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Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

(OP)
As structural engineers, we were retained to design an addition to a building. Partway through the design process, we realized that many aspects of the recently-constructed building did not satisfy basic structural building code. Namely, the building has zero lateral (wind or seismic) force resisting systems, in addition to an insufficient foundation (spread footings founded on thick layers of crummy landfill, clays, and organic matter). We alerted the client to this fact in writing--in a way that was professional and not alarmist. But believe me--it's a very serious problem. It's really unsafe.

The client is unlikely to take on the expense of doing any work at all--remediation or future addition. They sort of got screwed over by the previous designer and by the fact that somehow the building department didn't notice any of this when they permitted the construction. Nonetheless, I don't want to be on the hook for when something goes wrong. I also don't want tenants, neighbors, bystanders, or future buyers of the property to be at risk.

In addition to notifying the owner, I want to bring this to the attention of the local building dept. If you put on your lawyer's hat, would we be doing the right thing? Could a nasty lawyer potentially say we should mind our own business? Would this be within the engineer's code of ethics?

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

I understand that the building is unsafe, but, not in impending collapse. Time can be expended prior to any failure... is that correct?

If impending collapse is a possible, then you have little option... you must advise all involved, including the owner and authorities. If the collapse is less likely to be catastrophic then you have time to work with the owner to remedy. If remedy is not forthcoming, then you have to advise the authorities.

Some engineers and some jurisdictions might include advising them initially. I would normally advise them only if the owner was not prepared to undertake the repairs or at the time the remedial building permit was applied for. The owner has to undertake the remediation.

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

You have to address the deficiencies with the owner. If he refuses to act, the building authority should be notified in writing.

Then you need to decide whether the previous engineer or builder acted badly enough for you to refer them to the appropriate disciplinary body.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Hokie:
In this jurisdiction and others, you are obligated to advise an engineer that you are reviewing his work, either by code of ethics or as a professional courtesy. When I did my critique on the Algo Centre Mall collapse, I informed the Engineer that had prepared the report for the OPP that I was reviewing the report...

The critique was only used internally for a talk given to other engineers in the office and had very limited distribution... Copies were not presented to the engineers in attendance and only two copies to other engineers.

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Follow whatever procedures are mandated in your jurisdiction, but if an engineer has been derelict or negligent, the Board (or whatever it is called) needs to be advised.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Yup... But the other engineer should be advised prior to picking up your calculator.

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

The problem with that is that sometimes, at least where I am, you have to jump through all sorts of hoops just to identify the other engineer. I have informed the Council here of defects in buildings, and have been refused my request to be informed of the identity of the engineer. Privacy, you know.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

dik,
The duty to inform the previous engineer is not typical in all Codes of Ethics, e.g. not in Australia. And in the US, there is no obligation if the other engineer has been "terminated". The US code also has lots of conflicting canons which could give rise to conflicts of interest, but the overriding responsibility is to the public. My opinion, although it is not worth much, is that the requirement to inform the other engineer is anachronistic.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Yup...

In these environs, the owner or the new engineer with authorisation from the owner can get copies of the original sealed drawings, and, the engineer is identified. The association can then provide current information if not readily available. It's also a professional courtesy.

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

dik -

I assume this obligation is primary for work that is either in construction or already constructed previously?

I see the notification for structures under or finished with construction frequently, agree with that. But thinking of a typical peer review situation in the states for projects still in the design phase. Often times engineers don't necessarily know their work is being reviewed and even if they do, they often don't know who is doing it. We have SEs review our work on behalf of developers for insurance/risk analysis all the time and rarely have a clue until the developer forwards their final report our way and requests a response.

Similar issue when I've been on the other side doing value engineering for developers or contractors. We certainly know the company but often the drawings have not been signed/sealed yet, so we have no clue who the actual individual engineer is. If it's for a huge company like a Jacobs or WJE or WSP, it could be hundreds to thousands of people.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Any time you are reviewing the work of another engineer, whether it is pre-construction, under construction or already constructed, it may be an ethical requirement, and it is a professional courtesy to advise him that you are doing this. This varies all over the world. In these environs, it is established in the professional association's code of ethics.

About a year or so back I prepared (for personal use) a critique of the engineering report prepared by Dr. Hassan Saffarini, P.Eng. for the Algo Centre Mall partial collapse I informed him by letter (posted and eMail) that I was undertaking a review of his report. The intent of the report was never for public publishing and was only for internal office discussion, but, I had an obligation to inform him.

Notifications added to next message.

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

(OP)
Thank you everyone for your replies so far. I apologize for my delay in response. (P.S. Can anyone advise how I can get email notification of replies to this thread?)

Clarifications:
The building is built and occupied. The 2-family structure was designed by a Registered Architect. I don't think an engineer was involved. We were not retained to perform a review of the existing structure or a peer review, but instead to explore feasibility of a new vertical addition on top of the existing structure. There is zero lateral strength in this existing building. If a design windstorm or even a moderate windstorm occur, I have not confirmed but my gut tells me that this building may completely collapse.

I am in the process of trying to get some resolution from the client. We will also be sure to provide courtesy to the RA as appropriate. I am still weighing whether or not to notify the local building department based on the client's response. I will try to keep you guys posted on the outcomes as they develop. If you have any more thoughts or pointers, I'm still happy to listen. I appreciate your input so far.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

I wouldn't involve the authorities unless all else failed... The registered architect may have some financial liability in bringing the building up to code; he should be advised and given the opportunity to make things right. I wouldn't be advising the architects professional org unless all else failed. If headed to litigation then the architects prof org has to be advised ASAP.

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Quote (Geoffre14)

P.S. Can anyone advise how I can get email notification of replies to this thread?

Top right, click the checkmark. In my personal email (gmail) these notifications go to the promotion tab for some reason.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

bottom left on mine...

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

I have seen a lot of messed up construction and feel it would take a lot of negligence to produce a structure that would collapse in a design wind event. Not saying you're wrong, but your statement seems a bit conservative. Is the building entirely skinned with windows or something? Are you omitting contribution of drywall?

My thoughts are you might have a code defect, but not a life safety issue. That changes things a little and if its the case, i'd notify the owner and move on. It's then in their court to disclose it to future buyers.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Plywood or OSB, maybe, but never drywall...

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

To add to what Forensic74 said, hasn't the building been exposed to a windy day already? If the building was that bad, it would be creaking and moaning for every breeze. The owner would know there's something wrong.
In my experience, most inadequately designed structures start to exhibit signs during construction. Some, like the Hyatt Regency or the Argo mall (actually a corrosion issue; very slow fuse) wait for years. But the construction team is usually the first to know.
I'm not saying you're not 100% correct in that the building is inadequately designed. But some engineers live right and their buildings stand up, even when they shouldn't.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Jed:

That was an observation made by Pier Nervi about half a century back...

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

I had a professor in college who talked about doing some load tests on an old existing concrete building that was to be demolished. They loaded it up with waterbeds to get the ultimate load and when they demolished they would compare the reinforced sections to the analyzed capacity.
It apparently took a hefty load (I think he said they stopped loading it when they got to 200 psf or so and it hadn't failed), but when the demolished the floor, it had no reinforcing. It should of taken no load, maybe even failing while supporting the dead load. He said that the only load carrying mechanism that he could figure in that floor was inertia. lol

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

(OP)

Quote (Forensic74)

I have seen a lot of messed up construction and feel it would take a lot of negligence to produce a structure that would collapse in a design wind event. Not saying you're wrong, but your statement seems a bit conservative. Is the building entirely skinned with windows or something? Are you omitting contribution of drywall?

Quote (JedClampett)

To add to what Forensic74 said, hasn't the building been exposed to a windy day already? If the building was that bad, it would be creaking and moaning for every breeze. The owner would know there's something wrong.

In the x-direction, the entire first floor has garage door, doorway, sliding glass door, or floor-to-ceiling windows. Imagine your classic "soft story." I am not exaggerating. There is 1 interior partition but it is drywall over slab on grade. I imagine that's a big part of what's holding everything up.

There is unreinforced CMU in the y-direction. That out-of-plane bending capacity is likely also contributing to strength, but this is also showing obvious signs of cracks and is not designed for this behavior. It is on a shallow strip footing that would clearly rotate when exposed to out-of-plane moment except I guess it is probably using the top few inches of soil in passive resistance.

I agree with your statements in general, but this building truly is bad. The building is new i.e. 2 years occupied, so it hasn't seen much loading yet. It is indeed showing cracking and gapping at connections.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Geoffre14, since you seem pretty sure, I'd advise retaining legal counsel. Sending off letters is the common sense solution, but you don't want to muddy responsibility. You need a statement that scares the owner enough to fix a building that's standing there just fine, but firmly reminds him its not at all your fault. Don't expect any more business from this client. There's no gratitude in doing the right thing. When all else fails, remember this immutable law of nature:
NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

The Architect should be put on notice by the client and be given an opportunity to remedy. If this fails, then to take off the gloves. If dangerous then should happen ASAP.

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

As a PE, you need to read your state's laws and regulations.

In my situation of code violations, I wrote the owners listing all of the code violations and gave them a month to respond with an affirmative that all had been or were being addressed. I wrote that a missed deadline with such a response would prompt me, according to state law, to contact the local authorities such as the city and state governments as well as the local OSHA office. They responded. Had they not, I would have contacted all governing bodies because it an Professional Engineers responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, to promote the public welfare, and to establish and maintain a high standard of integrity and practice. Public means everyone so you cannot pick and choose who you include in "public" based upon circumstances.

Included in my letter to the owners were the relevant statutes. As PEs, we are responsible for all federal, state, and local laws, codes, and regulations. Every state in which I am licensed the state expects knowledge of the existence of the laws and rules and to be familiar with their provisions and to understand them. Ignorance is no excuse.

This is from Colorado's 3.0 Rules of Conduct:

3.1.1 - Primary Obligation of Licensees. Licensees shall at all times recognize that their primary obligation is to protect the safety, health, property, and welfare of the public. If their professional judgment is overruled under circumstances where the safety, health, property, or welfare of the public is endangered, they shall notify their employer or client and/or such other authority as may be appropriate.

3.1.8 Compliance with Applicable Laws, Regulations, and Codes. Licensees shall exercise appropriate skill, care, and judgment in the application of federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and codes in the rendering of professional services and in the performance of their professional duties. It will be deemed a violation of these rules if a licensee violates local, state or federal laws or statutes that relate to the practice of architecture, engineering, or land surveying.

Those were included along with others to help them understand the nature of the law regarding my responsibilities and behaviors as a Professional Engineer.

Pamela K. Quillin, P.E.
Quillin Engineering, LLC
NSPE-CO, Central Chapter

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

lacajun,
Agree with all that, but just curious as to whether those Colorado clauses are the Law, or in a Code of Practice pursuant to the Law.

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

There are too many exclusions for this to be law... likely a policy or guideline for professional practice.

It's interesting to look at the logical construct of " If their professional judgment is overruled under circumstances where the safety, health, property, or welfare of the public is endangered, they shall notify their employer or client and/or such other authority as may be appropriate."

Dik

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

Title 12, Article 25 of the Colorado Revised Statutes begins with to safeguard life, health, and property and to promote the public welfare, the practice of engineering is declared to be subject to regulation in the public interest.

The Rules of Conduct are Bylaws and Rules set by the State Board. Bylaws and rules, as I understand them set by each State Board, are to be followed, too. A bylaw is an ordinance or regulation made by a local authority, i.e., the State Board.

This is a point under the Preamble of the Preamble and Bylaws - All persons licensed under the Title 12, Article 25, Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the Colorado Revised Statues are charged with having knowledge of the existence of these rules and shall be deemed to be familiar with their provisions and to understand them. In these rules, the word “licensee” shall mean any person holding a license, certificate, or enrollment issued by this Board.


One thing I've learned is not to take any of the law, bylaws, or rules as guidelines. Your experience may differ. The State of Colorado and the State Board are much bigger and more powerful than me so I think it best to take them at their word.

Pamela K. Quillin, P.E.
Quillin Engineering, LLC
NSPE-CO, Central Chapter

RE: Duties and rights upon discovery of unsafe conditions

As a common courtesy you should call the architect and mention your involvement. You should be objective with the other professional. You don't know if there are other lateral resisting systems added during construction that aren't shown on the drawings.

I think it's one of the most basic statements in our codes of ethics that we, as engineers are to hold the safety of the public in the highest regard. So, you must inform the authority having jurisdiction if there is indeed a problem.

I've been in almost exactly these shoes. I sent a letter stating the problems with a new structure where the owner took a "shortcut". Nothing happened, except that I have covered my ass against future lawsuits.

Don't be the guy who knew but didn't say anything.

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