebook or pens!

    In any event, I wouldn't be surprised at all if cost pressures let to reduced safety factors, etc. The construction site was also the source of many stories about various screw-ups that I won't get into here (wait for my book!). There was of course several times that money was spent to shut people up (at least once against my direct recommendation), but the PTB felt it was needed for the project to move along smoothly. I suppose that it would have been better for B/PB to take the Vista approach, and wait for the tunnel to be "finished" but that wasn't going to happen because of the political pressures.

    Now was the project a failure? I'll just say this - is used to take me 1.5 to 2 hours to drive from Braintree to Cambridge during midday traffic. I did the same trip a month or so ago during a Friday afternoon rush hour in abut 20-25 minutes.

  • by J05H ( 5625 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @01:21AM (#15809438) Homepage
    One of the problems with the Big Dig ceilings is that some of the engineers that designed it have never actually built anything. These guys must not have ever gotten their hands dirty on an actual jobsite. Their the guys in ties, hard hats and a slight look of confusion on an actual site. The book says epoxy has the strength, it must, use it. When the accident occured and it first came out that the bolts were epoxied in place, my first thought was "what kind of idiot makes suspended ceilings out of concrete, then tries to epoxy them in place?" Epoxy is a wonder material, but this is just so obviously not a smart use for it. No, i'm not an engineer.

    I've got a running bet with anyone that'll take it that the Big Dig is closed down in less time than it took to build the beast.

    My wife is a news designer for the Boston Globe, she made this graphic to explain what happened, it's pretty cool. No complaints about it being in Flash, that's what she uses: /2006/07/28/bolt_system_graphic/ []

    • by PingXao ( 153057 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @01:57AM (#15809570)
      "No, i'm not an engineer."

      I am. You're right. Looking through some of the news stories about it there was apparently a 3rd grader who noticed the same thing 10 years ago. It takes a real nimrod to hang 3 ton concrete ceiling tiles off a framework that's been epoxied into place.

      The real tragedy is that woman's family will never see justice. Everyone will point the finger at everyone else and no one, ultimately, will have to pay the price.
    • Epoxy can be tricky to use which makes it a poor choice for this type of critical application. Mix it at the wrong temperature or with the wrong contaminates or apply it to the wrong type of surface and its strength can be greatly compromised without any visual indication.

      In large structures, the strength that the materials are loaded to is often dictated by how large a progressive deformation or crack would have to be to be seen during inspection to give warning of future failure. Use a high enough stres
  • they have dug for themselves
  • by BCW2 ( 168187 )
    Why does anyone think this was about traffic relief? From everything I've read over the last 6 years the whole project is about bribing officials so companies can steal money for substandard work. Sounds like a standard goverment project to me. They just had bigger thieves in the Boston crontractors guild, who did shoddier work than the norm.
  • by Black-Six ( 989784 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @02:17AM (#15809640)
    I'm a Kansas City native and have been in the very building that houses a plaque to those who died in the greatest U.S. engineering disaster of all time, the collapse of the skywalk in the Hyatt Regency Hotel. I'm also a student at the local community college and am studying architechtural design, so I've gotta a bit of an idea as to what goes on in the engineer's office on a day to day basis. This project, the "Big Dig" has all the characteristics of the 1982 Hyatt Skywalk failure: impossible deadlines, poor management, and overworked and stubborn engineers getting moved aside so newer more willing guys will sign off on the plan's. The problem with the Big Dig is that people who don't know a thing about structural engineering are dictating design, budget, and deadline's. And when their certified engineers run up Red Flags, they bring in the younger guys to solve the problem. And as others have stated, if the deadline isn't meet by the engineers, managment steps in and BS's it's way through the plan "shotguning" blank values to fill them. The only difference in the Big Dig and Hyatt failures is that they got caught because the structure failed and people were killed. And you know who gets blamed and takes the fallout for this kind of thing, engineers and public safety. In the Hyatt disaster, the cheif architect lost his liscense and job because his signature wasn't on the revisions that an ASSISTANT PROJECT MANAGER a.k.a. UNLISCENSED PROFESSIONAL, made to his design and he paid $12 million in fines because of it while the project managers were allowed a new contract to clean up the mess and rebuild a new skywalk. So the problem with big projects like the Big Dig and the Hyatt Regency Hotel isn't a lack of trained and certified engineers and architects, its a lack of control on the managements part to stay out of the engineers hair and leave them be so they can design a safe structure.
    • First I'm fairly familiar with the skywalk failure as I was studying engineering at Mizzou at the time and my father was good friends and co-faculty at UMKC with the lead PE investigating the failure.

      It was a series of engineering mistakes (which were affected by larger business concerns but remain engineering mistakes).

      The initial design was structurally sound but unbuildable (it called for single steel rods supporting both walkways with a nut threaded 10meters or so onto the rod to support the upper w

  • As Yoda might have said, "Break me a fscking give!" --

    The big dig constitutes several of the most ambitious and complex infrastructure projects imaginable. They had to freeze the ground in the back bay by piping supercooled fluid through it while digging in that part. They have completely re-routed one of the largest transportation networks in the world without closing the old one (other than a few hours at a time at night or weekends). As the last phases are completed -- the cleanup of the old site -- Boston becomes one of the most beautiful cities in the world. What used to be a hideous elevated six lane highway becomes a walking park with small shops, museums, and playgrounds that connects the entire downtown area from Haymarket and Fanuel Hall past the New England Aquarium, all the way to South Station.

    It was typically corrupt on a scale only an eastern (or European) city could manage, it was over budget and time on an epic scale -- but did anyone really expect otherwise? Someone really screwed up on these bolts. They'll get fixed, the lawsuits will settle, and in the meant time this project will be the pride of Boston for many years to come.
  • by NoseSocks ( 662467 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @07:05AM (#15810414)
    I sat down with a group of engineers living in the Boston area (Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, etc), and we discussed the Big Dig tragedy. The civl engineer insisted that the design itself would work, but it would require the the drilling be done properly, all holes then cleaned correctly, and then the epoxy set set correctly. He then went on to say that this apparently did not happen.

    What was more interesting was the ensuing conversation. What was brought up was that if everyone knew that this project was going to be given to contractors who were likely to cut corners, would this have been the best design? Judging from the results of cut corners (the local boston news has been covering that some holes have no epoxy in them and other blatant implementation failures), this design was not "fool-proof" enough given who was implementing the project.

    We then brought up our own personal experiences in our respective fields where the best design was not the cleanest design, but the design in which if some one implemented it wrong, there'd be no unforseen consequences (such as making a routing change in one branch office, only to black hole traffic destined for another office). I wonder how many people here have been faced with projects where one of the bigger criteria was to make the implementation "fool-proof".
  • by cardpuncher ( 713057 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @07:24AM (#15810450)
    My father was an architect for many years and he has many examples of going to inspect sites and finding that the construction crew had misunderstood or wilfully ignored the specifications for critical structural components: columns incorrectly constructed for the projected load, or a pile of roof components rusting in a corner of the site and clearly not installed in the almost-completed roof. Building workers are fairly hazy on the niceties of engineering and are on the kind of contracts that make it attractive to get as much money for doing as little work as possible; they do, generally, though, have a "comfort zone" of familiarity with traditional construction techniques which is why most regular construction projects don't fall down.

    Anyone specifying a new or unusual process has to be aware of the fact that the typical construction worker won't believe it's important to follow the rules exactly, won't understand which parts of the process are most vital and won't be around at the end of the project to take any responsbility. If you have a design that depends on technology unfamiliar to the people who're responsible for implementing it, then you need tight supervision during the build and tight inspection afterwards. You often don't get either - the foremen are on bonuses to accelerate the construction phase and the people most qualified to inspect afterwards are the people who designed the structure in the first place.

    Of course there are many projects which are simply not feasible using traditional construction, but for those that are, any apparent savings from using new technology can be negated by the costs of ensuring it's correctly applied.
  • Risks (Score:3, Informative)

    by ColaMan ( 37550 ) on Sunday July 30, 2006 @07:52AM (#15810513) Journal
    Anyone who has to build something that will be used by someone else should be subscribed to the Risks-Forum digest [].

    It's titled, "Forum On Risks To The Public In Computers And Related Systems", and relates a lot of computer and general engineering related risks. Risks that either wind up killing or seriously injuring people. It's been going since 1985, and is a good read just to open your mind to what might happen.

    As so many headlines on Fark read, "What could possibly go wrong?". This should always be the first thought for any engineer when they are tasked to do something.

Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later. -- F. Brooks, "The Mythical Man-Month"