Structural Engineers’ Dilemma: How to deal with bad advice from a City or County Planner?

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc., Architects

Lately we have heard that some jurisdictions (cities or counties) have been telling homeowners that they must have a structural engineer provide details for their remodel project, but that an architect is not necessary. While a licensed architect is not required in order to get a residential building permit, architectural drawings are necessary. If a homeowner has a lot of time and technical skills, he or she may be able to create drawings to apply for a building permit. A drawing could also be obtained from a contractor, but the remodel will most likely miss opportunities for creative solutions, design elegance, and value-engineered cost savings that a licensed architect can provide. We’ve all seen a residential addition that sticks out like a sore thumb from the original house or that is missing important details.

A structural engineer (SE) needs to do the calculations and provide details for structural support of new construction or changes to load-bearing walls or foundations. Engineers that we work with tell us that sometimes they are also asked to provide design advice for the do-it-yourselfers who are trying to avoid hiring an architect. “Can’t you design it?” they are asked by the homeowner. This puts them in an awkward situation.

An SE is not typically trained in design or the other creative aspects of architecture. Their training involves making sure the building is built safely, meets building codes, and will withstand expected natural impacts (such as earthquakes, hurricanes, storm flooding, etc.) For example, SE’s are not familiar with electrical codes, exiting and fire code requirements. So, when they are asked to provide architectural drawings, they usually recommend a good local architect that they have worked with before.

When the homeowner tells them that “The City told me I didn’t need an architect,” the SE is forced to decide whether or not to argue with their own client. The engineer knows that an Architect will understand the structural issues, and will find easier and more harmonious ways to accomplish the goals of the project than a homeowner working alone. The SE can be more confident in the outcome. They also know that their SE professional liability is reduced if a licensed Architect has designed the project. So, engineers want to have an architect on the project.

The Structural Engineer’s dilemma arises if the homeowner refuses to hire an architect, based on the City or County’s “recommendation”. Then the project will still move forward with the SE’s help, but it will not be a smooth process, and almost certainly not be the best possible design.   So, what is the answer to the Structural Engineer’s dilemma? It starts with the City or County Planning Department. If they simply say, “You will need a Structural Engineer’s details and calculations, and we highly recommend that you also work with a licensed Architect.” This gives the homeowner factual information. In addition, it makes the Planner’s job easier, because ultimately they will review drawings prepared by a professional. We urge Planners to keep this in mind when giving instructions to homeowners in their jurisdiction.

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