Designing to Avoid Disaster: the Nature of Fracture-Critical Design

Dean Fisher discussed fracture-critical design at the 2012 TedxUMN conference.

A new book by Dean Thomas Fisher, Designing Tom_Fisher_Book1.jpgto Avoid Disaster, draws a connection between recent catastrophic events like the collapse of the I-35W bridge and the flooding of New Orleans, and fracture-critical designs: structures that are susceptible to complete and sudden collapse should one part not perform as intended.

In New Orleans, the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina illustrate why a system lacking redundancy--a duplication of critical components--turned a minor failure into a major catastrophe:

"While Hurricane Katrina certainly stressed that system with high winds and waves," writes Fisher, "the flooding of the city came after the hurricane had begun to subside. The levees, weakened by the storm, gave way in a few places, but rather than flood a relatively small area near the breaks in the wall, polluted water inundated most of the city...This was no "natural" disaster. It resulted from the same error in thinking that led to the I- 35W Bridge collapse and that has led to the series of failures we have had to deal with in recent years. While no one intentionally designed the New Orleans levee system to cause such catastrophic damage, we did not design it to ensure that it would not happen either."

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The BP oil spill, Port au Prince's destruction by earthquake, Fukushima nuclear plant's devastation by tsunami, the Wall Street investment bank failures, the housing foreclosure epidemic and the collapse of housing prices, all stem from fracture-critical thinking that impacts our economy, political, educational and infrastructure systems, along with the communities, buildings, and products we inhabit and use everyday.

Designing to Avoid Disaster is a call for architects, engineers, planners, and citizens to recognize the error in our thinking and to understand how design thinking provides us with a way to anticipate unintended failures and increase the resiliency of the world in which we live.

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