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RE: Residential Design Discussions

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You're one of the reasons I've returned to the list - I've missed some
of the best discussions, those that I've had with you. 
If we were all resonable people and without imperfections, I would agree
with your last comments I copied below. I had a discussion with Arnold
Bookbinder, SE who many of you know as an expert witness and who many
don't know was a very vocal advocate against the complexity and cost of
compliance to wood structures that has been embedded in the code.
Although Arnold is attempting to slowly retire, he is still active and
has always been an excellent source for me when it comes to issues
related to interpretation of the legality of the code and the ethics of
the engineering community (he authored the first document that became
the Professional Ethics manual for SEAOC) - the name of the document
escapes me for the moment.
As Arnold explains, the code is the law. If it is a bad law, they the
professional community has to work to change the law. Until that time,
we are bound by the wording and the intent of the law (code) and can not
design contrary to the minimum guidelines of the code methodology. Even
if every engineer "ignored" the law and argued vehemently that the law
was wrong, they would be held liable if the opposing side had just one
expert witness who simply explained what was written in the code that
the engineer failed to comply with. 
I argued the point with Arnold indicating that the SEAOC Seismology
Committee is not responding to the professional community nor are they
willing to devote time and energy to changing the code. The excuse is
that there is no longer an ICBO cycle for revisions or changes to the
UBC and that all energy is focused on the IBC issues.

I was at the same seminar that you attended in Commerce (I think that
was the one where I was demonstrating the power of spreadsheets to solve
some of the design problems and found out that most of what I had to
tell was much more than the majority of the audience understood). I
thought I remembered that the engineer who made claim to the 10/Lw was
either Norm Epstein but I did not recall the name you mentioned. Still,
I was there and the engineer who did lay claim to the arbitrary number
spoke up for all to hear including John Shipp who was standing at the
back of the room. John was the current president of SEAOC at the time
and shortly after (at the 1999 Convention in Santa Barbara) passed the
torch to Ron Hamburger who also promised to change or simplify the code
provisions and to straighten out the issues related to 10/Lw. 

Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, opinions stated by the community
may help to sway a jury, but in the letter of the code is not followed,
it is more likely that the other side will present it to the jury that
the engineer simply did not follow what was written and assuming there
was damage, point the blame on the design engineer rather than any truer
flaw that may have been at fault.

I've done a few expert witness jobs. Most of them include engineers who
are reasonable as you explained. However, one was unreasonable - and he
was the one engineer who influenced my career from the first time I
heard him speaking publically in 1982. When I read his deposition, I
found that he "spun" his testimony to support the side who paid him, but
his facts were not known or used by the community for at least three
years after the incident occurred. This was very unnerving as a good
engineer would be able to argue this point, but an average engineer
without specific in-depth knowledge of seismic retrofit of URM buildings
back in the mid-1980's might not know. This was unethical in my eyes.

My point (long as it may be) is that you can still find a professional
who is hungry or willing to twist factual information to influence the
side that pays them. Not one of us is free from litigation and the
problem is that if there is liability insurance (E&O policy) carried by
either side, the truth will not appear in front of a jury as it will not
be financially reasonable to litigate a case that can be less costly to
settle out of court.

Jerry and I are of equal mind and I think you are as well - for a
change, you seem to be more optimistic that I am and I am very
pessimistic about the lack of support SEAOC has provided that large
percentage of paid members who make their living designing low-rise wood
framed structures that face strict competition from the prescriptive
Conventional Construction section of the code. When over 95% of all
structures built are for residential housing, and the greatest cost to
owners and insurance industry has been from quality or performance
defects using prescriptive codes, SEAOC would spend more of its time
attempting to change the residential codes by bridging the gap rather
than making it wider.

One final point. Gary Searer,SE more than adequatly put the Rho issue on
the table as being inadequate for most geometrical shapes of buildings.
Any engineer who worked in URM retrofit and read the ABK Methodology
published in the early 80's will grant the use of interior partitions
even lightly connected to the roof diaphragm by the nature of the
ceiling gypsum to the vertical wall gysum as acting as a damper to
absorb energy. Even if you assume the older 3.5:1 aspect ratio as an
allowable ratio for gypsum walls acting not as shearwalls, but as "shock
absorbers" or "dampers", you would have to admit that there is sufficent
redundancy in the majority of residential structures to eliminate the
need to calculate Rho as anything other than 1.0. 

The deciding point by SEAOC not to change the code came from a comment
by S. K. Ghosh, SE in Northbrook Illinois, who indicated that by keeping
Rho, the engineering community would be forcing engineers who might
design on the light side to be more conservative. The SEAOC Seismology
Committees response to Gary was that they had no intentions of change or
working to change the code by eliminating 10/Lw or Rho from the design
of wood structures BECAUSE the values were conservative and therefore
not a threat to the safety of those occupying the structures. 

This is a horrible excuse to admit since someone always pays the price.
In my community, the builders of single family homes that are not
located in a tract development (which requires an engineer to design)
have chosen to eliminate any major irregularity from the design so that
they can be compliant with the prescriptive methods and therefore be
within the guidelines of the code and allow them to be much more

Remember the trick of real-estate. The money is in the dirt, not the
structures. If you build a starter home using prescriptive construction,
it will ultimately end up in an upper middle-class community where the
property values have escallated and the cost of replacement or repair at
15% of the owners out-of-pocket expense grows dramatically. Those who
remain in the community in the lower-middle income are still making
payments when an earthquake hits and suddenly they are responsible for
$40,000.00 plus to repair a home that could have performed better had
the Seismology Committee realized that they were hurting the intent of
the code by creating incentives to design and build poorer performing
homes. Long winded, but I hope you get the point.

What can we do to change this????


-----Original Message-----
From: Bill Allen, S.E. [mailto:Bill(--nospam--at)] 
Sent: Wednesday, September 25, 2002 9:21 AM
To: seaint(--nospam--at)
Subject: RE: Residential Design Discussions

In my (sometimes not so humble) opinion, when SEAOC does not respond to
such issues, absent the presence of new codes or off year Code
amendments, it not only misses a wonderful opportunity to serve the
design community for which it purports to represent but also provides
fodder for (expletive deleted) attorneys.

We designers should be able to have at our disposal proper ammunition to
present a defensible position, backed by a recognized authority on
seismic design (who better than SEAoC?) in a court of law or any other
venue issues that the 1997 UBC Code left vague and ambiguous. I am
certain even the authors of the particular code sections would agree.

Remarkably, I can't believe (well, I guess I can) believe these issues
are STILL alive after all these years.


Bill Allen, S.E. (CA #2607)

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