Managing buildings and community associations has become absurdly complicated. Managers and board members cannot be expected to have the specialized knowledge needed to handle all issues that may arise. Professional consultants can help. In addition to the attorneys, insurance professionals, and accountants that are commonly used by community associations, engineers may also be helpful.
Circumstances when calling an engineer may be appropriate include:
- Reserve studies. Preparing a reserve study requires an understanding of the property’s infrastructure. Engineers can make assessments of the physical plant, evaluate remaining service life, and estimate the costs to maintain and replace property components.
- Condition assessments. Engineers can assess the condition of property components to help plan maintenance and repair work.
- Solving unusual problems. Engineers may be called in to help find out what is making that strange noise, why equipment won’t work correctly, where that funny smell is coming from, or what is causing that persistent leak. Engineers are problem-solvers and can help in unusual situations.
- Designing and managing complex projects. Often there are maintenance, repair, or replacement projects that are beyond the expertise of management and the property’s maintenance staff. Engineers can recommend appropriate solutions, evaluate options, write specifications for the work, and solicit competitive bids. Engineers are often retained to make sure that the projects are done properly.
Specific examples of projects that are often handled with engineering consultants include:
- Replacing large equipment such as boilers, chillers, and cooling towers.
- Assessing piping or electrical systems.
- Elevator modernization projects.
- Roof replacements and façade repairs.
- Renovating a fire alarm system.
- Structural repairs for parking garages or balconies.
- Waterproofing and foundation repairs.
- Plaza restoration projects.
- Renovation of a swimming pool facility.
Sometimes specialty service contractors can provide some of the services that an engineer might provide. In deciding on whether to work through a contractor or engineer, consider the following.
- Is there a conflict of interest when a contractor is asked to assess a problem and the fix just happens to be the exact service or product that they provide? An engineer can provide an independent, unbiased opinion and recommendation since they are selling professional services, not products or physical repairs.
- If the problem involves repairing a complicated piece of proprietary equipment, a service contractor specializing in the equipment is probably a better choice than an engineer.
- Many projects require some type of permit from regulatory authorities. Contractors can obtain “trade permits” for common repair and replacement tasks. Complicated projects usually require specifications from a registered professional engineer.
- If you want comparable bids for a project from several contractors, engineers can prepare specifications for bidding that ensure that all of the contractors are providing bids for the same scope of work.
Engineers can assist with a risk management program. An engineering assessment can help identify physical problems that may hinder normal operations or pose a possible hazard. Engineers often work cooperatively with insurance firms to minimize risk and liability.
How do you find the right engineer for your situation? A good place to start is asking your colleagues about firms they have used for specific projects, or by checking the WMCCAI service directory at https://caidc.officialbuyersguide.net/. It is fair to ask an engineer for a fee estimate for your project. It may not always be possible to establish a fixed fee for services ahead of time, especially since the scope of many projects are unknown until the investigation is partially done.
Structural Condition Surveys
In light of the recent building collapse in Florida, many owners and managers have asked: “how can we make sure that our building is safe and will not fall down?” This is not a new question, but the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Florida high rise condominium has given this concern a new urgency for some communities. Sudden building collapses are extremely rare in the United States. Failures that have occurred have had multiple contributing factors and usually there were obvious warning signs that were overlooked.
Considerations for structural condition surveys include the following.
- Nobody will provide a guarantee or certification that there are no structural defects. This is an unreasonable expectation.
- The majority of structural components in buildings are concealed. It is not practical to inspect all structural components.
- It is impossible to eliminate every conceivable risk that might affect a building structure.
The anxiety created by the Florida collapse has made performing condition inspections riskier for structural engineers. A structural inspector will now be inclined to note every visible crack or anomaly as a structural defect that requires immediate attention. A community should ask: “do we want our building inspected in a climate of anxious overreaction, or would it be better to wait until the causes of the Florida collapse are known and put in the proper context?” The result of an inspection, given the current anxiety, is liable to be a long list of defects, some minor and some significant, that will be expensive to fix. The community may be hard-pressed by anxious homeowners to make repairs immediately, whether this is necessary or not is this a liability and potential cost that the community wishes to incur?
Suggestions for how to handle this situation include:
- Before embarking on a new structural condition survey, wait until the causes of the Florida building collapse are known. The circumstances that led to that collapse will likely not apply to most buildings in our area. Knowing the full chain of events that led to the collapse will help engineers, owners, and managers constructively address the situations with their buildings.
- Before doing the condition assessment, discuss with the engineer how the findings will be presented and handled. There should be an understanding beforehand about how possible concerns will be prioritized and what will trigger immediate action versus what can be handled in a long-term maintenance plan.
- Decide on what is a reasonable level of investigation. Is a visual survey sufficient? Does every balcony need to be inspected? Is it necessary to place scaffolds on the building to inspect exterior components up close? Is it necessary to remove material samples, cut exploratory openings, and perform tests?
- Discuss potential liabilities with your insurance provider and legal counsel. They can put the risks in perspective and help formulate a constructive plan instead of an overreaction to a temporary period of over-sensitivity to potential problems with building structures.
By Doug White, P.E.
Doug White has over 35 years of diversified experience in engineering design of buildings, structural engineering, building investigations, reserve studies, forensic engineering, construction project management and administration, and construction cost estimating. He is a technical expert on building structures, structural repairs, façade restoration, water intrusion, waterproofing, roofing, failure investigations, historic buildings, and building construction. He is a registered professional engineer in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia.