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Re: Standard of Care: Investigation of Existing Building Structure for Alteration or Addition

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You need to have the understanding of what was conventionally done in construction of that kind of building at the time it was being built.  With that kind of understanding, you have a basis for making assumptions about what you can't see.  You don't want to have to take the entire building apart to find out how it was put together, so you have to make assumptions.
To be confident that your assumptions are realistic, you have to have a basis for your assumptions -- that basis is what the knowledgeable professional has learned to expect by  having seen how similar buildings were put together.  You may find it beneficial to work with an advisor/consultant -- perhaps a local contractor who works regularly on that kind of building.
If you see damage or if you see a condition that you can't account for on the basis of what was conventionally done, you may need to do some destructive investigation. 
Include in your agreement with the owner your intention to make assumptions on the basis of what was conventional in constructing that kind of building.  Tell the owner that without doing this, you would have to cause damage to otherwise serviceable parts of the building.  Tell the owner that if you encounter a condition that you believe requires investigation, you will request his authorization to conduct destructive investigation.  If the requested investigation is not authorized, the condition is the owner's responsibility.
Nels Roselund
Structural Engineer
South San Gabriel, CA