Professionalism/William LeMessurier and the CitiCorp Building
William LeMessurier (pronounced Luh-MEASURE) was a structural consultant for the architect Hugh Stubbins, Jr. In the 1970s, LeMessurier served as the structural engineer for Stubbin’s Citicorp Center in New York City. At the time of its construction, the Citicorp building was the seventh-largest building in the world. It was also the first building of its size to contain a tuned mass damper, a device that resists building sway due to wind.
William LeMessurier and the CitiCorp Building
In June 1978, LeMessurier received a phone call from an engineering student writing a paper on the Citicorp building. The student’s professor said that the building’s columns were misplaced. LeMessurier explained that there was a church on the northwest corner of the site that they had to build around. Thus, the Citicorp’s building had columns in the center of its sides instead of the corner so the corners cantilevered over the church. LeMessurier also explained that the columns were in the best location to resist quarterly loads, which he still failed to take into consideration at the beginning of the project , making the building vulnerable to catastrophic failure if winds of a significant force were to ever hit the building. 45 degree wind or winds coming from the diagonal.
The phone call prompted LeMessurier, who also taught a structural engineering class at Harvard, to teach his students about wind loads. While the New York Building Code requires designs only account for perpendicular winds, LeMessurier, out of his own curiosity, decided to calculate the forty-five degree wind load on his building. He was surprised to discover that this wind increased the strain in some areas by 40%. This worried LeMessurier because several weeks prior, he found out that the construction company used bolts instead of welded joints. Bolts are cheaper but they are not as strong as welds. To make matters worse, when deciding on the bolts’ spacing, only perpendicular winds were taken into account, not the stronger quarterly wind loads.
Concerned, LeMessurier flew to Ontario to test his predictions in a wind tunnel. He discovered not only that his theoretical prediction was correct, but that actual wind loads could be much stronger. The building would collapse in a 16 year storm. That means the building had a one in sixteen chance of collapsing within a year. The damper would decrease the chance to one in fifty five, but it runs on electricity that could easily go out in a big storm. LeMessurier decided, along with Stubbins, to go to New York and explain the problem to Citicorp’s executives. Within hours, Citicorp acquired generators and full-time tech support for the mass damper. Two independent weather forecasters provided wind predictions and the American Red Cross began to formulate an emergency evacuation plan.
Citicorp issued a press release stating that engineers assured them there was no danger, but the engineers recommended that certain connections in the system be strengthened through additional welding. Citicorp was following their recommendations saying, “We wear both belts and suspenders here. That day, the New York Times left a message with LeMessurier. He decided to return the call but the Times and other major papers in the area had gone on strike leaving the public unaware of the building’s structural instabilities.
Welders began work in August to reinforce the joints. They worked at night in order to protect the building’s occupants from acrid smoke. The welders were not finished early morning on Sept 1, when Hurricane Ella was sighted off Cape Hatteras and heading towards New York City. Fortunately, Citicorp did not have to initiate its evacuation plan because the Hurricane took a turn away from the city. All of the joints were reinforced by October, several weeks before the city’s newspapers resumed publication. Even without the damper, the building was now able to withstand winds from up to a 700 year storm.
LeMessurier's Views of Engineering Ethics
William LeMessurier passed away in 2007. From the time of the CitiCorp building retrofit in 1978 to his death, LeMessurier used his experience with the CitiCorp building to educate others on engineering ethics. LeMessurier told his story in his building engineering courses at Harvard University as an example of the benefits of blowing the whistle on oneself. He stresses the importance of admitting mistakes and correcting them.
You have a social obligation. In return for getting a license and being regarded with respect, you’re supposed to be self-sacrificing and look beyond the interests of yourself and your client to society as a whole. And the most wonderful part of my story is that when I did it, nothing bad happened.
LeMessurier also emphasizes the respect and responsibility that comes with obtaining a professional engineering license in a lecture at Harvard. Because a professional engineer is respected by society, society deserves the engineer’s respect as well. LeMessurier says this should drive all ethical decisions by an engineer. Engineers must be willing to look beyond themselves and strive to achieve the best situation not just for clients, but for society as a whole.
I had information that nobody else in the world had. I had power in my hands to effect extraordinary events that only I could initiate. I mean, sixteen years to failure--that was very simple, very clear-cut. I almost said, thank you, dear Lord, for making this problem so sharply defined that there's no choice to make.
While LeMessurier recognizes that whistle blowing was important in this case, he notes that he still struggled to make the decision. He felt that he had three options to choose from: silence, suicide, or fixing the problem. LeMessurier felt that keeping silent was too risky, and he wasn’t willing to take the chance of losing lives. Suicide was a cowardly move, and so he felt that the choice was made for him. He must do the right thing and correct his mistake.
It wasn't a case of 'We caught you, you skunk.' It started with a guy who stood up and said, 'I got a problem, I made the problem, let's fix the problem.' If you're gonna kill a guy like LeMessurier, why should anybody ever talk?
LeMessurier also benefitted from the support of company officials. Rather than being immediately blamed for the building’s problems, they respected his courage. Instead of faulting him, they worked with him to fix the problem.
LeMessurier feared that because of this case, his reputation would be marred. He thought he would be perceived as an engineer who messed up a job and would no longer be trusted. He also worried about the future of his business, LeMessurier Consultants, and the high cost of a settlement. Quite the opposite actually occurred. The settlement, totaling over $4 million, was paid by the CitiCorp company and LeMessurier’s insurance company. As a result of the situation, his insurance premium was lowered. In general, LeMessurier was regarded as being more trustworthy. He gained respect from clients and other engineers for his actions, and he was seen as a forthright and competent engineer. LeMessurier Consultants' business was not affected by LeMessurier’s involvement with the CitiCorp building retrofit, as it is still excelling today. The company’s website boasts long lists of clients and awards.
The Right to Information
As previously mentioned, there was a press conference regarding the repairs to the Citicorp Building. The statement that was issued assured the public that there was no danger. However, considering the high probability that the building would collapse, it would seem that the press release understated the severity of the problem. The full details of the building’s instability were not released to the public until an article in the New Yorker in 1995 (over 15 years after the repairs were completed).
We had to cook up a line of bull, I’ll tell you. And white lies at this point are entirely moral. You don’t want to spread terror in the community to people who don’t need to be terrorized. We were terrorized, no question about that.
According to LeMessurier, white lies were completely necessary. He argued that if the public found out about the problems with the building, terror would arise. LeMessurier believed that the building was safe for occupancy in all but the most severe weather conditions. He thought that as long as strict safety measures and evacuation plans were implemented there was no reason to raise an alarm.
It could be argued that in this particular case, deceiving the public worked well. If panic had arisen as LeMessurier predicted, it is likely that the Citicorp building would need to be closed until the repairs were completed. Keeping the building open meant that Citicorp’s employees could continue working and helped the company avoid losing money from lost productivity.
The success LeMessurier’s public deceit strategy can be attributed to the fact that everything went according to plans. The hurricane never came, evacuation plans did not need to be implemented, and the building did not collapse. If luck had not been on LeMessurier’s side, it is possible that this case would be viewed very differently.
The Code of Ethics for Engineers
The Code of Ethics for Engineers is a document produced by the National Society of Professional Engineers that sets standards of conduct for practicing engineers. Regarding the disclosure of information to the public, the code states, “engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner” and instructs engineers to “avoid all conduct or practice that deceives the public.”  This is a direct disagreement with LeMessurier’s actions involving the Citicorp building. If this doctrine is to be taken as the absolute authority on engineering ethics, should LeMessurier’s actions have been condemned? Or was public deceit acceptable considering the safety measures that were put in place?
Our story began when a student called LeMessurier to question the placement of the columns under the Citicorp building. This took courage considering LeMessurier was far more experienced than the student. Although the column placement was adequate, if the student had not questioned LeMessurier, it is possible that LeMessurier would not have discovered the problems with the bracing system in time to avoid disaster.
Once the problem became apparent, LeMessurier was faced with a difficult decision. Should he blow the whistle on himself? He knew that drawing attention to the issue could be disastrous to his career and reputation. He also knew that avoiding the problem would put numerous innocent lives at stake. It is estimated that 200,000 people could have died if the structure collapsed.
Finally, attention should be brought to the individuals and groups who worked with LeMessurier to ensure the swift repair of the building. When LeMessurier informed the Citicorp executives of the building’s instability, they reacted positively. They did not fault LeMessurier or criticize him for making a mistake. Instead, they offered their support in fixing the problem. Without this cooperation, LeMessurier would have had a very difficult time implementing the necessary repairs to the Citicorp building.
- Ramirez, A. (2007) William LeMessurier, 81, Structural Engineer, Dies. New York Times.
- Morgenstern, Joseph. City Perils, “THE FIFTY-NINE-STORY CRISIS,” The New Yorker, May 29, 1995, p. 45.
- PBS. (2000). Citicorp Center. Retrieved 5/25, 2011, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/buildingbig/wonder/structure/citicorp.html
- National Academy of Engineering(2006) William LeMessurier-The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis: A Lesson in Professional Behavior. Online Ethics Center for Engineering.
- Kremer, Eugene. “(RE)EXAMINING THE CITICORP CASE: Ethical Paragon or Chimera” Cross Currents, 2002, Vol. 52, No. 3.
- National Society of Professional Engineers (2011). NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers, http://www.nspe.org/Ethics/CodeofEthics/index.html