In 1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes published a famous poem entitled “The Deacon’s Masterpiece or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay.” The distinctive feature of the carriage is that all its structural components degrade in such a way that they last a hundred years to a day, then fail concurrently. Underlying Holmes’s poem is a nontrivial design question that is discussed in this paper. To first order, the question can be formulated as follows: How should a system design lifetime be specified, given its underlying components’ durability? Or, conversely, how should the components in a system be sized given the system’s intended duration of operation? A “translation” is undertaken of Holmes’s work into engineering parlance, both his sound engineering judgment and his misconception about engineering design. Then, beyond the Holmes’ example of durability through structural integrity, this paper makes the case for flexibility as an essential attribute for complex engineering design that can bring about its durability. It is hoped that this paper is read as an invitation to academics in engineering disciplines and practitioners to contribute principles and methodologies for embedding flexibility in the design of complex engineering systems.

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