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Behind the Scenes: A Day in the Life of a Structural Engineer

Upon receiving a call to schedule a site visit for the evaluation of a property that had experienced a fire a few months ago, our task was to assess the reported "limited" damage and offer necessary recommendations. Recognizing the urgency of the client's needs, I swiftly accommodated their request. On the scheduled day, punctuality was maintained as I, alongside the contractor, entered the building to examine the aftermath of the fire.

The impact, as described over the phone, was indeed contained to a small room, affecting approximately 10 joists, with the majority of severe damage concentrated towards the end of these structural elements. While exploring the lower room, situated in the above-grade basement space, I began to observe past structural violations. Previous modifications, including the introduction of a window and the framing of additional openings, had compromised the integrity of the balloon framing structure. The room that had experienced the fire seemed to have a history of similar incidents, evident in joists not resting on the ribband/ledger but instead attached to a floating ledger plate nailed to whatever studs remained.

As my inspection progressed, I noted additional concerns—cracked and failed terracotta foundation walls, jack posts resting on half-block pieces directly bearing on a slab on grade with visible cracks and a cavity below. The entire space appeared to be a culmination of past DIY projects, and it was evident that a thorough structural assessment was imperative before considering any renovations following yet another fire incident.

Despite outlining these structural deficiencies to the contractor, there seemed to be a focus solely on repairing the immediate fire-related issues. In the interest of providing comprehensive guidance, the consultation was offered as a courtesy, and no charges were applied. Regrettably, I declined involvement in the project, emphasizing the importance of addressing the broader structural concerns discussed earlier.

I am aware that some may argue, "Your scope was to evaluate the damage due to the fire, and you could have limited the project to that scope." While I respect their views, it's essential to highlight that some of the deficiencies noted were initially perceived as unrelated to the specified scope. However, these seemingly unrelated issues became apparent during our investigation, prompting us to expand our assessment. As a design professional, documenting such findings is crucial, even if not initially within the specified scope, to ensure a thorough and holistic evaluation where possible as we know that isn't always the case.

I consider myself fortunate that many walls were exposed, providing me the opportunity to witness and address all identified deficiencies. This experience raises questions about the frequency of missed deficiencies in less accessible areas. It also prompts reflection on how we can better educate property owners about the importance of having structural work or modifications performed by qualified and responsible contractors, with subsequent review by qualified engineers.

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