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Façade Inspections: Part 2

By Craig E. Barnes, P.E., SECB

Last week we left you thinking about what the bump in the road is for building owners to hire architects or engineers to perform regular façade inspections: cost and competition.

From my experience, most owners don’t want to spend the money to have the façade reviewed.  At a minimum, the charge will be the cost of the survey which does not appear to have any tangible return if there are no deficiencies recorded.  In the worst case, the professional will discover deficiencies that need to be corrected which to the owner means even more money.  One owner confided in me that it was really an insurance issue.  As long as insurance was in place that was all the owner really cared about.  It sounds really tragic that one individual would risk the safety of another and clear their conscience by suggesting that insurance would take care of the calamity.  

Then comes the competition.  Imagine you have just responded to a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a façade survey of a 16 story building, and proposing the study be done from a lift, find yourself at a distinct disadvantage when your fellow competitor tells the owner that he can do it from the street level with binoculars for a ¼ of the cost.  Our profession may not be the champion of the “fast buck” syndrome, but we certainly are contributors to the malaise.  At this point you might be saying, “I know exactly what you’re talking about.”  While it may not relate to a high rise inspection, most of us have lost commissions to a competing consultant with a questionable process.  

So, how do we address the issue?  First, we should agree that there is a need for façade inspections and there is a need to have the survey undertaken so that the public is protected in the best possible way.  Is it the municipal bureaucracy that should establish and police the ordinance?  Probably not, as some bureaucracies are simply asking to have an engineer’s letter in the files so that the municipality can be protected.  Is it the owner?  From the previous discussion you can pretty much sense why that won’t work.  Is it the insurance company that pays the claim when somebody is injured?  Not likely, because there aren’t sufficient cases of injury to even register on the insurance companies scale.  Is it the public that is being protected?  No, because they are only inspired to the extent that the press fires the issue up or if they know of someone who has experienced an injury.  It comes as no surprise that the answer is the structural engineering profession.

How do we go about initiating an ordinance?  I believe it depends on the municipality that is to be approached.  Those that simply monitor their files so that on a periodic basis there is a letter from a professional in that file will probably deal with a detailed ordinance in the same way they would deal with a casual ordinance.  Working directly with the inspectional service level folks may be a viable opportunity.  The façade inspection program may be viewed suspiciously by the administrating body, more work for an already overworked staff.  In that case, structural engineers will need to become involved and work through the state SE and local professional organizations.  A properly established program can be self-sustaining through a nominal fee structure so that it is not simply adding operating costs for the municipality.