• Archives

D/B or not D/B, that is the question

The term “soft story” building describes a building with a level or story that is significantly more flexible than stories above it, such as an open parking area or a commercial space, which can be hazardous in the event of an earthquake.  The Bay Area has thousands of these building.  Damage to soft story buildings has resulted in fatalities and serious injuries to tenants and has caused significant economic loss to the building owners at the time of two most recent significant earthquakes in California, 1989 Loma Prieta and 1994 Northridge earthquakes.

According to Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), the regional planning agency for the nine counties and 101 cities and towns of the San Francisco Bay region, 160,000 housing units will become uninhabitable in the next major earthquake in the Bay Area. Most of the losses will result from collapsed apartment buildings with parking or commercial space on all or part of the first floor.  San Francisco has an estimated 2,800 to 4,400 soft story buildings, Oakland has 1,500, and Alameda, Berkeley and San Leandro have approximately 1,000 soft story building combined.

Recognizing the potential danger, many Bay Area cities, including Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda and San Francisco, have passed soft story ordinances which require various degrees of engineering evaluation of the potential danger of these buildings.  While these ordinances don’t currently mandate the seismic retrofitting of these building, some offer financial incentives for owners who voluntarily strengthen their buildings now.  Many owners have decided to upgrade and take advantage of these incentives, and by doing so protected their properties in the event of the earthquake.

As more building owners face decisions about how to strengthen their soft story buildings, I see a recurring trend of Design/Build (D/B) companies sprouting all over California, offering owners a one stop shop for their seismic retrofitting needs.  D/B firms provide both engineering design and construction services under the same umbrella.  They offer an alternative to the traditional Design/Bid/Build (D/B/B) method.  In the D/B/B method of construction, the owner selects an experienced, independent engineer who prepares a set of structural engineering documents to meet the requirements or the ordinance or any higher level of seismic safety desired by the owner.  With the help of the engineer, the owner solicits bids from several local contractors experienced in seismic retrofitting and selects one according to the proposed price and their personal preference.  Building owners have to decide – D/B or not D/B, and that is the question I try to help to answer in this article.

To Design/Build

Design/Build firms claim that as experts in seismic retrofitting, they do a lot of these types of projects and, as a result, offer customers an economy of scale. They will do engineering and plans for free as long as you hire them to do the construction, potentially saving customers thousands of dollars in engineering fees. The local building department knows them and their work, and there will be no surprises with a plan check.

Not to Design/Build

The simplicity of using a single firm for the design and construction is appealing, but can be misleading. Owners considering hiring a Design/Build firm for retrofitting of their soft story building should evaluate whether the following drawbacks of D/B method outweigh its potential benefits.

It may cost more to Design/Build

While the Design/Build method offers a building owner an advantage of knowing the final costs ahead of starting of the design process, it may not be the most cost effective way of meeting the requirements of the ordinance.  Every building is unique and requires a different structural approach. D/B firms tend to use the same design for all buildings, even if the design may not be the most efficient way to meet a desired level of seismic safety.

The D/B method lacks the competition that the alternative Design/Bid/Build method of construction naturally affords. Some owners try to encourage competition by asking engineers to assemble teams with local contractors to provide Design/Build bids. Many independent engineers are not comfortable with this approach because the initial engineering design necessary for the contractor’s bid is free and another D/B team may end up getting the project. Having done this in the past, I found that owners often get several completely different designs and end up comparing “apples to oranges’.  While various designs may be acceptable to the building department, they may provide different levels of seismic protection.

No free engineering

The offer of free engineering may initially seem attractive; however, common sense tells us that these costs are easily hidden in the Design/Build estimate, especially since engineering fees are a small portion of the total construction budget of a seismic retrofit project. The owner will pay for engineering one way or another.

Conflict of Interest

The Design/Build method has an inherent conflict of interest because the Engineer on the project is also the contractor.  The engineer should be responsible for inspecting the construction to make sure that the work is done in accordance with code and approved drawings.  If he needs to force the construction workers to fix errors that are inevitable in any project. He will affect his company’s bottom line and may be tempted to look the other way, when things are not done right.

No professional liability protection for the owner

Design/Build companies provide less liability protection.  They usually don’t carry an expensive, but necessary, Professional Liability Insurance, also known as Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance. D/B companies tend to opt instead for cheaper Commercial Liability Insurance as their only means of project insurance.   In addition, Design/Build firms are often owned by or employ Civil Engineers, rather than Structural Engineers who must meet more stringent licensure requirements and are better equipped to deal with complex engineering concepts required in earthquake engineering.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Design/Build may not be around when you need them.  Choose a company that has been around for a while, and will be around if a problem occurs years later. Design/Build firms often spring up like seasonal Halloween stores when there is a demand for seismic retrofit work, then close their doors and move on to the next trendy item on the Design/Build scene. This is exactly what happened in 1990’s, when there was a lot of seismic strengthening of unreinforced masonry (brick) buildings.  As soon as this market faded, they closed their doors and disappeared. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the same people have hung a new shingle with a new name. What will you do if there is an issue with your retrofit that comes to light or information is needed about the works done ten years down the road?

After considering the above, if the owner still feels strongly that they want a D/B firm to help them with the strengthening of the building, I would recommend to get at least 3 bids from D/B firms experienced in retrofitting of similar building in the same locality and ensure that the scope of the proposed work meets the same engineering standard/ code and provides comparable level of earthquake protection.

Design/Bid/Build Method – the alternative

The traditional Design/ Build/Bid method offers several benefits. It allows the owner to solicit competitive bids for Structural Design services from several local independent experienced Structural Engineers. Owners can be in full control of the project by hiring an engineer with the knowhow, experience, flexibility and ingenuity required for strengthening of existing buildings.  The engineer is not tied to the standard “cookie cutter” D/B practices and can select the most cost effective method of retrofitting.

Usually an experienced engineer can then help the owner to get the idea of approximate future construction in the early phases of the design.  While this is not exact and will have to be confirmed by the construction bids, it will give an owner a good idea of projected costs early on. When the design is completed and approved by the building department, the engineer will usually assist the owner to get bids for construction based on the approved design from several local general contractors with proven experience of seismic retrofitting work.  This avoids the conflict of interest and allows an Engineer to represent the interests of the client, not the contractor.  Further, the when the contractor is selected the Engineer will provide Structural Inspections to make sure that the contractor follows the drawings and the owners get what  they paid for.

Most serious structural engineering companies carry E&O insurance. E&O insurance in combination with the contractor Commercial Liability insurance provides an additional level of protection for the owner in unlikely event of anything goes wrong.

Choosing an Engineer

If the concerns outlined above lead the owner to select a traditional Design/Bid/Built method, the most important first step is to select the right engineer for the project.  The following are some additional considerations the owners may want to take into account while selecting an Engineer:

Most people wouldn’t consider having their family doctor perform a heart transplant, they would choose a specialist.  Similarly specialized seismic retrofitting work warranties the services of a California licensed Structural Engineer for seismic strengthening of your building.  In order to become a licensed Structural Engineer in California, one needs to gain required experience under supervision of a Structural Engineer, pass a National 16 hour Structural Engineer exam, and an 8 hour California Seismic SE exam.  With the passing rate around 25%, it is clear that complex seismic engineering is better understood by licensed Structural Engineers.  While some experienced civil engineers do quality seismic design work, by simply considering Structural Engineers who have proven experience of seismic upgrade work, the owner will ensure higher level of competency and code compliant design.

Consider hiring an Engineer who carries Professional Liability Insurance and ask about the limit of their coverage. Enginious Structures carries $1M in E&O and $5M in Commercial Liability Insurance.  While we have never had to use it, it offers our clients an additional level of protection.

Hire a structural engineering company that is local and has been around for a while and will continue to do so. The last thing you want if there is an issue down the road is an engineer that closed shop and moved on to bigger and better things.

Use a Highlighter on this page

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *