Contractor Vs. Engineer
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Contractors & engineers' work typically complement each others. A work designed by an engineer can't get built without a contractor and often times a work done by a contractor can't be certified without an engineer.
A few weeks ago, someone posted asking for a referral for a structural engineer, while reading through the post’s comments one of the responses caught my attention and it was: “Your best bet is to find a contractor with experience in structures because most structural engineers never touched a tool. They have great knowledge but that has to translate to your contractor. You want to be very careful that you're not overpaying for knowledge that is not going to apply to your situation.”
I’m sure some people have crossed that thought once before and few more still believe this holds to be true.
As an engineer myself, I have to respectfully disagree and here is my take on that:
Some engineers may have never physically built a house, worked on any structural repair, or touched a tool, etc. but an engineer can provide you drawings on how to do the work correctly following code, engineering standards and principles. So you only need to build it once, you only need to correct a sag in your floor once, or remove properly a load bearing wall without causing a future sag in your upper room floor, etc...
I have worked with many contractors in the past 16 years, directly or indirectly. Almost all of them can do any standard work with no drawings but the work will be based on their past experience and only experience unless they also were well rounded with code and basic engineering requirements. The problem start arising when the project start becoming customized and requires calculations and/or verifications.
Unfortunately, I have seen many reinforcements improperly executed (i.e. contractor/some instances a handyman used a beam size based on “experience” which ended being either not supported correctly, or it was undersized relative to its span and load). It is important to mention that the majority of the time the homeowner did not retain an engineer during the design phase before engaging a contractor. You often hear people saying why would I pay an engineer to tell me what I need to do if I can ask a contractor to provide an opinion on what I need to do for free (often time a contractor would give an estimate, show up and answer questions at not cost in effort to sell their services). An engineer when hired would be your best advocate and will always provide you with an unbiased opinion.
Most of the average homeowners are not construction expert, and it would be in their best interest to hire an engineer to provide guidance on best approach to correct a structural problem. Most of the structural modification will require a permit to do the work which would then need a stamped drawings by a licensed & registered engineer.
I always ask my clients enough questions when they call me to fully understand their needs and see if I can truly add a value when I am inspecting their property or when I am performing a site visit. I like to make sure I will be able to provide a value otherwise I would provide them with a different direction.
Few weeks ago, I was asked to review a structural reinforcement that was installed to reduce a sag on the floor. Upon a site visit, I can say that the work was rather concerning. Beam did not have enough bearing then it was shimmed with pieces of steel rods as you can see in second and third pictures below. It was just poorly executed.
The beam was installed lower than it should have been installed so it wasn’t bracing/supporting the weakened/undersized/sagging beam hence shims were used to bridge the gab between the steel beam and wooden beam, see picture 1.
As a side note notice the beam slightly warp /twisted looking at picture 2.
A steel post was added though it wasn’t tall enough, so it required the person who installed it to use loose bricks to shim/raise its base that were also resting on the concrete slab instead of a footer; unfortunately I didn’t have a picture of this improper support. Reference structural deficiencies (I) blog for why this is not correct.
I truly doubt that this work was completed by a licensed contractor or at least that is what I hope.
Most licensed contractor will either work with an engineer or ask the homeowner to hire an engineer. I always tell homeowners that hiring an engineer would give them a level of protection also a guarantee the modification will meet engineering standards, code and will not be questioned next time house is being sold.
Written by Firas Abdelahad, P.E.
Firas Abdelahad has been practicing structural engineering over 15 years working with teams of consultants, architects, investors, homeowners, contractors and subcontractors to come up with solutions for challenges may arise during design and construction phases.