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Ethics Question

Ethics Question

Ethics Question

I have a situation where I recently did an observation of a new construction house that had walls that were significantly out of plumb. I provided observation and recommendations for the potential buyer and another engineer provide observation and recommendations for the seller who was the builder.

There are other discrepancies between our reports and recommendations, but the big difference comes down to basically this one thing: The other engineer utilized a table from the code to get a capacity of the concrete foundation wall. The rebar is centered in the wall per the plans, but the other engineer used the table to rebar offset to the interior of the building. This error shows that the wall has significantly more capacity then it really does and they use that extra capacity to justify the wall can handle the forces of being out of plumb. If you use the actual situation there is very little extra capacity to consider the walls being safe in their current condition. The other engineer comes to the final conclusion that the walls are acceptable as they currently stand, but based on false capacity.

I wrote a detailed report back to my client, the buyer and explained all the discrepancies in the report including this one. I was just informed that my client has elected not to move forward with the purchase of this house and he did not ever send the report on to the seller.

Having knowledge of a situation where it is more likely than not that the current configuration is not acceptable to carry the code required minimum loads what is my ethical obligation. The seller/builder has no reason to remediation the situation because he has an engineer willing to sign off on it, but it would appear that the engineer made an error/omission in the report. I would anticipate that the next buyer will not be made aware of the situation because it is not a structural defect to the seller because they have the other engineer's report.

Just looking for some opinions on how to handle this situation and advise if I need to report this, if you would send the information directly to the engineer, to the seller or to village building depart?

Thanks In Advance

RE: Ethics Question

I'd probably 'walk away' from a new construction that had walls significantly out of plumb. There isn't an easy fix... When your bookcase has a 3" gap at the bottom or at the top for stuff to fall behind Perhaps your counter has a trapezoidal shape rather than a rectangular...... life's too short.

and that's the stuff you observed....


RE: Ethics Question

But dik, walking away just means GreatOne isn't taking a purchasing risk... what about his duty to the next poor schlub who wishes to buy? I think that's the question here...

An engineer has failed in his duty by giving a thumbs up to a project based upon incorrect calculations. At a bare minimum, I would think the seller's engineer should be informed. I would also expect the seller to be CC'd on the report.

Should there be no remediation at that point, then it becomes a definite "turn him into the board" issue... they (engineer and seller) are knowingly placing members of the public in harm's way with inadequate design. I would think the local AHJ would be interested in knowing about the seller's part in all of that, too.

Dan - Owner

RE: Ethics Question

Just playing devils advocate, but did you actually run numbers that show the wall is not adequate or is your conclusion based on allowable construction tolerances, it just doesn't look right, etc? While it may not look pretty, it is carrying the required load since nothing has collapsed. The loads may have found an alternate load path that is not immediately apparent. I agree that citing the wall capacity from a table when the wall is not constructed per the table's assumptions/requirements is not correct. That said, the wall in its current condition most likely has a lower capacity than that stated in the table, which may be adequate to support the required loads. However, if you are confident in your assessment and feel that it is unsafe or an eminent danger, I would write a letter expressing your concerns to all parties involved and add the AHJ to that list.

RE: Ethics Question

There are no drop-dead calculations the wall is inadequate. The fact is that the lateral soil pressure is not known. Breaking it down into the residential codes 30 psf/ft, 45 psf/ft and 60 psf/ft. It would appear that the original design was for 45 psf/ft and there is very little extra capacity for the out of plumb condition. The other engineer sites a location 1 mile away from this house that has a soils report to justify the 45 psf/ft. I personally have always taken a conservative approach to soil situation and used 60 psf/ft as there is no way to be wrong and I know the residential contractor isn't going to get any on-site verification of a less conservative assumption no matter what note I put on the plan. I'm covered with the note, but I'm not realistic with the note.

So at 30 psf/ft - I can agree it might check out structurally, but my personal professional recommendation was still that I would require reinforcement, since it is well beyond any reasonable tolerance and since we don't how an out of plumb wall may act in the future with exaggerating minor settlement, allowing cracking and water issues or other concerns.

At 45 psf/ft - The numbers don't work, so it needs to be reinforced to meet code minimum loads. As the situation is at max 20% overstressed if some engineer really wanted to sign off on it that would be their business, but I would maintain it should be reinforced in my professional opinion becasue it overstressed and well beyond any reasonable tolerance.

At 60 psf/ft - The numbers don't work and are nowhere close and the situation needs to be reinforced.

My personal assumption would be the 60 psf/ft and therefore it is nowhere near the code required capacity and needs to be reinforced and I would require a geotechnical recommendation for lateral earth pressure to change that assumption.

RE: Ethics Question

I'd pump the brakes a little bit here.

Per your original post, my understanding is this discrepancy has yet to be brought to the other engineer's attention. That's the first step, in my opinion. I'd write him a letter (a FRIENDLY letter), pointing out this potential issue you noticed and explain your reasoning in calm words. I would probably not copy the AHJ or the Board just yet. You could copy the seller to apply some pressure, though I personally probably wouldn't even do that. In my opinion you need to give the other engineer the opportunity to rectify or justify things on his or her own. Reporting him/her to the board or AHJ without doing so is just as unethical as saying nothing in my eyes. If the other engineer declines to respond or responds inadequately then that's when you go up the ladder to make sure it's being looked at by someone.

Put yourself in the other engineer's shoes if you were to go over their head right now. You've got some random engineer who you've never met who did a report on the same property you did a report on (not even designed, just did a report on). He disagrees with one of your assumptions and without telling you, writes a letter to your client, the AHJ, and/or the licensing board telling them that you're incorrect and that the structure is unsafe. Don't know about you, but I'd be livid. Especially if I can actually prove things are fine, but even if the other engineer is correct and we need reinforcements, because I was not even afforded the opportunity to make things right before it was taken over my head.

And based on your second response, this could be just a matter of you having a different assumption than they do.

RE: Ethics Question

Write a letter to the other engineer. Your ethical duties to your peer should be the initial concern. Be open to a follow-up telephone or in-person discussion. DOCUMENT EVERYTHING!!

Best case scenario is that the other engineer missed the small detail that you noticed, will thank you for highlighting the discrepancy, and will reissue their report to their client. Next best case scenario is that they will appreciate you highlighting a potential discrepancy, and convince you that your assumptions and/or interpretation is correct - perhaps leading you to consider revising and reissuing your report. Worst case scenario is that they acknowledge a problem and then do nothing to rectify it - that's the point where you run the problem up the chain.

RE: Ethics Question


With items being out of plumb, the added horizontal loading due to the tilt is normally very small and the structure can usually accommodate this... the bigger problem, normally, is the function of the space.


RE: Ethics Question

Before doing any of the recommendations above, I'd contact my attorney and get his OK on any of these potential "good friend" actions suggested. You may be hurting yourself in a possible claim against you later.

RE: Ethics Question

I don't think I understand exactly what you are warning about here.
More specifically, when I wrote my professional ethics exam, a question like this one was asked. The "right" answer depended on the risk level (safety, vs. aesthetics) but if there was a hazard, one should bring the observation to the design engineer first and allow them to react. Follow-up after that depended on a lot of things, of course.


RE: Ethics Question

Spar web: I would assume you have never been sued and it was no way your fault, but your insurance paid plenty to clear it up. Attorneys bring in everyone possibly involved, even if they are "pure".

RE: Ethics Question

Ah, I get it. It's about getting dragged through it, not about the culpability. Thank you.


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