Structural Engineers

Author: admin

Shipping Container Engineering

This is a brief video of how we do the structural engineering of a shipping container building.  If this video is received well, we will post a more in depth video.

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Center for Civil Rights, Atlanta, GA

This project involved engineering a number of different types of panels to give the architectural effect.  We worked under Seco Architectural Systems, Inc on preparing the shop drawings.  The project involved determining the wind loads on the panels to determine if they would be able to meet the required span, and determing the required connections.  This was unusual because in the front the panels are perforated to provide a screen effect, which made working out the connections and the checking of the spans challenging.

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That Seventies House

In my years of evaluating properties, one type of house that has always amazed me is the one that time forgets.  The house gets built in a certain period, and it stays that way, no updates, no modifications.  When I get into them they’ve usually been vacant for a while and they can be in pretty rough shape. That’s not an idication of how they were taken care of, a vacant house can deteriorate very fast.  This house is time frozen in the Seventies, which I thought was kind of cool in its own way.  It was also sad when I thought about the people that lived in it.  Here we go:

A panoramic view of the basement.  The ceiling is false, the real ceiling is actually above the ridge beam.  Apparently they put in the false cathedral ceiling to make the room look a bit more proportional.  The ceiling tiles are of a wood veneer I've never seen anywhere else.  At the time this house was built, I worked in a building supply store, so I thought I'd seen everything awful from the period, but I guess I missed something.

A panoramic view of the basement. The ceiling is false, the real ceiling is actually above the ridge beam. Apparently they put in the false cathedral ceiling to make the room look a bit more proportional. The ceiling tiles are of a wood veneer I’ve never seen anywhere else. At the time this house was built, I worked in a building supply store, so I thought I’d seen everything from the period, but I guess I missed something.

A built in entertainment center.  This was the rage among people my parents age.  Younger people liked the stereo components type systems where you had separate turntables, tuners, speakers, and 8 track tape player.  So, whoever built this was probably either of WWII or Korean War generation.

A built in entertainment center. This was the rage among people my parents age. Younger people liked the stereo components type systems where you had separate turntables, tuners, speakers, and 8 track tape player. So, whoever built this was probably either of WWII or Korean War generation.  That means when the house was built, the owners were probably already in their mid-fifties.

The carpet hasn't aged well.  Sadly, this looks like something my mother picked out.  Sadder still, at the time we thought this was rather attractive.

The carpet hasn’t aged well. At the time we thought this was rather attractive.

This was a picnic pavillion on a slab behind the house. It was probably really nice in the day.  Sadly, it looks like it was never updated, and was in bad shape for years.

This was a picnic pavillion on a slab behind the house. It was probably really nice in the day.  I’m sure they had some really cool parties there in the day.

Another smaller picnic area.  This is in a nice part of the yard, well shaded.  I'm sure it was nice in the day.

Another smaller picnic area. This is in a nice part of the yard, well shaded. I’m sure it was nice in the day too.

Whenever I see a house like this, I wonder what happened.  It looks like whoever moved into a place put a lot of care into building it, and then never did anything to update it over the years.  Did the people get sick?  Did they start getting old, and let everything go?  Did they have financial issues?  Usually the story is the people live in the house much longer than they probably should, lack the ability to maintain it anymore.  Should they have gone into an assisted living facility?  I talked to an elderly lady about this once, and she said she figured she had about 5 years or so to live.  She was going to spend that time living in her house where she was comfortable, and whatever happened to her house after that didn’t concern her the least.  So, I guess I have to agree.  I’d rather spend my last days in a house that looks like this rather than go to a retirement home and live in the sterile unfamiliar environment there.


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Job Hunting Advice From An Employer

For as long as I can remember, I have met people who just can’t seem to find a job.  They send out resumes and answer all the want ads, and get nowhere.  They read books on job hunting tips, they go to job fairs, and still they get nowhere.  They spend loads of time polishing their resumes, working out the “right” cover letter, and still nothing… Why is this?  I first started on this problem back in the 90’s when I was writing part time for the Motley Fool Investment Forum.  My job at the time with The Motley Fool was part-time, and to put it mildly, I hated my full time job with every ounce of my being.  I had two priorities, the first was to get out of that job, the second was to avoid getting into an even worse job (which happened to me once before).  I found out with a bit of research that almost everything that I had learned about job hunting from the career development center in college, books, and articles by “experts” was wrong.  A few years later I found myself running my own company, and I can tell you why common wisdom is wrong.

Let’s start with the typical way people look for jobs.  Back before the Internet, you would get the Sunday paper and scan through the classifieds.  You’d find a job that most likely fit, and send in a resume.  Maybe you didn’t have all the requirements, but you would think, “hey, what the heck, maybe they’ll hire me anyway”.  You’d type up your cover letter, copy your resume, and mail it all in and keep your fingers crossed and wait anxiously by the phone like a teenage girl would do back then hoping her latest crush would be calling her for a date.  The problem is what happened on the other end.

The employer doing the advertisement would find themselves snowed with applications.  I advertised a job once in the paper and I got about 100 responses.  Out of those, maybe one or two people were qualified.  A lot of the respondants to the advertisements didn’t meet any of the requirements at all.  Many of them were on a downward spiral in their lives, you could see a pattern of short term jobs that were ever lower paying.  If the employer was dumb enough to list the company name with the advertisement, they would also find themselves flooded with calls by very obnoxious or desperate people.  Generally, if anyone got hired out of that mess, it was the very first few qualified resumes to show up that got interviews.  Everything else went to the slush pile.  So, if you twiddled about for a day before getting your package in the mail, you may have been number 50 resume to show up, and by that time someone else got lucky and was already going through the selection process.  Your resume and cover letter either ended up in a file to be forgotten, or thrown in the trash.

Now we can advertise through job websites like Monster.  That turns out even worse.  I advertised for a part time position that had a few requirements: 1. You had to be studying engineering in college, second year or higher. 2. The job was part time.  3. You needed to commute to Lawrenceville, GA.  Apparently no one read the ad.  I got an application from a PhD in Texas, who I guess thought he could commute to Georgia and make Intern pay for 20 hours a week.  I got loads of applications from people with no education at all.  I got applications from mid-career engineers.  The closest application I got was from a young woman who was studying business at a local college that wanted a part time job.  Too bad I was looking for an engineer intern.  I wasted my time with over 100 worthless applications.

What a lot of employers do, and I will also when the company gets bigger, is use a “headhunter”.  That’s a corporate recruiter that finds and screens the applicants for you, and gives you some suitable people.  I have been contacted by headhunters, and I was lucky enough to be found by one that got me out of my miserable job and moved here to Atlanta.  The problem is headhunters tend to call you when you aren’t looking for a job.  If you manage to find a headhunter on your own, you have to hope they know of a job open that you are qualifed for – they don’t keep business by referring unqualified applicants to potential employers.  So, the othe alternative is to act as your own headhunter.

Here’s a good tip – call potential employers yourself.  If you call me looking for a job, I will talk to you.  It will be a short conversation, but I’ll ask you some specific questions, and if you are potentially qualified, I will ask for your resume.  When I’ve looked for jobs, I’ve gotten the same warm reception mostly.  There are two exceptions, one when I called a very large engineering firm’s personnel department, and the guy hung up on me.  I found out later (surprise) that it was kind of a miserable company.  The other one irritated me a lot.  I knew an executive in a large engineering firm that ran its office near where I lived in New Jersey.  He referred me to the manager of their Washington, DC office, where I was looking for a job. I called the DC office, told the receptionist my name and asked for the guy.  She came back on the phone and asked me why I was calling. I said “I’m looking for a job,and I was referred by xxx”.  She put me on hold, and then came back and said the individual I was calling was out, and she would take my number.  Of course he never called me, and he wasn’t out.  He was obviously a jerk, and I ended up avoiding working for him and having to look for a job AGAIN.

Generally every time I called a company I was called in for an interview.  Not every interview led to a job offer of course, but in every case the people I talked to were very polite, so it does work.  The fact is that many of us don’t advertise for job openings, and in a small business we really don’t even have job openings.  If you come in to see us, and we think we can make use of you, you may get a job.  OR, we may refer you to someone that is looking (that happened to me once).

Is there anything else you can do?  Some people think networking is good, like going to professional society meetings or civic organization meetings.  I got a job offer for repairing doorbells at a Lion’s Club meeting.  I’m not exaggerating, this happened when I was trying to leave the miserable job.  I politely explained to the guy that I was a graduate engineer with something like 15 years experience and a Professional Engineer license, and he went on to tell me what a big mistake I was making….  So, my feeling is that networking events are a waste of time, unless you like that sort of thing.  It’s the same problem with answering the job posting online – you are there with hundreds of other applicants if it is a job fair.  If it is a professional society meeting, you will be lucky to talk to a handful of people who probably have no hand in the hiring process in their companies.  If it is a civic organization, you may end up having your time wasted by someone in a doorbell repair business, some other oddball venture, or a distributed marketing venture.

Should you answer want ads in the paper, or go to online job sites?  The recruiter that got me the job in Atlanta said yes, it is important to get your name out there.  I think it is another waste of time for the most part, but it’s not much time wasted. It’s not like spending an afternoon at a job fair and coming home with a bunch of applications but no job in hand.  It is certainly better than going to some civic organization meeting and getting cornered by some guy who wants to recruit you to sell vitamins or insurance with a promise that you could be a “Regional Vice President” or some silliness like that if you can recruit people under you.  So, I reluctantly agree with the recruiter.  Also, when I was trying to leave the miserable job, I actually got a job offer from posting my resume online.  So, the 5 minutes or so I spent posting my resume wasn’t a waste of time.

What about your resume?  I don’t know what it is, but two guys I hired gave me resumes that were impossible to figure out.  Just give a chronoligical record of your jobs and the responsibilites.  Skip fancy fonts and expensive paper.  NO COLORED PAPER PLEASE!  I get resumes with so many different fonts that they look like ransom notes from the old days.  Also, I don’t really care about your personal interests, like that you garden, read books, or fish. You won’t do any of that at my office, so it matters little to none.  Don’t give any information on your religion or political views.  I really don’t want to know, I want to evaluate you on what you can do. Some people send pictures, don’t do that.  Please don’t do that.  You want the people screening you to be blind to your race, looks and age as much as possible.  Your picture doesn’t help.  To me three things are important – education, professional societies, work experience.  For entry level people, even unrelated work experience helps, I want to know if you’ve ever had a job.

Gaps in employment don’t help on resumes.  Hopefully if you were laid off and out of work for a long time you can fill in the gap with some sort of educational activity.  Maybe explain it with something like caring for a sick relative, or taking a sabbatical to travel or whatever.  Try not to make it look like you were sitting at home staring at the TV set feeling bad about yourself, even if you were.  Also, look at the job titles that you give yourself on the resumes.  I once was hiring an engineer, and I got an applicant that put down his present job as “Industrial Engineer Intern” at a local steel company.  He was out of school for about 4 years. He didn’t get the job.  Why would I hire a graduate engineer that was out of school for 4 years that was just an intern?  I thought about it later, and I would bet that Personnel at the company he worked at would only authorize an “Intern” position, and that’s what he was hired in.  More than likely he was doing real engineer work instead of getting coffee and making copies like interns do.  Now, it is a little tricky to change your job title on your resume if you work for a big company and have a formal job title.  So, he should have put down “Company xxx – Perform Industrial Engineering”.  Don’t let an awful job title kill your chances at another job.

Now, let’s get to the interview.  Some things go without saying.  Don’t drink before you go to an interview.  If an interviewer takes you to lunch and treats you to a glass of wine or a beer, and you have another interview later in the day, you just lost your chance for a job at the later interview.  If you get taken to lunch, don’t drink alchohol.  If the interviewer pushes you, tell him or her you have an important meeting to go to later and you don’t want to smell like alcohol. Dress properly.  Different types of job the dress is different.  If you come to see us, we’ll ask you to wear old clothes because we are going to take you to a jobsite.  Don’t wear revealing clothing, dirty clothes, or worn out clothes.  Show up on time.  Don’t show up super early, then they have to do something with you while you wait and that is not appreciated.

Dressing for job interviews used to be a lot easier.  You wore a suit and that was it.  There was a book called “Dressing for Success” which was good to follow.  Today we are all casual.  We wear shorts and flip flops in my office.  I usually go around in my stocking feet or barefoot, which was unheard of when I got out of college.  I still would wear a suit or a sports jacket if I were a man.  A woman should wear the female equivalent.  If you are older like me, don’t wear “old people clothes”.  That means no slip on orthopedic shoes (it won’t hurt you to wear regular shoes for an hour or two).  NO CARDIGAN SWEATER!  Remember the Dennis the Menace TV show? – if you are old enough to, this definitely applies to you.  Mr. Wilson always wore a cardigan sweater, to make sure you knew he was a crochety old man.  Don’t dress like Mr. Wilson.

Now, for the less obvious stuff.  I’m going to go through my pet peeves of an interview.  Don’t overshare – don’t volunteer about your treatment for Depression, or talk about how you were arrested for DUI at 17.  When you are being interviewed, the interviewer is looking for a reason to turn you down, don’t give him or her that reason.  Show some expression. I am always interviewing people who show a poker face and speak with a monotone all through the interview.  The same corporate recruiter I mentioned earlier found that annoying too – she thought it might be due to nervousness.  I tend to interpret it as you are the type of person who has no interest in anything, and will show no initiative.  Ease up, the interviewer is no better than you.  Smile, show some emotion.  Don’t do the nervous laugh.  This is typical oftentimes of young people, and it is real annoying.  I’ve had bad experiences with people that had this habit, so it will kill your chance of getting a job with me, and I suspect others may feel the same.

Don’t badmouth ANYTHING. I don’t care how much you hate your present job, don’t say it during the interview.  I made the mistake in one interview of telling the interviewer I was having trouble with my boss.  Everyone that knew my boss knew he was a petty tyrant, and so did the interviewer (who was the owner of the company I was interviewing at and knew my boss for years).  He spent two hours pumping me about how bad my boss was and what happened.  It was terribly depressing and I didn’t get the job.  Fortunately, I got a job shortly after, because that conversation could have found its way back to my former boss (actually it did after I left), and as bad as things were, it would have made things much much worse.  I’ve also had interviews where the interviewer badmouthed a former employer that I liked and still had very good relations with.  The best thing in that case is to not comment in any way.  Don’t tell the interviewer about bad experiences you had with other job interviews, the interviewer will be afraid you will do the same wih him or her.

The worst part of any interview for me is the end when they say “any questions?”.  At this point in time I always feel I’ve been trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose, and there really isn’t anything else I want to know.  I always have wanted to say, “I’ve had enough today, can I go home now?”  Even if the interviewer has had it, and would like you to leave too, don’t do that.  Ask something fairly simple like “can I see one of your company’s projects?”  That’s easy, not to painful for anyone, and you can get out.  Don’t ask about pay and benefits until you are offered the job.

If you get offered the job, make sure it is in writing with a start date.  I was once offered a job verbally, and the guy that hired me forgot that he offered me a job.  I quit my job, and went to work at the other place.  No one in the company knew who I was and why I was there when I showed up on the appointed date.  I had to cool my heels to wait for the guy (he was about an hour late).  He showed up, and got an “oh s*$t” look on his face. I ended up with a much lower job than I was originally offered.  A couple months later my former employer took me back, and the guy that hired me cursed me out when I gave him notice.  That was one of my first experiences with what I call a “Stupid Employee”.  That will be another blog post.

Some jobs make you relocate.  My first job out of college was with a major oil company in New Jersey, I lived in Maryland.  I didn’t ask about relocation expenses.  The company’s headquarters was in Cherry Hill, NJ and I was goig to work in Moorestown, NJ.  I went in to see the personnel guy, and told him I was ready for the corporate move.  He said “well, we hired you in Cherry Hill, and you are working in Moorestown, and that is only about 5 miles, so there is no move involved”.  I was horrifed.  I mentioned to him that I lived in Gaithersburg, MD, which was a good 150 miles away.  He told me that it didn’t matter.  Moral of the story – check about the moving benefits if you have to relocate.  I never let that happen again.

I hope this helps you in your job search, and I wish you the best of luck.


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This (Really Surprising) Old House

Our company does a lot of structural condition assessments of residences, oftentimes for Architects when there is a planned major renovation of an old house.  The City of Atlanta requires an engineer to evaluate the foundations of old homes if a second story is proposed, because there are often problems with the existing foundations.  This house was at first unremarkable, it was an old home in the west side of Atlanta, and was a fairly standard small home built in the 1920’s for working class people that had employment in the cotton mills and factories that once dotted the City.  However, this one had a surprise.  Let’s look at it:

House view from side.

House view from side.

View of house from front

View of house from front

It was just what we call a “shotgun shack”, it was an old duplex that had been subdivided into apartments as the neighborhood got poorer.  I was surprised though when I looked around the side20170512_115649

Notice the subwall is stone – that was not typical of these type of houses.  Usually they didn’t have subwalls, they had brick piers and were open underneath. You usually see concrete block that was placed around the brick piers at a later date to close in under the house and add some space for storage and usually a washing machine.  Also, what was the deal with the blocked up window? Around back  the subwall changed to block, which was odd:

Block placed at the back of the house.

Block placed at the back of the house.

I thought the whole thing was rather unusual, but the answer came when I went into the basement.  I found this:

Doorway to old house.

Doorway to old house.

The house had been built on top of an older stone house!  The stone house underneath has to date back to the mid 1800’s.  It’s rare to find such things around here, most of the older homes were built of timber, which is long gone.  Apparently when they built the shotgun house, there was an old house already on site, and the builder just built on top.  Here’s some more photos:

Interior of older house - note the old window that was blocked in.

Interior of older house – note the old window that was blocked in.  Very impressive stone masonry around the windows.

The front corner - note the newer stone work - it is under a fireplace.  Also, we see a window blocked in.

The front corner – note the newer stone work – it is under a fireplace. Also, we see a window blocked in.

Old timber used to support first floor - this was also salvaged from even older buildings, it is rough sawn.

Old timber used to support first floor – this was also salvaged from even older buildings, it is rough -sawn.

Another view of the recycled timber.  The workmanship here is very poor, unlike the workmanship on the original stone house.

Another view of the recycled timber. The workmanship here is very poor, unlike the workmanship on the original stone house.  The builder simply stacked stone and set the timbers that he salvaged on top.

I have seen the older homes containing salvaged timber, that is rather common.  Reusing timber from old houses or barns that were torn down would have made sense to the builder.  The cost of materials vs. labor probably was more in favor of using the labor and trying to save on materials.  Hopefully the investor that bought the house and the Architect will make use of the old house in the basement and make this a more distinctive house.  This is one of the most interesting homes I’ve ever visited.


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Why We Don’t Do Work in California

We get a lot of requests for engineering in California, and we have turned them all down.  Why are we doing this?  Wouldn’t it be better to make the money?  Turns out it is not so simple.  There are really severe problems that we can’t overcome right now.  Let me go through it:

1. I am not licensed as a Professional Engineer in California.  To get licensed requires a specific Seismic Exam, which I have not had time to take.  I had to first complete my Master’s Degree, and now I am preparing to test for the Structural Engineer license.

2.  I have had people say they could get a Professional Engineer to stamp my drawings in California.  “Plan Stamping”, where an engineer stamps another unlicensed engineer’s work is forbidden in every state. While this restriction is sadly universally ignored, if something happens there can be very severe adverse consequences to my license and my liability.

3. One way we have worked around the “Plan Stamping” is that I have partnered with another engineer in California.  This has caused my costs to go way up because I’m working with another engineer that lacks experience in this type of work and we end up spending a lot more time then budgeted on the project.  Worse, the partnering engineer also spends more time than he or she budgeted, and that runs their costs up too.

4.  The distance.  We are thousands of miles away from California and 3 time zones.  If there are problems with a project, this can be a serious issue.  To fly out to California to deal with an issue will take up 3 days and a significant cost for air fare, car rental, and hotel.

It just doesn’t make sense at this time for us to take up projects in California, so for the foreseeable future we won’t be able to help you in that state.

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Finding a Home Inspector

We at Runkle Consulting don’t do home inspections, but we very often follow up after home inspectors to check out things that they have found and have noted to the home buyer.  It may be cracks in the foundations, deflection of floors, or anything that looks suspicious that an engineer’s opinion is needed.  As such, we’ve gotten quite familiar with home inspectors, and I think I can provide some guidance in choosing the right one.

One problem with home inspectors is in many jurisdictions there is no licensing requirement.  If you see an advertisement for a home inspector here in Georgia and it says “Licensed/Insured” that only means the inspector has a business license.  That says nothing about his or her qualifications.  The Insurance may be just General Liability and Workman’s Comp, which is a good thing if he falls through a ceiling while doing an inspection, but doesn’t cover you for Errors and Omissions.  The second problem is there is no clear pathway to becoming a home inspector. Many I know have been practicing engineers, others were home builders.  However, more than a few that I’ve known had no background related to anything remotely related to residential construction.  They just decided one day “I think I’ll become a home inspector”, got a business license, and there you are.

In my business, I mentally categorize the bad home inspectors into three categories:

1. The Blind Mice: These inspectors are totally dependent on referrals from real estate agents, and don’t want to derail that gravy train.  They will find minor items, but never the big stuff.  They don’t want to make the real estate agent mad.  So, your real estate agent refers you to a home inspector, you get charged about $400 or so, and the inspector comes out, finds some inconsequential stuff, and you buy the house.  Later you find the foundation is settling and you are out $10,000 or so in repairs.

2. The Idiots:  I’ll give an example of one in particular.  I got hired by a builder to evaluate a bunch of stuff a home inspector wrote up about a house he built.  One of the items was that the nails in the deck were countersunk into the treated lumber, “breaking the protection”.  The stupidity of this is astounding.  Pressure treated lumber is treated in a pressure vessel that forces the preservative through the depth of the lumber.  Sample cores are taken from the batch to assure the treatment has gotten all  the way through the lumber.  Of course if it is so important to protect the surface, what did the inspector think about the cut ends?

OK, that was bad.  The same inspector pointed out the ground floor was built out of level.  It wasn’t.  There was a load bearing wall setting on the floor that was not supported by anything underneath.  If he had gone in the crawl space, he would have seen this.  The reason the floor was out of level was it was deflecting (bending from the weight above).  It needed foundations and a beam installed below it.  The house was twisting completely out of shape and the inspector didn’t catch this.

I wrote my response to the report, and pointed out the major issue in the basement.  The builder never paid me of course, which is why I generally don’t work for builders anymore to answer home inspector’s reports (there is only one I work for to do this now).

The Deal Breaker:  The deal breaker may be a form of #2 above.  He or she finds minor items wrong and blows them out of proportions.  They will scare you to death.  I’ve seen reports that pretty much accused everyone in the chain from the real estate agent, the bank, the builder, the engineer, and anyone else remotely involved to be in collusion to cheat you, the poor buyer.  My favorite one was where the inspector insisted that brick had been removed and replaced in the veneer of the house by the bank after its foreclosure.  Seriously, banks never do that kind of repair, they replace carpets and repaint and that’s it.  Replacing brick veneer with exact same color and type of brick in small sections is pretty difficult to do if it can be done at all. Certainly no bank I’ve ever seen in possession of a house would spend that type of money.

The deal with the Deal Breaker is you go along to multiple houses, the deal gets broken on each one, and you pay this fellow yet another fee to break the next deal.  This inspector is not a great deal either.

OK, so should you get a home inspector given what I said above?  The short and only answer is yes.  A good home inspector will be able to tell you if there are problems or potential problems with your roof, the heating system, the AC system, the electrical system, and the structure.  A home inspector has to have good attention to detail and have a working knowledge of all the areas of construction of a house.  If I was buying a house tomorrow, I would hire a home inspector and I’ve been in residential construction for 18 years now, I’ve been in the construction business for 40 years, and I’ve been an engineer for 36 years.  There is a lot of general stuff a good home inspector knows that most of us just don’t know.

How do you pick a good home inspector?  Well, your real estate agent can refer you to one, but I recommend going against that way.  You don’t want an inspector that even has it in the back of his or her head that your real estate agent (who will get a commission from you if you buy the house) has passed on this work to him or her. I recommend using the Internet.

First off, you want an inspector that is qualified, and carries proper insurance.  A good place to start is with the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) This society has a qualification system for its members, and provides continuing education to them also.  Here in Georgia there is also the Georgia Association of Home Inspectors (GAHI), which I have a high opinion of.  Getting the name of the inspector is only the first step.

Next, check out the inspector’s website. If there is no website, go to the next inspector.  What kind of qualifications does the inspector have?  Other than the qualification from the association, there should be certifications from the International Code Council (ICC).  You want Residential Combination Inspector certification.  That certification means the inspector has passed a series of exams in the Building Codes  in framing, electical, plumbing, and mechanical (heating and air conditioning).  It can give you a level of confidence that he or she knows their job.  Also, check out their bio.  Do they have a relevant background? Were they in construction or design?  Or did they just hate their job one day and decide home inspection would be great (if you got this far, they probably do have a good background).

Now, there are those that feel you should get a licensed engineer (Professional Engineer or PE) or licensed architect (Registered Architect or RA) to do the inspection.  While I am a PE, and I have seen some very good home inspectors that were PE’s, I don’t feel it is necessarily a requirement.  I believe a person with a solid background can do an inspection as good or better than a PE or RA.

Finally, you need to check references.  Fortunately, you don’t have to get the inspector to give you a list of names and phone numbers to call and hope you get truthful answers like you would have had to do a few years ago. You can now check the reviews online, like from Kudzu. Of course reviews can be misleading.  Often less ethical people will “salt the claim” buy having bogus reviews posted about them.  Also, you can get the occasional crazy and angry dissatisfied customer posting a negative review.  The fake reviews are pretty easy to spot, they will all be written in the same language.  Often the language in fake reviews lacks specificity, but is very flowery.  The crazy angry customer is pretty easy to spot too, and usually there will be a rebuttal to a negative review if the inspector is any good.

Now, you found your inspector.  What should you expect?

1.  The inspector cannot possibly find everything, and an inspection is not a warranty on the house you buy. While the home inspector may carry Errors and Omissions insurance, if something is missed forget about suing.  Typically the contract you sign only allows for a refund of your inspection fee.  Also, taking someone to court costs about $50,000 to $100,000 which is a lot of money to spend on an item that costs $10,000 to repair.  True, the jury may award you attorney’s fees and punitive damages, but I would rather go to Vegas and hit the slots.  That way you at least get free drinks while you blow your money.

2.  The inspector is bound by ethics to point out everything that he or she finds wrong.  You have to decide whether you can live with it.  For example, I went to a foreclosure years ago.  The home inspector was worried about the slope on the rear of the house. I examined it and agreed.  I told the buyer that it could cost about $40,000 to fix. The buyer said “OK, I’m still buying the house.”  The house was being sold by the bank at such a steep discount that $40,000 to repair the rear slope wasn’t a big deal.  That’s the most extreme example I could think of, but it points out that some things that the inspector finds can be lived with.

3. The inspector should not be designing repairs. I’ve followed up after a couple that did this, and their designs were just plain bad.  Leave the repair design to the contractor, and architect, or an engineer.

4.  Codes are not retroactive.  I followed up behind an inspector once that pointed out all the code violations from the 2009 Residential Code on a house built in the 1970’s. First, the 2009 Code was not in effect in Georgia, the 2006 Code was.  Second, the Code doesn’t require you to retrofit existing structures.  Doing this confuses the issue, the inspector needs to look for signs of failure, or items at the end of their service life.

5.  In my opinion there are a number of areas that need extreme attention:

– The Decks.  Decks fail catastrophically (in other words, complete failure with no warning).  As a deck gets older, it gets weaker. They have about a 20 year service life, and are often not safely erected.

– The Roof.  Home inspectors often carry binoculars so they can examine a roof up close.  A poor roof has to be replaced, because water leakage can cause major structural damage.  Replacement can cost you a lot of money, which you don’t want to be hit with when you get in the house.

– Foundations.  Look at this post – do NOT allow this to happen to you.  Please click that link, it will scare you. Foundation repair can be exceedingly expensive.

– Mechanical: Does the house you are looking at have a 15 year old air conditioner or furnace?  Guess what?  You will be buying a new one soon.

– Electrical:  Look out for “jack leg” (substandard) electrical work.  Homeowners will often engage in really bad DIY projects, and electrical is not one to do bad.  Some homeowners will hire “handymen” to come around and do work, and in my experience what they do is often just as bad or work.  The worst thing about bad electrical repairs is they can make your house burn down, or electrocute you.  In other words, kill you, which is not what you want.

How long should a home inspection last?  Depends on the size of the house.  A large house can take all day.  It takes me one hour to look at one item on a house.  If you call me to look at a settling foundation, I will be at your house for at least that long. A home inspector has to look at everything, so I would say at least 4 hours.

How much should your inspection cost?  Depends again on the house. Don’t go cheap.  Around here in Atlanta, I would say around $400 to $600 for a standard size house.  Larger houses (5000 + Square Feet) could cost $1000 or more.  An “expensive” home inspection could save you thousands in repairs later, so don’t practice false economy.

I hope this helps,


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Early Adoption – A Bad Idea For Business

We all know someone that has the latest of everything, and many of us engineers are guilty of that.  In marketing class this type of person was called an “early adopter”.  An early adopter would have had the first iPhone, and then maybe jumped over to the Android phone when it came out.  Maybe she had the first iPod.  Most early adopters that I’ve known, which includes me and most of the members of my paternal side of my family (most of us are engineers by profession).  As a group, we like gadgets.  My father purchased “Pong” (one of the earliest video games), and the Timex Sinclair computer, which was a very early, but useless computer. It’s OK on a personal level, but horrible for a business to be that way.  The reason is you need technology to mature before it is useful, and I’ll give a bit of a history lesson.

Way back in 1981 IBM produced its first PC.  It had 16K of memory and ran on the Intel 8088 processor that ran at 5 Mhz.  For comparison, the computer I am writing on now has a 4.5 GHz processor, which is a thousand times more cycles, and it has 4 cores in the processor.  So, we can say it processes four thousand times faster.  Except it’s faster than that.  The 8088 was an 8 bit processor, and this processor is a 64 bit.  I’m not really sure what that means, but it does mean it’s faster.  It also has 4 cores, so it is in effect 4 processors vs. the one processor in the early IBM PC. This computer has 32 MBytes of memory, so that’s two thousand times as much memory, not counting the memory that is on the video card, the hard drive and the processor itself.

Ok, the technology has advanced. The big question was, what could you do with the technology in 1981?  It turns out not so much.  You could use Visicalc (the first spreadsheet – an earlier version of this post was in error, it became available in 1979) and one word processor.  So, if you bought a PC for yourself, you could write some letters, do some budgets on the wordprocessor, and play with the BASIC computer language that came with it, and that was about it for a while.  If you were a dedicated hobbyist, that was probably OK.  You could play with BASIC and write various useless programs (like I did).  For a business, a PC would be a pretty expensive investment for the few functions it provided initially.  By the mid-eighties a lot of businesses had them though – I remember they would decorate the offices of senior executives and never get turned on.

Software did follow rapidly, but it was horribly expensive and often hard to use.  In 1984 when I bought my own PC there were I don’t know how many different word processors out there, there were “flat file” databases and “relational” databases.  VisiCalc had been the spreadsheet program, but it fell to Lotus 1-2-3.  There were also “integrated” software packages that included a word processor, spreadsheet and database.  I bought FrameWork from Ashton Tate, which was good, but in the Government we had the Perfect Software from some company that went out of business early on, and the package which was next to useless.  Then the Federal Government went big on Enable, which was a little better than useless.  Basically, in an office environment we all flopped around trying to figure what was best while a dizzying array of various software packages came and went.

The only things that consistently worked well were the boring stuff.  Word processors, databases, and spreadsheets.  Even those sometimes weren’t so good.  The word processor in Enable was horrible, it was almost easier to type on a manual typewriter.  The other software that came out in the first few years of PC’s added more work than they took away.  Then there were the CAD programs.  In 1981 there were a handful of companies that produced CAD systems that were based on minicomputers.  The systems ran hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Other than mapping, utility uses, or mega projects like nuclear power plants, I can’t see how that type of cost could be justified, you could never make that money back on the investment.  As I remember the first CAD users were organizations like the Army Corps of Engineers, companies like Bechtel, and utilities – which makes sense.

In the late 80’s I worked for a very short while for a large architectural and engineering firm that was exceedingly proud of its CAD system that they bought some years back.  It was an Intergraph system, which was really good at the time and technologically advanced.  The management never would tell me how much it cost, but they said it was in the mid six figures.  They were desperately trying to make it work by having the system operating 7 days a week 24 hours a day.  There is only so much you can charge for creating drawings, and to make that money back you have to run your system.  However, a drawing created by a CAD operator at 2AM when the design engineer is at home in her bed and not available to look over the CAD operator’s shoulder is usually one that needs to be reworked a few times.  So, the system was time consuming and could run your cost on a project to two or three times more than hand drafting.

Because the company had put so much cost in the system, they refused to even consider a PC based solution like AutoCAD, which had started to mature nicely.  An AutoCAD workstation at the time would cost you about $2,000 for the PC, $2,500 for the software, and $5,000 for the plotter.  With about a $10,000 price for a workstation, you could put in 20 or more workstations for one Intergraph machine.  The system wasn’t as advanced as Intergraph, but so what?  This would have made a serious difference for the office I worked for, because at that kind of cost we could have given a CAD computer to every engineer and draftsperson, but they had already put a lot of cost in the older system and were suckering for the Sunk Cost Fallacy.  That is when you pursue something down the rabbit hole because you put so much mone into it, and it never pays back.

Going forward, there were other things that came out that made little sense for a company to buy.  The Palm is a good one.  This was a Personal Digital Assistant that did things that later were added to cell phones and became smart phones.  It had a schedule, it could synchronize e-mail to your computer, and it could hold an address book.  It had a word processor too.  OK, I had an appointment book that kept my schedule just as well.  The synchronizing e-mail was silly, why connect a little Palm to your PC to download email when you could just check it on your PC?  Also, were you really going to type a document on a screen about 3×4 inches with a little stylus?  Yet loads of people bought them.  They were fun toys, but would it be worth it to spend money to outfit your employees with them?

Today the technology has matured into smart phones, which are more like handheld PC’s.  They are exceedingly useful with GPS, e-mail, texting, weather reports, web access, ability to read books…  If you resisted the urge to be an early adopter for your business and got the devices when they started to mature, the investment would be justified.

A less extreme example are the tablets – like the iPad and Android tablets.  I had an Android tablet, which I carried with me when I traveled to read books and watch TV and movies on the Internet.  It was not so good for business though, actually useless with the exception of the Kindle app, which I could use to reference various texts wherever I was.  Then the Microsoft Surface Pro came out, which can use a keyboard and all the Microsoft Office Applications along with doing what a tablet can do.  We got one for all the engineers, the technology had matured.

So, where are we at today?  In more recent years in engineering there has been a move to 3d type design software.  The costs at first were outlandish, and there still are a lot of different packages out there.  In recent years the price has started to come down and companies are drifting to a few different packages.  We’ve gone with Autodesk Revit for buildings and Inventor for other uses.  If we’d gone to these packages a few years ago the cost would not have justified the expense, we could not make money back on the investment.

I haven’t even touched on the things that led to a dead end.  There were PCs with the CPM operating system, the Apple Lisa that cost almost $5,000 in the mid-eighties, the Commodore Amiga.  Imagine if your office bought a bunch of Apple’s Lisa computers and then the system was discontinued?  What if you bought a bunch of Next PC’s?  My cousin, Bob, got the Apple Newton, which I thought was really great.  Apparently not too many other people did though, the product was discontinued.  Does anyone remember the OS/2 operating system that was to replace DOS?  All of these got rave reviews by the media when they came out, but the technology ran into a dead end.

The Apple Lisa - it cost about $4,700 in the mid-eighties, which is about $10,700 in 2017 dollars.

The Apple Lisa – it cost about $4,700 in the mid-eighties, which is about $10,700 in 2017 dollars.

There are few things I can predict with certainty, but I can predict that newer disruptive technology will appear.  Maybe it will be a quantum computer that can calculate at a dizzying speed.  Maybe some form of holographic technology.  Whatever it is, from a business side you need to be careful before you invest in it.  History has shown that it is best to wait until technology matures a bit before you jump into it.


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Education Late in Life

Just this week I was awarded a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Columbia University at the tender age of 60.  The most common question I get is, “why did you do it?”  I own my business, so it won’t get me promoted.  There will be no increase in pay.  I just wanted to learn.  That never satisfies the people that ask me why I did it, because if you ask that question you won’t understand the reason.  Education is not about diplomas, certificates, or pay raises.  It is about gaining knowledge.  The certificate or diploma is something that is tangible that shows you worked to get the knowledge.

To be fair, I originally didn’t want the MS.  I wanted to take a course at a local university in structural analysis.  I went to Admissions to see if I could take the course, most schools will let you take a couple of courses without formal admission if you already have a degree.  I was told I could if I could get Department approval. So, I went to the Civil Engineering Department and sought approval. I met with the Dean of Something or the Other, and he told me Admissions was wrong, I would need to be admitted. I went back to Admissions, and they told me HE was wrong, and showed the policy to me in writing in the catalog.  I went back to Civil Engineering, and the Dean of whatever told me both the catalog and Admissions were wrong.

It got worse.  I suggested I could apply for Admission.  He told me “you need a 3.0 GPA.” I told him I although my undergrad GPA was 2.3, I had a 3.3 GPA in the MBA program I was in.  He told me “graduate school GPAs don’t count, only undergraduate.  Besides, this course you want is too hard for you. You should just take continuing education courses.”  It went on this way for a while.  It became the most important thing in the world for this guy to keep me out of school ever again. He even called me later on my cell phone to continue telling me why I couldn’t get into his university.  I told him I was busy and hung up on him.

Obviously, I was pretty sore about being treated in such a way.  I was visiting family, and I told my nephew about it. He had just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Software Engineering.  He told me they had a pretty good online program, maybe I could take a course there.  Sure enough, Columbia does have an online program, and you can take some courses without being admitted.  I signed up for the structural analysis course that I was told was too hard for me by the dean of something at the local university.  It was a nightmare since I hadn’t done this type of course work for 30 years, but I passed.  Then I saw that Columbia was offering a course on Wind and Earthquake Design online. Well, I needed that, so I took it.  Then I saw a course in Forensic Engineering, which is what I already do – well, obviously that would be helpful. I took it too.

In the meantime I discovered I was eligible for Veteran’s Benefits under the 9/11 GI Bill because of all the time I had spent being activated by the Reserves. Well, I didn’t want to let those benefits go to waste, so I ended up applying for admission to Columbia, and was accepted.  In what seemed like an instant, I was finished. Now I have a Master’s degree from an Ivy League school because a dean of something at a local university was such a jerk towards me.

Now, going to school later in life in a technical subject is no picnic, and even harder if you do it online. With Columbia’s program, you watch the lectures of the course online, have the same assignments as the rest of the class, and take the same exams as the rest of the class. It’s just like being a student on campus but twice as hard. You can call or e-mail the professor or teaching assistants any questions that you have, which honestly doesn’t work at all.  Not only that, watching a college lecture on a computer is a truly agonizing experience.  You can’t ask questions, and lectures just don’t work well watching them on a 2d screen.  If you a have trouble with an assignment, there really is no way to go see a teaching assistant or the professor unless you travel to New York City, which I did a couple times.  I also went up to New York just to sit in on the classes.

The very worst experience was in a math course I took – Introduction to Dynamical Systems.  This course seemed like it would be interesting, but it is past Differential Equations, which I took over 30 years ago and never used since.  It was an absolute nightmare.  The best experience was my course in Advanced Structural Steel design.  We covered stuff I had already done, but I learned the theory behind the equations in the standards. In the midterm, the class average was a 60, I got a 90.  I was That Guy that blows the class average and screws up the curve for everyone else. My saddest course was in Linear Algebra. I was holding a strong “A”, but I went blank on the final and got a “B”.  I did that repeatedly as an undergraduate by the way.

After that experience, I found out my blanking out on the final was pretty common.  There are all kinds of ways recommended to deal with it – hum to yourself, or somehow provide a distraction.  Well, I got that on another exam.  I was totally blanked out, and was terrified I’d have to send in a blank test.  Then I got an emergency call about a job that something went terribly wrong.  My terror of the exam was superseded by my terror of what was wrong on the project.  As it worked out, about 15 minutes on the phone solved the issue on the project, I went back to the exam, and everything was easy.  I got a good grade, but I’d rather not use that way again to get over the exam terror.

One more story – my very last class I took was a repeat of the analysis course, which was my first course I took.  I wasn’t happy with my grasp of the subject matter, and another course I had signed up for was canceled.  The analysis course is titled “Elastic and Inelastic Analysis”. The first time I took it was under Dr. Christian Meyers, who was probably a couple years older than me.  The professor this time was Dr. Shiho Kawashima.  Doctor Kawashima was named in 2015 as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 List in the science category.  She was an excellent professor, and is the youngest professor I have ever had (I’m not counting part time adjunct professors).  She told me that she believes I am the oldest student she has ever taught, which is pretty cool.

What is it like going to school so late in life? Well, it gives you understanding of the stuff you have experienced.  I found myself totally enthralled with items that I believe went totally over my fellow students’ heads.  The different equations in Advanced Steel Design, the proper format of reports and the way to present evidence in Forensic Engineering, the use of stiffness matrices in Elastic and Inelastic Analysis…  All of these things had real world meaningful applications to me, where to my fellow young students these seemed to be stuff just to be mastered to pass the tests.  On the professional side, extremely complex articles in professional journals and difficult texts are like first grade readers to me now. You can’t put a price on that, and you can’t explain it to people that put a price on education.

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