In my line of work of the focus is primarily on failures associated with existing construction, and this week I came to a simple realization that the more difficult an area is to access, the more likely it is that something will be built incorrectly. Examples:
- At a 1930’s courthouse, in a windstorm region, I observed that the number of veneer ties on a façade dropped dramatically at elevated floor levels, until the upper floors had almost no veneer ties installed.
- In the attic of a historic theater, I once observed that lateral straps meant to tie the historic masonry walls to the roof/ceiling framing were never mechanically fastened to the framing at the far corners of the attic.
- On an educational building, a shelf angle supporting one level of cast stone was anchored (with wedge anchors) into hollow CMU, resulting in a failure. Once again, this condition was at the top of a stair tower with limited accessibility.
- On a more recent project, with many multi-level roof areas, I observed the large, easily accessible roofs were built properly, while smaller roof areas that are a pain to get to were riddled with construction deficiencies.
What led to the examples noted above? I have many speculations that generally revert to the human factor:
On the 1930’s project, you can envision that perhaps the contractor ran out of materials, or maybe whoever was overseeing the project did not feel like making the 13-floor trek to the top of the scaffolding. The masons performing the work were apparently unaware of the function of these components, as no reasonable person would delete these critical components.
On the theater project, the lateral straps were present and would have taken only a few minutes to properly secure to the framing. I think this was a case of out of sight, out of mind. Straps in other locations were properly secured to the framing as intended.
On the educational building, I think once again the difficult access played a role. Constructed in the days before required special inspections for post-installed anchors, obviously nobody did a pull test. Whoever installed the anchors either had no idea how these anchors function or turned a blind eye – once again, such an egregious oversight should not have been made by a competent contractor. Apparently nobody else on the project noticed the issue which should have been immediately apparent.
On the roofing project, perhaps low-man on the totem pole was left to install those systems. Hauling tools up ladders is dangerous and not much fun. And, once again, the lack of easy access probably meant that these areas were not receiving the same level of oversight.
Building codes have increased the inspection requirements and we as engineers need to be vigilant as well. Construction Administration budgets are constantly restrained further and further, schedules are compressed, and much improperly constructed work gets covered up, where it often shows up eventually through a performance failure.
With our time schedules, it is often very tempting to make a quick pass on a project – it is easy to reason that ‘everything looks pretty good’ and move on to the next project. I would challenge you to make it a point to pay extra attention to those hard to reach areas. Start at a far corner on an upper floor. Ask for the ladder or lift if needed. Keep everybody honest and hopefully this oversight will lead to another successful project delivery.
Thanks for reading and hope to see you at the meeting in April!