We perform many fire escape inspections.

100_1173We perform a good many fire escape inspections and design for repairs, here in Seattle.  There are plenty, with all the old brick buildings.  Our job is to verify that every escape can hold the necessary load of people escaping from a fire, should one occur. 

We work with a contractor, who does this by hooking a come-along and a load cell to the structure, and pulling with a force equivalent to that weight.  We pull for at least ten minutes, and if there is any movement, we stop the test and specify repairs to make it stronger.  Then, of course, test again.  We have not actually encountered a failure to date. 
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Good news.

Deck wood braces had undergone the initial stages of dry rot deterioration

DSCN1450Houses on steep slopes frequently are subject to problems caused by movement of the hillside.  This retired gentleman lives in a home which cantilevers over a steep hillside, and, of course, provides a rather nice view from his rear deck.  The deck is supported on fairly tall wood posts, with cross braces for stability, all supported on concrete grade beams and driven piles on the slope.  Recently, he noticed some new cracks in the grade beams, and called us out to make an evaluation.

It turned out that the cracks are minor, and presented no particular concern or danger.  We did observe that a couple of the wood braces had undergone the initial stages of dry rot deterioration.  This happened because leaves and other organic matter had gathered around the wood, keeping it moist full time.  So, we recommended filling the minor cracks with epoxy, and paying more attention to keeping debris away from the wood.

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Foundation Settling Problems

DSCN1294This enterprising young man makes his living by buying properties in bad shape, then fixing them up and selling. Real estate pros call this “flipping” the house. Now, this particular home may look pretty tidy, but it had some foundation settlement problems, similar to many older homes on relatively steeply sloping lots.

DSCN1292One must take care in this situation. There are a number of contractors, many legitimate, who can shore up a sagging foundation, and even lift the wood framed portion of the home so that it is level again. However, not all of those contractors really know what they are doing.

DSCN1290In this case, the flipper had obtained a bid from a contractor to install steel pipe piles around the perimeter – for a princely sum, I might add. Wanting a second opinion, he contacted us at CSES Engineering, I made the site visit and examined the house and the proposed plans. I was able to point out that the piles intended for about one third of the foundation were not necessary; another third were located in such a way as to reduce their effectiveness.

Finally, I referred him to a contractor who is actually competent in this sort of work, and provided a suitable pile placement plan.

Inexpensive Analysis Of Home Structure

DSCN1532Some folks make my job easier, which I appreciate, although it is not necessarily intentional. This young woman’s home had undergone a second story addition a few years before, and now she wanted to rearrange a few interior walls for a main floor remodel. Because she had a record copy of the 2nd story work, all the information I needed was right there on her plans. That allowed a simple (and inexpensive) analysis of her home’s structure with regard to her proposed changes.

Too bad all of these small jobs cannot be so easy.

Long Narrow Skylight

20131126_141620We have been working on this house, on and off for several months now, in collaboration with a fine contractor we know.  The owners decided that they would like a long, narrow skylight on the south side of their attic room.  This is a 100 year old home, so the design is complicated by the inadequate framing typically used back then.  After a couple of wrong turns, we arrived at a solution to the problem that satisfied everyone.  They plan to tan indoors under the new skylight.

By the way, “inadequate” in this case means only that it would not be built that way today, both for reasons of design strength, and because deeper framing is needed for insulation that was never used in 1910.  My own house is a beautiful old Craftsman like this one, and personally, I love the oddities that come with many years of revising and remodeling by a series of owners.  That is called either Character or Money Pit, as you prefer.

Plans For A Bachelor Condo

DSCN1219A previous owner of this waterfront condo had removed a short wall separating the kitchen from the dining area. This kind of change is popular these days, as people have grown to prefer open living spaces. There are some who do so without the aid of an engineer such as yours truly, and this can lead to problems if the wall removed has a structural purpose, such as holding up the ceiling!

DSCN1217At any rate, the young bachelor (this is a bachelor pad!) was going to sell his condo, and wanted to make sure that there were no issues. I made the visit, examined some plans he had, and did some exploration myself of the state of the existing framing. As it happens, all was OK in this case, and I was able to write a letter indicating that the previous remodel had, in fact, been completed in an appropriate manner.

I like this fellow, who is conscientious and careful about how he relates to others. More of us should take that lesson. I also enjoyed the killer view from the balcony…..

Inadequate preparation of the soil prior to placing the concrete slab

DSCN1368CSES Engineering was called out this home shortly after the new owner had moved in. He pointed out a few cracks in the foundation, and some moderate settlement of the foundation where the chimney is, and fairly serious settlement of the interior slab on grade in that end of the home.

DSCN1364It was our opinion that the moderate settlement of one end of the home occurred shortly after it was built, some three decades ago, and most likely is not continuing, with the foundation reaching an equilibrium with the soil. The more serious settlement of the interior slab was most likely due to a lack of adequate preparation of the soil prior to placing the slab concrete. The foundation would have been deeper, and more care taken to build it on good soil, hence the much smaller settlement.

DSCN1362This is a case where the owner did not take our advice. The owner had contacted several contractors, who all wanted to use pipe piles to re-support the foundation, an a cost in five figures. The contractors used phrases like “your home is splitting in half” to attempt to make the problem sound more serious than it was. We had recommended some more moderate measures, which would have accomplished what he wanted. However, after our proposal, we never heard back.

DSCN1361This is fine, and all in a day’s work, as they say. This owner wants to sue the inspector who omitted the foundation settlement in his real estate inspection report. I advised him that whether he won or not, the suit would be expensive, and the amount he could recover would be limited, since the inspector had only his bond to surrender. It was one of those frustrating situations where human nature conflicts with common sense. Someday I hope to find out which one of those prevailed.

The Brick And Mortar Was Old

DSCN1103The new owner of this apartment building noticed a few worrisome flaws in the brick veneer surface of this small apartment building. CSES was retained to make an assessment of the areas of concern, and provide recommendations.

Our examination did not reveal any significant structural problems. The heavy brick faced chimneys had settled a little, but not enough to be a problem. The result, however, appeared to be more than it was. Some brick joints were offset, and some bricks had become misplaced.

The main problem here was that the brick mortar was old, and in some locations, was in need of re-pointing. The remainder of the foundation and the brick veneer was fine. The owner was relieved of her concerns.

Eastern Washington Theater Activity Building

100_1242The beat goes on at the 100-acre Eastern Washington property for which we designed a number of buildings.  Currently under construction is a Theater Activity Building, with an Imax theater, a bowling alley, and a good number pinball machines, as well as a couple of motion simulators.  This has been a fun project for a former Microsoft exec.  It’s beautiful country, and a nice distraction when this engineer has to drive out to inspect the construction, which is roughly once a month.  Let’s hope he keeps building – I suggested a casino for his friends.

Construction has just  commenced.  I’ll post more photos as it emerges from the ground.
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Confrontation Over Retaining Wall

DSCN1214Property line issues can wreak havoc with neighborly relations. This is a case in point. Most of us get on with our neighbors, mostly because we don’t have financial disputes with them. In this case, a basically cordial relationship between neighbors is threatening to turn into a raging confrontation over a retaining wall and fence on the property line. The owner of the house on the left, as many owners like to do, did some work to improve his property. Unfortunately, this seems to have caused some movement of the concrete wall you see.

DSCN1211Now, this is a very old wall, and not “structural” in the sense we think of today. It had moved in the past, and cracked. However, the neighbor’s work caused the wall to move noticeably, and with increased cracking. The case is complicated by the fact that the wall is actually 20 inches to the right of the property line (a survey was done) so the fence you see was actually constructed on the wrong property by the neighbor on the left.

DSCN1207CSES Engineering can provide design for a replacement wall, but cannot help with the other issues. I have not followed up on this, but I am hoping that the two neighbors will realize that in this situation, really no one is at serious fault, and the best solution is to agree on a way to resolve the problem, preferably without the huge expense of lawyers. A lawsuit could cause both neighbors to spend more than a new retaining wall would cost. But people are people, and only time will tell us if they could rise above.