Don’t Say the “S” Word

by Michael Mullaney on November 9, 2010

Despite the collective best wishes of nearly 1 million people who live in the Capital Region here in upstate New York, it snowed yesterday. The first snow of the season. And it wasn’t just a nice little fluffy flurry to introduce us to winter. Rather, it was the heavy, wet, nasty snow that ruins shoes and makes headlines.

It’s a good thing, then, that here at Rensselaer we have the professor who – quite literally – wrote the book on snow. Maybe not the book, but one that is critical for preventing our roofs from caving in under the weight of snow. As someone who’s lived 30+ years in areas with heavy-duty snow (Chicago, Kalamazoo, northern Japan, and upstate New York), I’m a vehement supporter of strong roofs.

Civil Engineering Professor Michael O’Rourke is the author of the recently released Snow Loads, published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The book is an essential tool for any engineer, architect, or construction professional who works on projects in snowy areas.

O’Rourke and the ASCE Press expect to sell between 1000 and 1500 copies of Snow Loads, primarily to practicing structural engineers. So how do these engineers use the book? Well, it presents design examples of the proper application of the code provisions related to snow loading. This means the book has finely-tuned data and guides related to building and repairing houses and other buildings so they are up to building code standards and have roofs that are tough enough to handle a nasty winter. Some of the techniques are costly, and standardized codes help ensure that builders and others don’t seek minimze costs by downplaying or underpreparing for known risks.

Here’s what O’Rourke said about the new book:

The Snow Guide provides examples illustrating the proper application of the ASCE Load Standard provisions for common roof types – residential structures with gable roofs, manufacturing facilities with multilevel roofs, and arenas with arch roofs. However, by its nature, the Load Standard cannot cover everything a structural engineer may want to know about snow loads. In the “frequently asked questions section,” the Snow Guide provides such guidance- for example, ways to reduce drift loads resulting from a new taller building being built adjacent to an existing building.

O’Rourke is a guy who knows snow. He has been chair of the ASCE 7 Snow and Rain Loads Committee since 1997, and a member since 1978. He’s published dozens of papers on the topic. To boot, he was also quoted as a bridge and load expert by the New York Times a few years ago in the wake of the tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse.

This month, O’Rourke is traveling to the Netherlands for a meeting of the International Standards Organization (ISO) snow loads group. The building codes in Europe, the Euro codes, get their load information from ISO. O’Rourke has been working with colleagues at Norway’s University of Life Sciences on proposed changes to the snow drift loads in ISO. Snow drift loads are considered particularly important since, in the United States, they account for approximately 75 percent of all snow-related building collapse.