ReEngineering the Engineer: Not ‘My’ Job? Engineers Don’t Have that Luxury
One of our architectural clients approached us with an interesting renovation of an existing building. It was a relatively older building with an existing tenant in one half of the building and several vacant suites in the other half. The owner had purchased the unoccupied half of the building and wished to turn it into a nightclub. Of course, no existing drawings were available.
It sounds simple enough, until they tell you a true firewall was required to separate the two occupancies. That meant the roof diaphragm had to be cut from front to back creating two C-shaped buildings. If that wasn’t messy enough, the roof framing was the old warehouse style: steel joists running one direction with alternating cantilevered girder/drop-in beam construction in the other direction.
Although the girders closest to the firewall ran from column to column, the ends at the new firewall cantilevered into the existing tenant space. To make matters worse, the existing tenant was uncooperative and wouldn’t allow any construction whatsoever on his side of the firewall. All the work would have to be done blind on the renovation side, including dealing with the cantilevers.
Making It Work, Until It Doesn’t
Nonetheless, we figured out a way to add some shearwalls (one for each half of the building), support the cantilevers from the renovation side, add the firewall and issue drawings. We had a kick-off meeting with the subs to go through the drawings in the field to make sure everyone was on the same page. I thought everyone had a decent handle on the challenges when that meeting was over.
Then I got a call from the steel fabricator, asking some very specific questions about the new masonry shearwall and helical anchor locations. The general contractor (GC) wanted the fabricator to lay out the foundations. What? The GC, as it turns out, was a good buddy of the client and was “helping out” with this project. As time went by, it became obvious the GC wasn’t there supervising; it was more or less the blind leading the blind.
Needless to say, things started going sideways. The foundations for the shearwalls were laid out incorrectly, which of course was discovered much later when the mason came in to lay-up the walls. The fabricator was actually paying attention, but it felt like he was a fish out of water. There was much more explanation required than usual and a lot of field fixes. It felt like we had crossed the line and were part of the construction team.
Finish (Properly) What You Started
As the project finished, our architectural client commented that we were actually dumb enough to think we could pull this project off; I would have to agree. But I also would say we did the right thing in helping get this one over the finish line. It would have been easy to simply put the onus on the general contractor. We did a really good job of working through all the details on our drawings and reacting to field conditions as they came up. We could have simply said “just build it like it’s shown on our drawings,” and I suppose we would have been justified in doing so. Perhaps another engineer would have done just that.
However, our charge as engineers is to protect the safety and well-being of the general public. I don’t think that just includes getting the design right. We need some degree of confidence it actually gets built correctly, too, even if that means overstepping our bounds a little into things that shouldn’t be our scope of work.
If something bad had happened on this project, I think we could have survived the lawsuit, but at what cost? An injury? Or worse: a death? The distraction of dealing with a drawn-out lawsuit when we’re super busy? All just to say we were “right?”
Perhaps we took on more risk by crossing the line. Maybe the better answer was digging in our heels, forcing the GC to get it right on his own and staying out of it. We most likely will never know. However, I sleep better at night knowing we did what we could to ensure the project was built correctly. No amount of “rightness” feels justified if someone ultimately gets hurt.
There are a lot of pluses and minuses in these types of decisions. Maybe this one was easier because it was a small project. Perhaps my answer would’ve been different if this was a much larger project. Maybe it’s different when you work for a larger firm. My hope, however, is when your opportunity comes, you give it some careful thought, and do the right thing.
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.