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RE: Plan Check from a plan reviewer

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This is to add to Martin?s e-mail:

I have worked in private engineering firms and now work for a municipality. While at the private engineering firms, the general tendency was the city/county engineers did not know much and could not be counted to do a good job reviewing our work. Now that I am on the other side of the fence, I must say I am aghast at the quality of engineering that comes my way ? both commercial and residential (but more so residential). The size of firm is not always a good indicator for the quality of work. This is not to say there are no quality engineering that comes my way.

In my years with the government agency, I noticed that quite a few engineers ? licensed engineers ? (do not even talk about the designers) have a very poor understanding of seismic analysis and the lateral load transfer mechanism. The quality of the drawings ? especially in the residential project ? are poor in that the details provided are minimal and many times consists of details pulled from other projects and may not have any bearing with the project at hand. Load paths are not thought through ? both gravity and lateral. The usual defense is ?I have always done it that way and nobody has questioned it?. Compounding this is the fact that the poor home owner does not understand how a licensed engineer can screw up so much and then blame the building department for holding up the project. I had one project in which I had to sit with the homeowner and review the calculations with him and show calculations such as ? Demand 6000 lbs, Capacity 4000 Lbs, OK?. One engineer actually asked me to go easy on him because he did not have adequate experience in the design he was submitting.

Here are some of ideas to chew on:
1. Building officials should be a licensed engineer. Many cities have inspectors as building inspectors. I am not decreasing the values of the expertise of the inspectors; however, an engineer can quickly learn the requirements of egress, ADA, fire, etc requirements while an inspector/architect/planner will have a difficult time learning the engineering issues. 2. The plan checker should at least as qualified as the person doing the design. I have noticed some to the larger California cities are recruiting SE as plan checker ? I think this is a step in the right direction. 3. The engineering association should advertise what an engineer can provide ? something in the line of AIA. 4. I do not want to suggest that the PE license should be tougher to get ? however, with the quality of work I see that are produced by PE, I wonder how good it is.

Gautam, SE

From: "Gerard Madden, SE" <gmadden(--nospam--at)>
Reply-To: <seaint(--nospam--at)>
To: <seaint(--nospam--at)>
Subject: RE: Plan Check from a plan reviewer
Date: Thu, 16 Oct 2003 10:47:56 -0700


Thanks for your comments. I completely understand the situation you and
other plan checkers are placed in. I have probably seen 1/100th the
amount of garbage designs as you have. Thankfully, designers are being
phased out slowly in California for structural. I have been asked
several times by designers and architects to do calcs only on
residential projects. The only projects I do that on are exterior stair
improvements to hotels for ADA upgrade and my client gives me complete
control of the structural plans and details for those.

I refuse red-line jobs due to liability. It can make it tough when I
have to compete with a guy charging less than the guy doing the title 24
energy calcs for structural.

I have done work with designers (aka Drafters) on residential projects,
but I have done the structural drawings on those projects.

I also do not advocate M.S. and PHD's for plan checkers. PE license is
great, but that is no guarantee. As Paul stated, it is PE's & SE's that
generate these non-compliant designs to begin with, so having a license
is no assurance that a checker would notice a mistake.

I believe plan checkers go to seminars. Then you start seeing the same
comments from many jurisdictions. One example was the definition of a
"diaphragm boundary" a few years back. Plan checkers began to
incorrectly consider a reduction of the nailing requirements in tilt-up
buildings due to lower shear as a diaphragm boundary, even though there
was no collector or shearwall at this transition point. Another one
recently is the use of a Hardy Frame or Panel requires the entire
structure be designed for an R=4.4 instead of 5.5. Fortunately, the new
ICBO from Hardy defeats that argument.

One of the grossest displays of plan checking abuse happened about 6
years ago from a 3rd party plan checker. The company I worked for at the
time designed 7 buildings on a campus built in two phases. Phase I was
for 5 buildings. I worked on phase 2 for the last 2 buildings. I got the
plan check letter with about 18 comments. Went to my boss, he said "Let
me see the letter". He grabbed his file from phase I, compared the
comment (from the same 3rd party firm) and said, "tell me what you
think". I look at both letters. They were indentical. Same number of
comments, same exact comments, the only thing different was the order of
the item numbers. I said "What Bullshit". He concurred.

How do we fix it? I don't know. I feel the process has become
adversarial rather than people working together to get a good design. I
do not attribute it to plan checkers not having enough time to check
jobs. I attribute it to a lack of competency from both plan checker and
design engineers. Do plan checking agency's have internal documents that
train the staff? I know there was a checklist published a few years ago
of things to check on a project, but if I remember correctly, it was
just a bulleted list. Didn't really see any instruction on how to
accomplish these tasks.

Ultimately, those who want to follow the code and provide quality
designs are not competing on a level field based on the jurisdiction of
the project. I am working on a project now which is being changed from
wood framed to concrete. The original engineer hand drew the plans and
then appears to have stolen (borrowed without asking) the details from
other engineers. They are sticky backed to the plans with completely
different fonts and drafting style from detail to detail. It's a mess
out there.

Lodi, CA

-----Original Message-----
From: Schwan, Martin K. [mailto:SchwanMK(--nospam--at)]
Sent: Thursday, October 16, 2003 10:12 AM
To: seaint(--nospam--at)
Subject: Plan Check from a plan reviewer

I would like to add my 2 cents.
I work for a municipality and review residential and small commercial
projects.  (I am not an engineer)  Engineers are not required to do
residential design in our jurisdiction unless it is 3 stories or more or
maybe because of a plot note.  Consequently, designers have the majority
of the residential market because they will cost less then an engineer.
Basically I have two problems: 1) there is no certification requirement
for designers and just because you go out and buy a design program
doesn't mean you are qualified to perform calculations. 2) engineers who
do residential are getting paid like a designer and are less responsive
to review comments because they do not want to spend any more time on
it.  (Gerard, I would never ask for new calcs because the length of the
shear wall was different unless the nailing had to be revised)
  Please note details are not just for review but also for the builder
and the inspector.  90% of our problems occur in the field.  We do not
ask inspectors to do plan check but they should be able to verify load
path details for example and if it's not on the drawings, how do you
expect the builder to build it the way it was designed.
  Additionally, the plan review is not just a structural calculation
check.  There are many occasions where architectural requirements are
incorrect or are missing.  These include things we assume are
standard.stair rise and run, guard heights, egress windows, elevation of
appliances in the garage, tempered glazing, ventilation and so on.

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