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Re: structures & ethics

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Can we, ethically, leave it at that?

That is a good question.  In the case where a structure is not in danger of immanent collapse (hashed out in a thread from a couple of months ago), my answer is yes.  I have been hired to render professional services for a client, and the client generally sets the scope of work. My recommendation that the overall structure be checked, and/or particular issues be investigated fulfills my responsibility as their advisor.

Should I report a deficiency to the building official?  Most of the time, my personal answer is no. First, policing and enforcement of the building code, which, by the way, does not apply to existing structures, is not my responsibility.  Second, though there is no such thing as engineer-client privilege (that I'm aware of, at least), my client has entrusted me to look at a building for a specific purpose. I don't want clients trying to hide things from me, it's counter-productive. They should have the confidence that - unless it's a serious, immediate issue - my recommendations will be made in confidence. Third, I (and most of us on this list) can walk into many buildings, and most residences, and point out inadequacies in the structure.  I suspect we could go back to our offices and analyze those areas and show, on paper, that they would not survive ASCE-7 loads under our normal standards of practice. 

If I were to report these to the building department every time I saw them I would find myself stocking lumber at Home Depot. The building department doesn't want to hear that Mrs. Jones' 100 year old home has to have a new basement because her 8' walls are two wythes of unreinforced 4" clay masonry holding back 7 feet of silty clay backfill with no foundation drainage. Mrs. Jones doesn't want her house condemned for a condition which has been in existence since it was built and will cost more than the value of her home to replace.  And I'm not going to tell Mrs. Jones that the family house she's lived in for 60 years has to be torn down because she called me over to look at where her grandson accidentally ran into the corner of the kitchen with his new truck.  (This an amalgam of two actual sites I worked in the last year).   The basement was clearly inadequate by the numbers, and would be illegal(=unsafe) by just about every modern code, but the minor cracking was well within normal for a basement of this type/age, and there were no apparent stability issues.

Now, as a citizen with knowledge of building structures exceeding that of the average Joe, I would report the dangers of an immanent collapse.  This is a fine line, however.  I am, of course, not a lawyer, but I would expect to have to defend myself in a lawsuit if I were to make a recommendation that a building was "not safe", and was closed by the town official, only to be re-opened if said official (or another) were to later declare the building "safe." I would have, through my action, cost whomever occupied that building a great deal of money (actual or opportunity) for the loss of the facility. The knife of responsibility cuts both ways.


At 10:38 AM 11/22/2004 -0800, you wrote:
The question is - can we ethically leave it at that?
----- Original Message -----
From: Jordan Truesdell, PE
To: seaint(--nospam--at)
Sent: Monday, November 22, 2004 10:22 AM
Subject: Re: structures & ethics

<...> After laying everything out, I offer to either recheck the original design and incorporate the repair into the overall package, or "return the damaged member to their pre-damaged structural condition."  9 out of 10 times the request is for the latter. <...>

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