Structural Observations: What They Are and Why You Need Them

In many cases, the structural design aspect of your home improvement project will be required to be completed. This may be something as small as a header for a new door, or it might be as large as a full new building or extension on your property. Because of the risks and complexities that are inherent in any work involving structural engineering, it is absolutely necessary for the structural engineers who are responsible for the design to keep a close eye on the construction process and document it as it progresses. These verified observations are referred to as “Structural Observations” in the scientific community.

In the International Building Code, the conditions for mandating the use of structural observations are laid out in detail (IBC). Even if the International Building Code (IBC) or the local building department does not specifically require structural observations, your design professional may have an internal protocol that requires structural observations. This is likely the case because structural observations are in both the design professional’s and the homeowner’s best interests. To check that everything was constructed according to the plan and that the new addition to your home is structurally sound, having the complete paperwork that goes along with the observations will be useful to have for future reference. This will be of utmost use to you in the event that you ever choose to sell your property.

At various points throughout the building process, the Structural Engineer of Record (SER) will make observations that are referred to as “structural observations.” In section 1702 of the International Building Code (IBC), the term “structural observations” is defined as follows:

“The examination of the structural system by a registered design professional to determine the degree to which it conforms, in general, to the construction papers that have been approved. The responsibility for conducting the inspection that is mandated by Section 110, 1704, or any of the other provisions of this code is not waived or included in structural observation in any way.”

Structural Observations are necessary for some construction projects; however, your engineering consultant will lead the way on this assignment and guide you along the process. Structural Observations are not required for all construction projects. You need to be aware of this component and the significance of the work you are doing throughout the entire process. You should be informed of it. These observations are carried out not by the building official or a special inspector but rather by the engineer who is on record for the project. During the time that your home improvement project is being built, you can expect to come home to a house that is bustling with a large number of highly skilled workers.

It is common practice for structural engineers to collaborate with mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) consultants in order to produce the design drawings that will be utilized by contractors during the building process of your home improvement projects. This is done so that the projects can be finished successfully. The MEP consultants and the structural engineer will remain in constant communication with one another during the entire process of design, during which time each discipline will make modifications that may or may not have an impact on the other disciplines. Because of this, each of the design professionals who are working on your project will perceive it as something of a “shifting target,” which is completely understandable. If the drawings are interpreted incorrectly at any stage of the construction process, or if a change was made in the structural design that was not accounted for in the MEP design, then the work may need to be backtracked or completely redone in order to build a project that is structurally sound, functional, and safe. Because of the difficult and ever-changing nature of this “moving target,” Structural Observations are carried out in order to:

Check to see that the contractor has proper knowledge of the drawings and that they are being interpreted in accordance with the Structural Engineer of Record’s plans (SER)

Make sure that the subcontractors have proper knowledge of the drawings and are interpreting them correctly. Make sure that the design of the structure is not affected in any way by the work of the other disciplines (MEP).

Inspections conducted by a building official and Special Inspections carried out by a special inspections agency are three very different things from Structural Observations, which are in a league of their own. In addition to the inspections and the special inspections, structural observations are carried out with the purpose of confirming that the contractors have correctly interpreted the plans. The inspections that are carried out by the building official are carried out for the purpose of ensuring that all materials and techniques of construction are in line with the standards of the jurisdiction as well as the International Building Code (IBC). Special Inspections are obligatory and are carried out by an agency that specializes in special inspections. The purpose of these inspections is to verify the finer details of construction, such as the number of fasteners used and where they were placed or the thickness of the individual concrete components. Inspections and Investigations are two quite different things from Structural Observations, and it is essential to keep this distinction in mind while talking about this topic. The SER is capable of performing both of these tasks. The purpose of the Structural Observations that are provided is to make certain that the construction contractor appropriately interprets and implements the important parts of the structural systems that were developed by the SER. Since the SER is intimately familiar with the structural design of the project, they are the best professionals for the job of making the observations. These observations are on a higher level than the building official’s materials and code compliance standards and a more granular level than the special inspectors’ counts and verification of the finer details of construction. This is because the SER is intimately familiar with the structural design of the project. From a purely legal standpoint, it is of the utmost importance that the SER make a clear distinction between observations and inspections.

Whether you choose to believe it or not, there are situations when contractors will interpret the design drawings in their own way. A good contractor will have a sizeable portfolio of projects that have been finished over a period of time, and they won’t necessarily be keeping up with all of the code changes that structural engineers are supposed to monitor as part of their job. Contractors may, at certain points in the construction process, interpret the intent of the design based on their prior professional knowledge from another project. However, it is unreasonable to expect contractors to determine whether or not their work product accomplishes the desired load path from the SER’s design. Because of this, it is essential that the structural engineer inspect the work on a frequent basis to ensure that the contractor’s interpretation is in line with what was intended by the designers. It is essential to carry out these checks at predetermined time intervals throughout the work process as well as after the completion of critical systems like foundations and rough framing. If construction is allowed to proceed too far in advance of the confirmation from the structural engineer, and if the interpretation is shown to be wrong early on, the work may need to be dismantled and begun anew from scratch. This would result in extremely unwelcome additional costs as well as delays in time.

In conclusion, Structural Observations are a separate component that plays an extremely significant role in the overall project of improving your property. You are in very good hands with Design Everest; we are a team of experts with a substantial amount of expertise, and we will make sure that you are comfortable every step of the way, as well as that your project is finished according to both our design and your vision! If at any point along the road, you have any worries or concerns, we will do everything in our power to address them and set your mind at ease. After all, the work that is being done as part of the Structural Observations should indicate exactly that: that the project is being finished as it was meant to be and that it will end up being structurally sound. Even though serious issues are never intended to arise, they sometimes do. The purpose of our observations is to identify potential issues before they arise and record how they were resolved.

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