Common Problems

by Don Friedman on January 18, 2018

The latest issue of the CROSS (Confidential Reporting on Structural-Safety) newsletter is out and I had a weird feeling of déjà vu while reading it. In the same order as within the newsletter, the topics include:

  • Commentary on the rather grim UK government review of fire safety triggered by the horrific Grenfell Tower fire,
  • Report 706 on fire safety in high-rise residential buildings,
  • Report 707 on the role of ductwork in fire safety in high-rise residential buildings,
  • Report 694 on unsafe balcony construction,
  • Report 693 on the stability of existing buildings adjacent to construction sites,
  • and Report 703 on inadequate design of residential buildings.

CROSS is UK-based and all or nearly all of the reports concern UK buildings. That said, the reports listed above look very familiar. For example, the fragmented responsibility for fire safety discussed in the first two points is a problem here and is a historical accident of the way buildings systems and their design have developed. For example, mechanical engineers design sprinkler systems, with input from architects on sprinkler head locations; architects specify fireproofing of steel structures, even though few architects are experts in this field; structural engineers design steel knowing it has to be fireproofed, but often without any knowledge of how the finishes will affect fireproofing.

The balcony issue relates to what is called in current US codes “special inspection:” the requirement that a competent third-party inspect the built product to see that it agrees with both the design and good practice. The adjacent-construction issue is one that has consumed more and more of our time over the last few years, as people building new buildings are finding that the have to take care of neighboring structures before things go wrong. And the fact that most small residential buildings get inadequate or no real structural design is not news.

The basics of how design and construction are organized are a historical accident and not necessarily very logical. We have a fragmented system, with multiple design firms and multiple subcontractors on the simplest projects. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does mean that we have to pay attention to the seams where different people’s work and different responsibilities meet.

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