- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Violent storms such as Hurricane Isabel seldom have merciful outcomes — except on the fortunes of structural engineers. These are civil engineering specialists who often are the first people called on to survey damage to the support systems of buildings caught in a storm’s wake. Structural engineers work with support systems of every kind, whether made of wood, steel, masonry or other materials. They also help develop the codes and standards used in the construction trade.

“We call their work ‘the strength behind the beauty,’” says Edward Bajer, executive director of the Washington-based Council of American Structural Engineers, a subgroup of the American Council of Engineering Companies.

Structural engineers often are involved in the construction of houses and are employed directly by owners, architects or contractors.

“In some cases, an engineer will be hired by someone buying an old house with the intention of restoring it and wanting to know it is structurally sound,” Mr. Bajer says.

They also are a critical part of any large-scale commercial or residential project, although most don’t work in the private sector. Their main business is with bridges, dams, parking garages and such ambitious construction projects as the new Washington Convention Center and the restoration of the Washington Monument.

Structural engineering is a branch of civil engineering, but a civil engineer has a broader range, working on water-treatment plants and other utility projects, Mr. Bajer explains.

“And they are much different from a home inspector. Our people are more professional. Home inspectors are guys who may have some sort of expertise, but they cover everything — doorjambs, wiring and heating units, for instance. Structural engineers look at the foundation, at beams, rafters and roofs. They tell you if these are OK and then get the contractor to do repairs if necessary.”

The homeowner seeking a structural engineer should make sure the engineer is properly licensed. Credentialing varies by state. In addition, most engineers can recommend contractors to homeowners.

Structural engineer Dan Vannoy is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Maryland. The Web site for his Annapolis-based Trident Engineering Associates boasts that the firm offers “assistance on-site, anywhere, anytime.” The firm will perform engineering investigations (including on aircraft and automotive accidents), reliability and failure assessments (on power-plant systems, for instance), general engineering and even legal assistance. His subspecialty is what he calls “forensic engineering” — looking at things that failed and determining why.

His other firm, Vannoy and Associates, works primarily with insurance companies, such as Allstate, which hired him last year to check structures after a tornado hit La Plata, Md.

“This last storm was quite devastating, on top of all the rain before then,” he says.

He was asked to check walls and foundations either immersed in water or struck by falling trees. A Chevy Chase residence he describes as a 1900s Victorian was struck by a tree that took out a quarter of the home. He waited to do his assessment until the tree had been removed and the house settled.

“If there had been problems with the foundation, we would have to have a portion of the house taken down to the ground,” he says.

Sometimes during such inspections, he finds the house wasn’t constructed properly to begin with — which raises another set of problems.

“Structural engineers basically are people interested in what holds buildings up,” says James Madison Cutts, whose District firm designed the steel supports for the Washington Convention Center and currently is working on the underground visitors center at the Washington Monument.

“We create what they envision,” he says. “We go back and forth on the phone talking over what will work and what will not. The next stage is to use horse sense to figure out what is practical. Then you or an assistant put calculations on paper.”

Until about 10 years ago, the calculations were done by hand. Today, larger firms use drafting technicians or computers for this stage.

“A structural engineer always has to remember that what you draw has to be built by someone who may only have a high school education,” he reflects.

Spring rains toppled a 50-foot-long, 10-foot-high retaining wall and pushed it into an alley off Branch Avenue in Southeast. The owners called in Capitol Hill builder and restorer Joel Truitt, who in turn called on Sachchida Gupta of SNG Engineering in Gaithersburg to prepare drawings necessary for a permit to rebuild the wall. A mason said he could put it back together for $30,000 to $40,000. Mr. Gupta came up with an approach using textured cinder block that would cost just $20,000.

Mr. Gupta has been busy of late with the construction of a 24,000-square-foot private residence in Potomac that is expected to take a year to complete. One of the challenges is designing a foundation and support beams to hold up the extra weight of floors that will be covered with marble and exterior walls that will be covered with Turkish sandstone.

Spacious mansions are nothing new for the Indian-born Mr. Gupta, who, while employed 17 years by the Bechtel Corp., helped design the palace of the Sultan of Brunei, including a 400-foot-long, 100-foot-wide waterfall on the property.

“A lot of people’s lives depend on your work,” he says, recalling the time he designed a railroad bridge in upstate New York and volunteered to be under the bridge when the first train passed overhead.

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