For townhome or condominium association boards, determining the best use of the association’s budget can be tricky. And yet, you have a fiduciary responsibility to do so. When it comes to taking care of your building(s), how do you know when it is time to involve an engineer? After all, engineering can seem like an extra cost that even your construction vendor may say you do not need. We interviewed Darren Chrisop, Construction Manager at Engineering Support Services in Naperville, IL, to shed light on what community associations should know about building engineering.
Role of an engineer
A building engineer’s role is to ensure that anything related to the façade or structure of a building is constructed to work properly to avoid issues.
An engineer’s domain is anything involving the following parts of the building.
A tragic illustration of the role engineering plays in building health is the June 2021 Surfside condominium collapse. The causal factors under investigation are all structural elements of the building that an engineer should oversee, including concrete, steel, and structural materials corrosion.
Here are common projects in which community associations enlist an engineer:
- roof replacement
- balcony or deck replacement
- façade repair
- window leaks
- finding and designing repairs to fix water infiltration
However, you do not need the engineer to complete the project; that is a contractor’s role. But the engineer gives you and the contractor the project specs, and and ensures the project gets completed properly. In many cases, the only way to know if your contractor completed a job as they were supposed to is to have a third-party engineer evaluate. The engineer is your expert and advocate.
To ensure you are indeed getting an expert, look for a Licensed Engineer (PE) or a Licensed Architect (AIA). An unlicensed consultant is not qualified to perform evaluation or design services. The qualifications enable the engineer to determine the full scope of work required for your project.
When do you call an engineer?
Darren says it is almost always beneficial to hire a qualified licensed engineer/architect when dealing with any of the above building areas, and to do so at the beginning of the project. The reason for this is that you need the unbiased opinion of an engineer before calling a contractor. A contractor has many reasons to be biased, and even though likely has good intentions, does not have the qualifications to necessarily understand the larger structural context. This way, you are educated and can properly advocate for your association.
When planning your budget, understand the role of an engineer in the following.
When it comes to structural maintenance or capital projects, the wisest step you can take to get a reserve study. This ensure you have proper maintenance and capital planning in place. If you don’t have a reserve study protocol in place, learn how and why to do so. Not only do you need an engineer for this planning, but an engineer experienced in reserve studies.
If you notice any type of building failure, such as water infiltration, masonry cracks, or wood rot on balconies or siding, the first step should be to call an engineer to assess. Likewise, components due for maintenance should be inspected by an engineer to ensure there are no underlying issues that need to be addressed before maintenance occurs.
When you are consideration any capital project, an engineer should be the one to provide the project specifications to be quoted by the contractor. Further, it is in your best interest to retain the engineer to oversee the capital project to ensure the contractor is performing the work in accordance with the specs.
Wise use of your budget
Beware of the tempting thought, “We can save money if we don’t have an engineer involved.”
We at Hillcrest help community associations improve their finances, and can assure you, skimping on engineering is not a wise or effective way to safeguard your finances. Why? Consequences are often costly or disastrous. In fact, Darren points out,
Having an engineer evaluate the needs of the building and provide a scope of work to be bid on by the contractors is the only way to ensure that all the contractors are bidding on the same thing.
Once bids are in, they will work with your property manager to vet contractors. This ensures you are getting your money’s worth on your contractor spend.
But what is the worst that could happen if you don’t hire an engineer? And how likely is it that something bad will happen?
Not having an engineer involved from the beginning until the end of the project ends up costing the building more money long term in many cases.
Darren’s company has been brought in numerous times after a project was “completed” by a qualified, well-intentioned contractor who missed the key piece they needed to actually fix the problem. In the best-case scenario, this costs the association more than double what they thought they’d pay because the engineer has to assess anyway, and then the contractor must re-do the project in the way that solves the problem. The worst-case scenario is even more deleterious. Here are a couple examples.
Darren’s company has seen many times a contractor attempt to fix a water leak by placing the correct type of flashing, but doesn’t install it correctly and therefore the water infiltration doesn’t resolve. So, water infiltration continues and when not fixed in time, leads to continued rotting of the building framing and ongoing moisture damage to the interior. This damage can include mold growth or other drywall damage. If left unchecked for a long enough time, the rotted framing could result in structural failure of the framing element, and potentially partial building collapse.
Other scenarios can occur when a roofer is not overseen by an engineer when replacing the roof. One consequence is that they may cover up rotted roof decking. Later, someone performing routine maintenance may step through the roof due to the rotted roof decking, and get seriously injured. Or, increased snow pack loads cause the roof to collapse due to rotting underneath. This would mean serious interior damage as well.
Another thing Darren’s company has seen is that the roofer fails to remove the siding to properly install an ice and water shield. As a result, water leaks behind the wall. Here again, the structural framing is ends up rotted and not functional.
Special considerations for Chicago condo associations
Condos and townhomes in Chicago need leak prevention and management, updated roofs, and façade maintenance just like buildings in the suburbs. However, residential buildings in Chicago are often bigger than in the suburbs, and the Chicago Façade Ordinance requires buildings over 80 feet to undergo regular façade safety inspections.
There are two other factors that affect the need for engineering support for Chicago buildings. First, if the community is near the lake, increased moisture due to direct water contact, water sprays, or lake effect snow, corrodes exposed steel faster. Second, because buildings are often close together in the city, building inspections often require more robust swing stages and lifts. This also means these inspections typically are more expensive.
Whether your association is in the city or the suburbs, board members educated on the roles necessary to keep buildings attractive and safe are in the best position to succeed.