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Irresponsible designers

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Okay, here is a new one that got my goat this morning. I received a call
last Thursday from a party who was constructing a custom home in a small
town near Banning California up around snow level (3,400 feet). The client
met with a contractor who claimed to have built numerous homes in the area
and never required engineering. He hired a designer (in this case, a
draftsperson who must have had less than a month experience) to design this
house and it was submitted to the County of Riverside. The county rejected
the plans giving the owner a short correction list that required engineering
for lateral design of the home.
I was busy when he called and my wife was fielding calls for me. She has
learned over the years what to say when a party calls and says that the city
rejected the plans because they required an engineer to look at the design
and stamp if off. Of course the building department never tells the owner
how much work is involved.
My wife, very politely informed the homeowner that the work was much more
extensive that they realized and gave him a ball-park estimate based on my
A few hours later the owner called back - he had contacted four or five
other engineers only to get the same answer. I called him back expecting the
"Usual Conversation" - a half hour trying to justify my profession and most
often never getting the work. Those of you in a high risk zone will know the
type - if not for the local designer, they would have purchased a set of
plans from a magazine and expected to walk into a building department and be
handed a permit.
Surprisingly, the owner scheduled an appointment later that day and actually
showed up with his wife and his plans. He turned out to be in the trucking
industry - moving earth across Southern California, so he was familiar with
Public Works projects and therefore accepted the truth much more easily than
I had expected. I spent about an hour with both of them and they agreed to
hire me and to pay my fee.

Now this is the part that got me angry.

Since I bid these projects by the square foot as does my local competition,
I ended up spending the afternoon trying to recreate the floor plan from
pages of drawings with conflicting dimensions. I was finally able to work
out the most rational assumption of the designers intentions (he is no
longer in the picture as the builder who hired him is not getting the work)
and discovered that the home is actually 24-inches longer across the width
than the foundation plan indicated. Okay, I would have recreated the
foundation plan, framing plans and details.

What got to me was that the foundation details that the designer included
consisted of some pretty hairy Cantilevered columns and high strength grade
beams with embedded steel - none of which were supported by engineering or
calculations. I've seen prescriptive methods a thousand times, but this was
the first time I saw a prescriptive design that included a major flag-pole
design for lateral resisting elements drawn and expected to be used as a
generic prescriptive detail - complete with erection pad, shear ties,
horizontal steel

If this design had been submitted to another building department that was
not as stringent in their requirements for compliant structures, this home
may have been approved for construction with structural elements that were
deficient and possibly a hazard to the occupants of the home. Because it was
kicked out of the building department, I don't believe that there is any
recourse against the builder or his designer in order to stop them from
using non-prescriptive details.

Maybe I'm being too sensitive to this stuff, but with so many developments
occurring that can not prevent a builder from being sued unless his building
suffered damage or personal injury. I have a very pessimistive opinion as to
where construction quality if headed. This is a blatant abuse and I would
hope there is a way to lodge a complaint against this designer.

Any suggestions?

Dennis S. Wish, PE
The Structuralist Administrator for:
AEC-Residential Listservice
(208) 361-5447 E-Fax