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RE: Plan Check (was Re: Rigid Wood Diaphragm?)

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Ben, Paul and all others:
I think that Paul is right on in his thinking but lets not throw caution
to the wind. When I first moved to Los Angeles (I now live in a small
community of 28,000 140 miles East of Los Angeles in La Quinta
California) I lived with my cousin who was a very good Architect, but a
terrible businessman. He now owns the Horse and Cart restaurant in
Charleston South Carolina for those of you in the area. In 1978 he was a
guest on one of the radio talk shows (KABC in Los Angeles with Michael
Jackson). He represented the AIA opinion that Plan Check should be
abolished as it was ultimately the Architects responsibility to comply
with the code and if he was in error then it was his responsibility to
repair or pay the price should he be found liable. 
A few years later (8 years to be exact, I was a licensed Civil Engineer
- I prefer Professional Engineer) and my specialty was Structural
Engineering. For many reasons, I went immediately into private practice
as I was over 30 when I returned to school and completed my engineering
curriculum while working full time and had taken my EIT four years
before. I was especially enthusiastic about wood construction and
seismic design. 
I took a couple of jobs that were multi-story residential projects and
had little or no trouble getting through plan check - that is until I
submitted to Culver City. They were known to be tough and when the plan
check corrections came through and the extent of my mistakes hit me, my
stomach did a flip and I thought about the other projects I completed
that had the same errors. In short, I did not cumulate my shears from
roof down to first floor making the homes weak on the first level. 
I immediately went to my text book and the code and found out that I
misinterpreted the intent of the code - designing the shearwalls at each
level for the diaphragm shear at that level only. It made sense to me
that the plan checker was correct and scared the hell out of me that I
was wrong. 
I contacted my past clients and questioned them about their methods of
construction and found to my relief that they over-compensated by
entirely sheathing the home and adding shearwalls at each level
I next made the corrections to the errors I made and personally
delivered them to Culver City where I humbly and with great
embarrassment, thanked the plan checker for catching this mistake in my
interpretation of the code - he literally saved my butt. 
Without this plan check process, I may have been responsible for the
loss of life if one of those homes failed during Northridge. This plan
checker identified the flaw that got past my education (my
interpretation of the book which I was tested on) and my employer who
was responsible for my apprenticeship.

The point is that while I was responsible, this is a business that
relies upon interpretation on the wording of code sections if the intent
of that section is not clearly stated. One quick example was the City of
Los Angeles RGA 1-91 which was a retrofit ordinance for unreinforced
masonry buildings. Engineers were using this code while both the
engineering community and the building plan checkers and inspectors were
interpreting what the then Hazardous Building Committee intended in the
rhetoric. Rhetoric alone can confuse an engineers understanding of what
the code write intended to accomplish and this is where plan check
engineers or private plan check agencies help accomplish. Sometimes we
teach the plan checker a thing or two but in the process we cement our
understanding of the code.

Outside of writing computer software (the ultimate in an engineers
evolution to understanding fully what the code writer intended and to
find mistakes in the logic of the intention at the same time) the plan
checker offers the great majority of us who are in SOHO or small offices
that don't have the time or the employees to provide peer review an
opportunity to find even one mistake or misinterpretation of the code
that we might have that can save a life. 

One more comment before I end this diatribe - field inspection or
observation (that may have prevented the Hyatt tragedy). 

I have been warned a number of times by engineers who devote most of
their time in expert witness work that we should never consider this a
business with a practical side that counts our profitability on the work
that we do. In this case I will throw caution to the wind and say that
this is most definitely a business or we would not be working in this
field. When we consider that the engineer for the Hyatt may not have
been paid to perform field observations, the courts held him (them)
liable for the failure because they were the engineers in responsible

Those of us in an independent practice or very small office that can not
compete with public works type projects are happy to work in residential
and light-framing commercial / industrial work. However, we are finding
that the competition normally forces the price down and SEA and other
organizations are not helping educate the public on the issues of "you
get what you pay for". Clients on our level are mostly price shoppers
who see engineers as complicating the field that is undoubtedly
controlled by that portion of the industry who deals directly with the
building owner - the contractor, developer, designer or architect. When
codes are made complicated and simplified methods are not provided to
help, then there will always be those who seek alternatives that become
overly conservative but easier to comply with. For example, I do
contract plan review on the side. I've yet to see a residential project
(single or two family units) submitted with a rigid diaphragm. I've
turned down a Marriott hotel that was designed by a local architect and
his engineer refused to design it to full compliance rigid diaphragm
design despite the fact that there were a number of irregularities.
While I rejected the project that ultimately died, I felt sorry because
I don't believe in my professional intuition that the code is right  - I
believe that it excessively over designs and that there are no
comparative standards to show that the design of the past, if
constructed with more field observation, would not have performed

In most cases, I design to high base shears or larger wind loads to
avoid the additional time spent "tweaking" flexible and rigid designs.
The finished product is, in my opinion, overly conservative and this
works against us when clients judge us based on what we can save them in
construction costs. They are not interested in performance as they sell
the home and leave the added cost of repair in the insurance deductible
to the future homeowner. They simply want to put as little materials
into the home as they can regardless of their profit margins. It's the
nature of the beast and we are driving ourselves out of business unless
the profession takes a more aggressive approach on educating the public
as to where the savings from our work really come into play. 

Sorry to be so lengthy, but I never learned to speak in lesser tongues.

Dennis S. Wish, PE


I should clarify some of my comments to be sure the tone was not

I agree with you.  I don't have a problem with plan check or peer review
as many sets of competent eyes as wish to review the work.  We are all
human.  But competent eyes is the key expression.

I consider plan check a formality because I don't intend for plan check
catch my mistakes, there are not supposed to be any :-).
One of the key thrusts of my earlier posting was the fact that , apart
the usual complaining about the ridiculous, it is NOT necessarily the
check process that is broken.  I do see plan check as a vital part of
protecting our community, which is why I am upset that something clearly
deficient with multiple discrepancies and contradictions was approved
without comment.

I pray that if there was some blatant error on my project someone would
it and comment.  I believe that with Le Messurier a graduate student
the mistake long after the project was completed and approved.  The
disaster was attributable to a change on the shop drawings, not the
drawings.  Plan Check did not catch either one of these mistakes, and I
not saying it should have.

As I stated before, is it the plan review process where we need to
our energy to try and
improve the system, or the requirements (and enforcement) to be
qualified as
a PE?

Is it realistic to expect a plan reviewer to catch anything but the most
obvious of mistakes?  I do not think so.  Other than the larger
jurisdictions with the capital to employ competent engineering staff, I
think the plan review process falls short of the goal.   Unfortunately,
does much of the engineering they are responsible to review. How can
be expected to competently review a complex submittal in the short time
available, especially coming to a project fresh without intimate
The fact is it is the PE and their internal review and control
where errors have the best chance of being caught and corrected.

I am approaching this strictly from the "I have been thinking about it,
there is a problem, let's put our egos aside and have a frank and open
discussion" point of view.

In all seriousness, we get a majority of our new work through contractor
referrals.  When the information that is needed to build the project is
the drawings, correctly, the first time, we have better projects, less
issues and everyone is happy.  Estimates are real, the project finances,
schedule, everything runs smoother. As a professional it is my job to
an active role in the success of the whole project, including
We are not perfect, nobody is; but we try to hold ourselves to a
professional level.  I guess part of my frustration is seeing how widely
that profession level varies in our industry.

I am open to further discussion of where the problems are and how we can
best take steps to correct them.  I would be interested in hearing from
Canadian engineers regarding their approval process.  Don't you have
mandatory peer review in Canada?

Paul Feather PE, SE

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