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Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

(OP)
Was recently engaged to come investigate a lower level deck that had partially collapsed. The shear attachment at the ledger sheared off with two individuals standing near the patio door. The ledger was attached with concrete nails at several feet OC.

Thankfully the collapse was limited in that the lower level of the deck was only 2' off the ground and the two individuals weren't hurt. I was engaged by the property manager for that address and we decided it was best to do a complete replacement as we found numerous other problems (bad guardrail, 2nd level ledger attachment significantly under strength, main beam undersized, etc). In every way, these decks were built poorly with no adherence to code or even quality craftsmanship taken into account.

The trouble is, this one deck is one of 200 identical decks in this neighborhood.

Following my report, the property manager for this house notified the HOA but was ignored. I followed up with an email and was told the HOA was still controlled by the developer who is also the property manager of the majority of the homes here as well. This developer is also notorious for not following codes and essentially pays for his numerous lawsuits by building new buildings in the area.

Very troubled by the critical nature of the deficiencies in these decks, I reached out to the City inspectors but was told their jurisdiction doesn't extend to this area of the county.

Through a mutual friend, I sent a brief explanation to the County Commission but was also told there was no code enforcement they could offer.

I'm now at a loss for what I am obligated to do (both by code of ethics and a that of a decent person in the knowledge of a bad issue). This concerns me a lot. There are real problems with these decks and it won't be long before a second story portion collapses. And the nature of the neighborhood is such that there are also many families with young children making the burden even greater.

But I'm stuck. The developer is likely to sue me on some frivolous claim if I notify him of anything. But any public notice or such is bound to get noticed by him first. I am not sure it's appropriate to mail a letter to each owner as it seems as though I'm soliciting services. But I'm left with a huge burden to do something to prevent what I am sure will be a bad situation in the future.

Thoughts?

PE, SE
Eastern United States

"If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death!"
~Code of Hammurabi

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

Not my area of practice, but it is hard to believe the county does not have any building code requirements that cover decks above a certain height (the second story decks).

When we periodically hear of tragedies in this realm it is when someone has a party and there are lots of people on a second story deck (max. capacity), there may be music & dancing (additional stress) and the failure involves lots of victims. With 200 units, this does not seem like a far fetched scenario...more like a "when" than an "if" it happens.

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

The quandary they are in likely is not that there isn't code, its likely that they simply cannot do anything to enforce it on existing homes.

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

I am curious, is this an issue with the design documents not matching the constructed condition, or are the design documents either calling out insufficient attachment or not specific enough that the connections are "nebulous?" Based on what you have already said, I would think the horse has already left the barn in terms of the contractor/developer suing you for notifying him. Have you talked to your insurance company about this?

Robert Hale, PE

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

I'd get me a good lawyer and protect yourself as best you can. The county doesn't care, the developer doesn't care (until they can blame you for something) and if you notify the owners, you're likely to involve yourself in ways you can't control.
If this was Star Trek, Captain Kirk would reprogram the software.

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

Could you not reach out to the state board, in writing, explaining the situation to them?

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

Ah yes the Kobayashi Maru test.

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

Make sugar out of lemons... Sounds like you need to start your own local deck repair company!

Seriously, talk to you lawyer, but the first thing here is to protect yourself.

Sounds like you have done your due diligence, so just do not expose yourself so much that you walk the plank so to speak. You cannot help anyone if you do not help yourself first.

Mike McCann, PE, SE (WA)


RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

3
Several comments....
1. If you, as a licensed professional engineer, consider the conditions to be a threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public, then you have an obligation to report it. To whom? Tough question. Since there is a Homeowner's Association (even though developer controlled), they need to be notified by YOU....not the property manager, in writing and by certified mail, return receipt. Find out who issued the building permit for the construction....they should be able to enforce code compliance, even if after the fact. If you consider the conditions to be an imminent danger to Life Safety, then go to the county commission again and to the county sheriff or fire marshall.

2. West Virginia subscribes to the International Building Code by state law. The State Fire Commission is responsible for enforcing the code and interpreting conflicts. Contact them and let them know of this issue and that you can't seem to get anyone to heed your warnings.

3. If the county has no building department, the next best thing will be the Public Works director. He/She is likely to be a licensed engineer and will have the same obligations as you to raise the flag.

4. As others have noted, contact your attorney and your state engineering board and copy them on all correspondence.

Good luck! Let us know how it goes.

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

4
Good post by Ron.

Also another thought comes to mind here - as this seems to be a public safety issue with "no one at home".

One thing you could do is take the time to compose a letter and go door to door handing it out to the occupants:

Dear Occupant.
I am a licensed Professional Engineer in this state and was recently hired to investigate a deck collapse in your neighborhood. The collapse involved a particular type of connection between the deck and main home structure such that the deck dropped suddenly while persons were standing on it. Fortunately no one was hurt.

It is possible that your deck was constructed from similar plans and details and I am concerned that you may have a potentially unsafe deck that could pose a risk to you or others who use your deck.

As a licensed Professional Engineer, I am obligated, above all other things, to protect the public safety and welfare.
I have attempted to contact various entities and government officials and to inform them of this issue but thought I would also attempt inform the various occupants of homes with decks that were built similar to the one that failed.

I would recommend that you investigate the deck connection, either by yourself, if you feel qualified, or hire a qualified contractor or Professional Engineer.
I am not placing myself in a position to be hired for these inspections as I don't want this letter to be seen as an act of marketing, rather, as a public service under the auspices of my license.

If you, or your hired contractor/engineer have questions about this situation, please have them contact me at xxx-xxx-xxxx and I would be glad to describe to them the conditions that led to the particular deck collapse.

Sincerely,
kilesito


Yes, getting your attorney to review a letter like this might be a good idea. I would just worry that a "typical" attorney would tell you not to as they "typically" don't always and fully understand an engineer's obligation to the public.



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RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

I like the idea of a letter to each property owner, but it would likely be more effective if the letter came from a lawyer. Sounds like a good situation for "leaking" your concerns to a class action law firm.

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

Good letter JAE!

RE: Townhome Deck Collapse and Responsibility

Please update us on how this plays out. I'm exceedingly curious what your end solution is and how it is received.

Professional Engineer (ME, NH, MA) Structural Engineer (IL)
American Concrete Industries
https://www.facebook.com/AmericanConcrete/

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