HOA Communities: When Should You Contact an Engineer?

This article helps community managers, board members, and contractors understand when you can or should contact an engineer.

Published May 24, 2022

By Justin Bayer

When it comes to the reconstruction and restoration of HOA communities, the civil and structural engineers who make up a part of this niche market are accustomed to working behind the scenes. After all, there’s nothing high-profile and flashy about designing repair plans, pulling permits, or writing up engineering reports about potential issues within a community. Some recent, tragic events have flipped that script around and shone the spotlight directly on the engineering side of this industry. The collapse of Champlain Towers South and the even more recent failure of the Forbes Avenue Bridge in Pittsburgh have created an awareness into a topic that engineers have long feared was falling on deaf ears; deferred maintenance in our communities can lead to catastrophic consequences.

Clearly, these are extreme circumstances, and not every situation is dire straits when it comes to deferring maintenance and its impact on structures.  That being said, the awareness these current situations have created can go a long way toward preventing catastrophes due to deferred maintenance in the future.

There are many ways that a civil or structural engineer can assist a community, and this article will aim to point community managers, Board members, and contractors toward some situations in which you can or should contact an engineer.

The most common way to engage an engineer is when your community is in need of a repair/reconstruction project. This would be for things like deteriorating framing of stairs, decks, and patios, as well as foundation issues, severe cracking, negative drainage, moisture intrusion, and a myriad of other similar issues. It’s always a great idea to start with engineering because this gives the community a chance to have their potential problems assessed by a third-party, independent expert. This allows for the community to get a report and/or design plans which can then be sent to general contractors to bid.

Another way to engage a civil or structural engineer would be for construction defect concerns. An engineer will often work with an attorney to diagnose issues with new build construction, which is then used in mediation or in court to fight for a settlement that the community will use for repairs.  Once a construction defect case is settled, a community will bring on a civil/structural engineer to work with the Board to prioritize repairs (life safety, building safety, community concerns, and aesthetics). Once repairs have been prioritized, the engineering team will design the repair plans for general contractors to be able to provide pricing to conduct the repairs.

There has been an influx of requests over the last 7 months (and rightfully so) for facility condition assessments. This is essentially having an engineer provide a report about the current state of the building(s). The eye-opening tragedy in Surfside, Florida has led many communities to gain a new-found concern for the level of deferred maintenance that their aging infrastructure may have. An engineer will be able to provide a report that details the visible building systems and informs the community on when those systems should be investigated further. For example, let’s say the engineer noted in the report that the stairs are in a deteriorated state, and that this should be addressed as soon as possible. Now the community can work with the engineer and a contractor of their choice to further investigate the root-cause of the stair issue. Keep in mind, destructive testing is often the only way that engineers can truly see what is happening inside of something like a ceiling, foundation, staircase, or balcony. A facility condition assessment can give a community a reason to investigate further, which can assist with knowing which items suffering from deferred maintenance should be addressed, and in what order.

So, now you know a bit more about when to call an engineer, why it is a great resource for the community to have an engineering firm representing their best interests, and where the engineering role falls into place as it concerns reconstruction projects.

Let’s wrap up with some terms which you may see when dealing with engineers on your projects:

  • Civil Engineering – Civil engineers design, build, and supervise infrastructure projects and systems[1]. In this instance, civil engineering often refers to engineering involving the land surrounding a building, which includes drainage, grading, pipe networks, etc.
  • Structural Engineering – Structural Engineering is a specialty within Civil Engineering. Structural Engineers create drawings and specifications, perform calculations, review the work of other engineers, write reports and evaluations, and observe construction sites. A Professional Engineer’s license is required in order to practice both Civil and Structural Engineering. A license can be obtained only after completing a prescribed amount of education and work experience and taking a 2-day exam.[2]
  • Building Envelope – This term refers to the “shell” of the building, which aims to provide climate control, water and water vapor resistance, and protection from the elements. This term encapsulates the roof, foundation, exterior walls (including windows and doors), and insulation.
  • Value Engineering – Value engineering is the consideration of wide-scale, holistic, project-wide conditions to achieve the most cost-effective and functional design. Essentially, this term refers to ways in which creative solutions between the engineer, owner, and the contractor can save the community money and stretch those resources to be able to accomplish more.
  • Destructive Testing – Destructive testing is utilized to understand the cause of the failure of a building’s systems and components. This process involves taking apart a portion of a building to gain an understanding for how/why the material or system is failing, or to understand how it was constructed.

[1] Definition provided by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. www.bls.gov

[2] Definition provided by the Structural Engineers Association of California.