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Structural Solutions: Engineers Need to Take Responsibility for Public-Safety Designs

Douglas Fitzpatrick on March 24, 2017 - in Articles, Column

My wife and I have been in Charlotte, N.C., for quite some time now. We’ve watched it grow from a rather sleepy city in the early 1980s to a national banking center despite having to weather the recent financial crisis. Of course, growth means jobs, and jobs bring people, and those people have to live somewhere.

Historically, the growth was accommodated by large housing developments, expanding the borders of the downtown area. It was generally single-family homes, but there were the occasional townhomes and some limited low-rise multi-family developments. Sadly, all of that came to a screeching halt in 2008.

A New Wave of Work

As the economy started recovering in 2014, however, the demand for residential housing came back with a vengeance. There were some small cottage-type developments, but the vast majority of the new housing was wood-framed multi-family, multi-story construction. The designs mostly consisted of large below-grade or at-grade parking with a poured-in-place concrete podium slab and several levels of wood framing above.

Our office never did much residential design and construction. We did some single-family homes for our regular clients for various reasons as well as the occasional small multi-family project, but we didn’t actively chase this “new wave” of residential work. However, we got involved in a few of these projects as a “designated engineer” for some of the metals fabricators.

Most of the fabricators for these projects were required to submit calculations with their miscellaneous steel shop drawings; we were approached by a couple of local metals fabricators to provide engineering calculations for their submittals. The architectural drawings usually showed generic handrail elevations with basic member sizes but rarely showed member thicknesses. The same held true for egress stairs: a few typical details with no sizes.

Delegating to Lowest Bidder

What we quickly discovered was this “delegated design” was being passed on to the lowest bidder for the stair and handrail package. Some of these firms had no business doing delegated anything. The conversation usually started with “this is what we bid, can you sign off on this?”

In a few rare cases, they were spot on with their estimates. In some cases, it took a Herculean effort to figure out a way to make some of their designs work. In others, the member sizes had to be increased. There just wasn’t a way to justify what they had bid. To make matters worse, no one provided the slightest hint of how these components were to be attached to the building. You’d be shocked at the ideas that were proposed.

What was troubling to me was this delegated design was passed down to the firm least qualified to perform the design: the lowest bidder. The components were critical pieces of the design—major egress elements for the building as well as balcony handrails. Most of these handrails were several stories in elevation and supposed to protect the residents from falling out.

I’m not suggesting that the lowest bidder isn’t the correct choice for a project. But for the few projects we were involved in, the lowest bidder clearly wasn’t the proper choice. Perhaps it was the type of project. These large residential multi-family, multi-story projects seemed to be particularly sensitive to costs, and it seemed logical or easy for the owner or contractor to get consumed with finding the cheapest everything to get the project on budget. I’m sure you’ve all seen that before.

As an outsider looking in, however, there seemed to be a darker underbelly in these projects—something more than meets the eye. The elements we were asked to review seemed to be critical elements for the life, safety and wellbeing of the occupants. Obviously, the main egress from the building is critical to life safety, but no less important are the handrails protecting the occupants on their balconies. Why were these critical elements not detailed by anyone on the design team?

What was unclear to us was whether this was a simple matter of overlooked details on a large project or a disregard for a complete design of the building. Could it have been grossly underestimated design fees, and the engineer simply did the “big picture” engineering and left the minutia to someone else when they ran out of fee? Could it be the inexperience of a young engineer who perhaps wasn’t aware that these components should be considered part of the engineer’s scope on the project? Or perhaps it was poor oversight by a supervising registered engineer.

Perhaps the engineer was used to designing single-family residences. Some things normally left for the contractor to “figure out” in residential construction don’t translate well when you move into the tens of millions of dollars of construction costs for several hundred units.

Fulfilling the Charge

These all could be “legitimate” excuses. But, at the end of the day, our charge as engineers is to protect the safety, health and welfare of the public. Leaving such critical elements to the design of others doesn’t seem to fulfill that charge.

Yes, the engineer of record (EOR) for the building required a registered engineer to review the subcontractor’s design, but I think it would’ve been better to provide a complete design in the first place. It’s the EOR’s structure anyway; he or she should be concerned about how other components attach to it, particularly ones that involve safety. Rather than pawn these critical designs off to a subcontractor, ask for the right fee in the first place, and provide a complete design for the building.

These particular elements don’t take that long to design. Detailing for the proper attachments during design makes for less rework in the field and ensures that our designs protect the safety of the public

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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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