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By Andy Sciarabba, P.E.

Rules, rules, rules! We were told we had to follow them. Some of us rebelled against them. Others just went along with them for fear of getting scolded, or grounded, or worse. We grew up (well…some of us did) and thought we could stop following them. We could finally make up our own. Right? Wrong!

The rules kept on coming. Do this. Don’t do that. Follow this. Abide by that! Blah…blah…blah!

Engineering is no different. We have a ton of rules — 2,000 pounds worth. Sometimes our rules are masked as “Laws” which makes them sound weightier, more important, more final. We have the Laws of Physics (Newton made up five of them; three very famous), Laws of Nature (someone’s mother made up all of these), and Laws of Thermodynamics (Ugh! Who the heck made those up?). Some laws even have rules on top of laws or as subsets of the laws themselves. It’s enough to make your head spin.

The rules civil engineers follow have slightly different names. Some are called codes, some regulations, and some ordinances. They are the laws that govern every aspect of what we do. They very clearly spell out why we need to follow them. Right? They very clearly tell us what we need to do to meet them. Right? They are always black and white. Right? Wrong!

They are mostly grey. And grey is not black and white.

They pretend to be an item-by-item, thorough listing of everything we need to consider. Then they throw in squishy, squirmy, we-can-do-what-we-want language such as “subject to the authority having jurisdiction”, or “as code official deems appropriate,” or — and I love this one — “any activity, regardless of size, that the town engineer determines likely to cause adverse impacts (including, but not limited to, excessive runoff, erosion, loss of property value, gas, bloating, or insomnia), or may violate any personal values, ideas, or biases he or she may hold dear.”

How is one supposed to decipher what is right and what is wrong? After all, your grey is different from my gray. There are 50 shades of grey according to the movie, and hundreds more according to Benjamin Moore. I personally favor a smoke grey (greenish) while you may prefer a pigeon gray (slate gray). The color’s spelling itself is ambiguous. “Grey” or “gray”?

If you find yourself saying things like “bollocks” or “mate,” you probably prefer grey. If you are more apt to spout out a smelly animal-like expletive or call your best friend “dude,” you gravitate toward gray.

But don’t despair, if you are a young engineer, those 1,000 pages of wisdom will tell you what to do. You may even be lucky enough to spend years reviewing, amending, and adding to those fine documents. And as you advance in your career you will be sure to have dealt with every rule, law, code, and ordinance possible. Surely by the time you retire you will have understood and mastered them all. After all, rules don’t change. They are always there, in black and white. Right?

Andy Sciarabba, P.E., is a principal with T.G. Miller, P.C., Engineers and Surveyors in Ithaca, N.Y. T.G. Miller, P.C. ( is a consulting civil engineering and surveying firm that serves municipal, commercial, institutional, and private clients throughout central New York. He would like to know how you like “Diversions;” Please send him a note at