| Professional Design - Why Bother?
Hiring an architect and / or engineer costs money, money that could instead be used for upgraded cabinets or carpets. And who wants to work with a snooty design professional anyway?
In this article Tim addresses the above as well as the following:
* Architect vs. designer?
* What type of engineer is needed?
* Tim's Top 5 criteria when selecting a consultant. Would you believe "nice" is at the top of the list? Article here
The next time you run into an over-engineer, let this be the go-to thing to show him / her.
These are slides from a Power Point show I do for builders who are trying to get Lean.
I'm doing a small commercial job in the Seattle area and have never in all my years run into a plan checker who's such an over-engineer. This person produced a 50 item correction list - just for structural.
And this is the 2nd submittal! I've done thousands of projects from LA to Canada and have never encountered anything like it. My designs almost never even earn a single comment during plan check. This guy's correction list has nothing of substance - just a bunch of busy work for me, apparently brought up to justify his existence, or maybe to show off his "massive knowledge." Why even bother hiring a PE - just have this person do the design and stamp the plans - he spent as much time dissecting my work as I did producing it. My architect and I have agreed never to work in this jurisdiction again, or if we do, triple our fees. Yes, this plan checker is doing a wonderful service to the taxpayers in his city.
Spreadsheets - Part 3, Text Intensive
I don't know about you, but I've spent many a frustrated hour wrangling with Microsoft Word.
It's taken about 20 years, but I've finally figured out that Excel is dandy at handling certain text-intensive tasks. Here's a rule-of-thumb: If your Word document includes a table, you're probably better off using a spreadsheet. Entire article here
HP41 Good, Spreadsheet Better
[Published in Structural Engineer Magazine, August, 2013. First in a series on the awesome power and utility of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets]
If I were to set college curricula, every engineering student would take a class on spreadsheets.Entire article here
Our Building Codes - Good, Bad, or Ugly?
What do YOU think of our building codes, the IBC and IRC?
I've been publicly critical of the International Codes over the years. Well, someone at the ICC finally saw one of my articles and lashed back with a letter to the editor. Here it is:
This letter is in response to a two-part piece I wrote concerning minimum rebar requirements in foundations. Here are the two articles:
Part 1, From Structural Engineer Magazine, January, 2013Part 2, From Structural Engineer Magazine, March, 2013
Of course the ICC would disagree with my opinion that their publications are convoluted and confusing. But to suggest that I be banned from voicing that opinion in the future is downright un-American.
How do you feel about the IBC and IRC?
* Are they user-friendly?
* Do they produce consistent results from user to user?
* Can you find what you're looking for easily and quickly?
I'll post the results from this poll on my blog at BuildersEngineer.com
Thanks for you time.
Clearing the Confusion On Plain Concrete - Rebar Requirements In Footings and Concrete Walls - Part 1, Footings
I’ve heard that rebar is not required by
code in foundations and basement walls yet I’ve never seen a plan that leaves
it out. If true, what a great way to save money in this economy. What’s the
straight scoop on this?
S., Edgerton, Wisconsin
I jump into the answer per code, if I happen to be the engineer on a project,
all concrete will contain a fair amount of rebar. This is a rare case where I
exceed minimum code. I’ll explain why at the end of the article.
[This article was published by Structural Engineer Magazine in January, 2013.]
Dear Builder's Engineer,
My house is an old-time house, I suspect 100 years old. It was built with 2x4 rafters. And the foot print is 30x24', and a piece of 1x6 shiplap as the ridge. I live in Regina, Sask and we get plenty of snow in the winter. I bought the house and later found that the inspector missed the cracked cripple and sagging common rafters....
Dear Builder’s Engineer,
15-year old small business is barely getting by even after I’ve done everything
I can think of to streamline it. I know there is enough work out there and that
I could be profitable, but I also know that my company has problems that are
keeping me down. My question is, how do
I get good advice? Asking my friends seems like the blind leading the blind.
Ken W., Denver,
I applaud you for seeking quality advice. Many small
business owners don’t and insteadmake the same mistakes over and over,
with the predictable result ofimplosion. I’m reminded of the saying, “You
can lead a student to knowledge but you can’t make him learn.”
Smarter Than Cordwood?
What do you think of the old saying,
“Measure Twice, Cut Once?
Not much, actually. That saying, in my opinion, is for
Allow me to illustrate. In my 52 years, I’ve cut a lot of
firewood. Growing up on a cattle ranch in Modesto,
CA, we lived in a circa 1920s
rambler. It had three heat sources: a fireplace and two wood stoves. It contained
not a stitch of insulation and wind blew through its single-pane, sash and counterweight
windows like a lawn chair. Winters
in Modesto were
damp and chilly – we wouldn’t see the sun for months through the tule fog.
So my three brothers, myself, and my dad spent summers
cutting lots of firewood.
Nowadays I live in a modern house with actual
in-floor hydronic heat. The problem is, my boiler is oil-fired and diesel costs
$4+ a gallon. I have a wood stove and several lifetime’s supply of....
To all of our preexisting ConstructionCalc.com customers - a hearty
welcome, and thank you for staying with us as we make the switch to
Here, in a nutshell, is what's going on...
Advice For My Son
Dear Builder’s Engineer,
You write a lot about business savvy. I’m nearing retirement and
want to pass along my design-build company to my son. What is the one,
most important piece of advice you would give in this situation?
All Engineers Created Equally?
Dear Builder’s Engineer,
noticed a big difference in the items one engineer calls out compared to
another. This seems bizarre. Aren’t all engineers supposed to follow the same
Travis S., Phoenix,
Engineers, like builders and architects, are not created
equally. While it’s true we all must adhere to the same building codes, our
designs will vary wildly. Here’s why.
Can A Building Inspector Do That?
Dear Builder’s Engineer,
plans called for a footing nine-inches tall, which is how I formed it. The
building inspector came along and rejected it saying it had to be 12-inches
tall, minimum. So I had to change it. These plans were engineered; can he
legally do that?
In a word, maybe.
The first question to be answered is, what does code require?
In the old days
that was a pretty straightforward question. No longer.
Studs At 24-inch Spacing?
With green framing all the rage I have been
tempted to start using studs at 24-inch spacing rather than 16, like I’ve
always done. How much will I really save
doing this and is it safe? I’m especially concerned with wavy drywall and
Savings will come in several ways. First, you’ll use a lot
fewer studs. Here’s an easy way to determine approximately how many less.
Number of studs saved = lineal feet of wall * 0.25.
every small business is supposed to have
a website but I have not taken the plunge yet.
My business is down like everyone’s in this recession. Do you think a
website really matters – is it time I bit the bullet and put one up?
In a word, absolutely.
I’ve said it before and here it is again: In Any Business,
Marketing Is Half. Or in the words of a grizzled colleague: “Think of your
business as a marketing company that just happens to provide construction
Shear Off A Wall
Dear Builder’s Engineer,
framer and I hear all the time, “shear off a wall.” What’s that really mean?
Jerome O., Branchville, South
If you were in the giant scissor business, I’d have a
different answer than the one that follows.
In the world of construction, shear can refer to several
things. To engineers it’s a certain type of stress inside a structural member
due to some applied load. Shear can also mean a lateral load from earthquake or
wind. And shear can refer to a construction method of resisting wind and
earthquake loads. To shear off a wall
is in reference to this third definition.
Nails vs. Screws
Dear Builder’s Engineer,
noticed that some details call out screws, some call out nails, and some don’t
make any callout at all. Is there a really a difference in the strength of
nails vs. screws?
I wish the answer was as straightforward as your excellent
question but unfortunately it is not.
Connector strength depends on a long list of variables:
species of wood, diameter of connector, duration of load, moisture content of
wood, thickness of members, length of penetration, edge distance, end distance,
spacing of connectors, orientation of wood grain, and probably the installer’s
brand of underwear.
I Like You If...
Do you behave differently when you
want something as opposed to when you have the thing others want? The “thing”
can be tangible like a building permit or a set of plans. My teenage son provides
another excellent example. He’s so friendly when he wants money – he’s been
known to actually initiate a
conversation when he’s broke. But when I want chores done it’s a different
Mentor A Greenhorn - It's Win-Win
Armand Hand went to an education committee meeting today for
the first time ever. Why today? He is a very successful builder who’s lived and
worked here in Skagit
County nearly all of his
50+ years. He doesn’t need to attend such things.
Why do I, after 10+ years, continue to serve on that same
committee? I’ve put in my time for the greater good. There’s no pay nor stipend,
and we members even buy our own lunch. Why should I continue? Why should the other
long-timers on the committee continue?
Bad Hustle - Good Hustle - A Marketing Lesson
In Mexico everyone
hustles. Not in the sense of hurrying, but rather in the sense of, “Ai, amigo,
special price for ju today! Everything half off! I gonna sell you this
hand-carved coconut head for just 500 pesos. Niiice, eh amigo?”
positively numbing all that hustling. Driving by a public park, for example,
the basketball backboards were ads for cell phones. On the beach, vendors were
as common as sand. There were tip-grubbing jugglers performing during red
lights in jammed intersections. A guitar man got on our bus, sang two songs,
didn’t get tipped, then got back off.
Every flat surface yells at you in neon colors and bold font. Taxi
drivers will throw you into a half-nelson to get you in their car. After a
while one gets calloused and stops paying attention. It actually becomes
just spent a week in Nuevo Vallarta and we had a bueno time - except for the
inescapable, pervasive selling.
one instance, however, in which I didn’t mind the hustle – where I was actually
eager to pay a generous tip.
Luis Fortuno vs. Barak Obama - A Report Card
Who is Luis Fortuno? I
didn't know either until I read a short article on him in Sunday's Skagit
Valley Herald. He is the Republican Governor of Puerto
Normally I avoid
politics like the mall on Black Friday. Mostly because our political machine is
so bloated, partisan, and broken it nauseates me. But for some reason I read
this article, which I found so inspiring I’m passing along the gist. This is
the first time I’ve ever posted something with a political bent and it may be
Do you Facebook? Can ‘Facebook’
be used as a verb?
“Yo, Vinnie, you wanna know what’s in my secret barbeque
sauce? Tell you what, I’ll Facebook it tomorrow. Check it out.”
‘Google’ became a verb; why not ‘Facebook’?
Anything that goes from noun to verb, globally, should be
paid attention to. If you’re interested in operating a successful business,
you’d better know how to Google, and you should also jump on the Facebook
bandwagon. Here’s why.
Unblocked Shear Walls? Would You Believe, Yes!
In my relentless pursuit of green, I am forced to face the
question: Must all plywood or OSB shear walls be blocked?
I say forced because prying the answer from our wonderful
building code is like trying to wrest a fresh butcher’s bone from a junkyard
dog. After much toil and sweat, however, I think I have succeeded.
The Mysterious Disappearing Cypress
The elderly woman’s voice on the other end of the phone
said, “Hello? Is this Mr. Garrison, the engineer?”
“Yes,” I replied, “thank you for calling. How may I help you
“Well, it’s my plant, you see. It disappeared. A lovely
Dwarf Cypress, it was, in a 15 gallon pot. I went to water it the other day but
when I got there it was gone: plant, pot, and all. Sunk into a hole in the
ground right next to my house. My builder-friend thought I should call you
about it. He’s worried that the house might fall in next.”
Free Advice! (makes me nervous)
I get lots of emails asking for structural advice - which is
great - I welcome them. However, it’s hard for me to offer detailed advice
without having seen a drawing or plan.
Everyone, myself included, likes free advice. We all
have nagging questions about things in which we are not experts. Things that if
we guess wrong will cost us.
Save Me $2,000 or No Soup For You! - A Green Framing Summary
take a consulting gig where you got paid only if your investigation resulted in
at least $2,000 savings per home, hard money? Kind of like the Soup Nazi –
either order food his way or no soup for you!
the deal Scott
Sedam at TrueNorth Development recently
agreed to with a medium-sized, western builder. I was the engineering component
of Scott’s Lean Team.
of the job pertained to the structural aspects. My mission:
identify inefficient construction;
estimate its cost;
3) Recommend more efficient, greener methods.
Show Me the Green
As a practicing engineer I see dozens of plan sets every
year. What I can’t figure out is why aren’t they different today than they were
10-years ago? Where’s the green? If green is so great, then show me the green!
I’m seeing no green.
Well, why not? Who’s in charge of green? Builders? Code officials?
Engineers? Owners? Architects?
Single Or Double Top Plate? - Diminishing Returns?
Green framing is a terrific concept, not much debate in that.
But is there a point of diminishing returns? Yes, of course there is. Remove
too much wood, and strength suffers.
Take the humble top plate of a stick framed wall for
example. For thousands of centuries builders have used the Double Top Plate. As
opposed to the Single Top Plate, which cuts the amount of top plate lumber precisely
in half. Any progressive, green-thinking framer ought to wonder: why, then, even
consider the Double?
Unreinforced Masonry - Dangerous?
I recently visited San Luis Obispo, CA and spent some time strolling
about downtown. I came upon the following placard posted conspicuously
on the front of an older building.
EARTHQUAKE WARNING: This is an unreinforced masonry building...
The placard struck me as funny for several reasons:
1. This town and every other town up and down the west coast
(earthquake country) is full of unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs).
2. This was the only such placard I saw in San Luis Obispo, or for that matter, in any town, ever.
3. The placard presupposes that a shopper will be prescient enough to
know when the earthquake will hit and thus will avoid being in or
around at that time.
So we’re left with a few questions:
A. Why bother with the placard?
B. How much risk is there, really, with unreinforced masonry buildings?
C. What can be done to mitigate the risk?
Tearing Out Walls - Safely
doing a remodel which requires the removal of an interior wall. Can I do this?
Is it safe?
I was once told by a remodeler that if I would answer this
very question and post it to my blog, it would be the hottest thing on the
internet. Somehow I doubt that, but I’m glad to shed some light on an oft
misunderstood and underestimated topic. Thank you for asking.
Following are the four main steps involved in demo’ing a
wall or a part of one. Please understand that there are many ways of doing
things – what I discuss below may or may not be exactly applicable to every
situation. If in doubt, be safe: call in an expert.
Sagging Floors - Dangerous?
A newspaper ran the following article recently. It caught my
eye because the subject concerns one of the most common problems I address in
my engineering practice: sagging floors.
provided some information that fit in the limited space allotted but not nearly
enough to really address the issues. For example, s/he says there are four
reasons a floor can sag, exactly four...
Brick Lintel Trouble
A builder recently asked if I could help them with a brick
cracking problem at the lintel supports at their double garage doors. The brick
in question is full-sized brick veneer with stick-framed wall behind.
Here is a sketch of the issue (the deflection shown is
at an exaggerated scale.)
Over-Engineer Kills Project
I got a call recently from Stylus R. Ofom, a sales rep for a
brand of Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF).
“Tim,” he carped, “I’ve got a new high-end home project in San Francisco that an
engineer WAY overdesigned. This guy spec’d so much rebar, there’s no room left
for the concrete. No contractor will bid the job – and that’s saying something
in these tough times. He’s killed the project! I’d call the joker but I’m so
hacked right now I’d probably say something I shouldn’t. And besides, you know
how certain engineers can never be wrong? I’m in a bad way here. Would you be
interested in re-engineering this thing?”
Social Media - Really Necessary?
It seems that every marketing
tip these days includes a screaming imperative for some sort of internet-based social
media. It’s so boggling I’m not even sure I said that right.
Rule number 1 in all business is
you survive only if you sell things. Goods
or services, it doesn’t matter; money only flows in when the register goes cha-ching. I found out a long time ago
that selling is impossible without marketing. In the old days it was easy; you
paid for ads. Nowadays you’d better be computer and internet savvy or you’re
If you believe marketing
experts, that’s right. My experience, however, bears a different conclusion.
The Chimney Sweep – Part 1 – Shadetree Ladders and Buzzards
“Tim, I smell smoke!” my gal,
Cindy, rasped the other day. “And it’s giving me a headache. Can’t you do
something about that stupid wood stove?”
“What are you talk-hak-kaf-ing about,” I replied. “I can’t
smell a thing. And I can’t believe your hyper-sensitive nose can either. Hey,
don’t run away when I’m trying to have a conversation with you.”
“I’m not running away - I’m
right here. You might be able to see me if the smoke wasn’t so thick.”
“Well, a small puff happened to
escape when I put in a log just now. Probably clear –hak- up in a few –kaf-
Cindy didn’t think so and went
around throwing open every door and window in the place.
“You’re letting the warm air
out!” I cried. “And the arctic air in. You’re defeating the whole purpose of the
“Right now I wouldn’t care if a blizzard blew
through as long as it brought some fresh air with it. This place smells like an
The Chimney Sweep – Part 2 – Chevvy the Chimney Guy
[In Part 1 Tim attempts to clean his stove pipe, falls, and nearly
becomes buzzard food. He wisely decides to call a professional.]
“Hello, Chevvy, the Chimney Guy,” said the voice on the
“How soon can you get to Big Lake?”
“Well, that depends on your budget. Is this an emergency?”
“My house isn’t burning down if that’s what you’re asking.
See, I tried to clean my own…”
“Let me guess,” he interrupted. “You’ve got a broken stove
pipe and there’s weather coming. Is that the case?”
The guy had radar. “How’d you know? Yes, that’s exactly it.”
“Yeah, geniuses like you call all the time. I can be there
this evening. Cost will be in the five hundred dollar range, plus parts.”
“What’s your cost if you come next week?”
“That’d be non-emergency rates. One hundred plus
My son, Connor, just turned 16.
Among his other sophomoric activities, he plays baseball and basketball. This
summer he played in a national baseball tournament in Florida. Around here, Connor is used to
getting respect on the playing field. But in Florida he was just about as average as a six-and-a-half-inch
trout caught on opening day from a stocked pond. And his team wasn’t any
better. So on the fourth day Connor’s coach had a little talk with the team. Brad
Wolgamott is a very successful businessman and youth coach, having taken teams
to the little league world series and other national tournaments.
Before I recount coach Wolgamott’s
speech, I need to tell you that I was especially struck by the applicability of
the principles therein to any business. Brad was addressing a bunch of deflated
16U boys but could have just as easily been talking to a group of dinged up businessmen
emerging from the recession. Here is what he said, as nearly as I can recollect.
The Tire Grudge
My dear old dad, Charlie, has had a time of it with tires.
It all started in about 1970 and a set of Montgomery Wards radials he bought
for our Ford Country Squire station
wagon. After about 20,000 miles one of those tires blew out.
MONKEY WARDS MAN: Hello sir, may I help you?
CHARLIE: Yes. I purchased these tires here a couple years
ago and one of them had a sidewall blowout. I’d like it replaced please.
MONKEY WARDS MAN: How many miles do you have on this tire,
CHARLIE: About 20,000.
MONKEY WARDS MAN: (looking at a chart in a binder) Well, the
pro rata credit towards a new tire is seven dollars. The replacement cost to
you, then, will be only twenty four dollars. Can we put that on for you now,
CHARLIE: (agitated) What do you mean pro rata credit? This
tire blew out in the sidewall, it didn’t wear out. I call that defective –
something that should be replaced at no cost.
MONKE WARDS MAN: I’m sorry, sir, but store policy prohibits…
CHARLIE: (angry) Do you have a manager? I’d like to speak to
MONKEY WARDS MAN: No problem, sir. I’ll find him for you.
The short conclusion to this story is that Montgomery Wards
would not budge on their tire policy and my dad not only did not spend another
twenty four dollars for a new tire, he never again set foot in Montgomery