In September of 1998, the Texas Board of Professional Engineers issued a Policy Advisory titled: Regarding Design, Evaluation, and Repair of Residential Foundations.
The policy advisory was prompted by a disproportionately high number of complaints against license holders (Texas Professional Engineers) performing the design or evaluation of residential foundations.
In time-honored fashion, a committee of Texas PEs was formed to make recommendations to the TBPE. The committee was charged with pinpointing some of the most common problems and offering a summary of concerns.
After the committee issued their report to the TBPE, the TBPE issued what is called a Policy Advisory. That Policy Advisory was later replaced by a guideline published by the Texas Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Even though the Policy Advisory is no longer of any obvious legal consequence, it does provide a window into how the TBPE believes PEs should report on the performance of residential foundations.
In spite of the above, the importance of this Policy Advisory cannot be overstated as I explain below:
Below I review some of the significant points made in the TBPE Policy Advisory
Complaints against engineers making reports concerning foundation performance are often the result of poor communication
I could not agree more. I see poorly written reports every week. Some of them are mine. Unfortunately, most of these reports are written under a strict deadline. They have numerous potential readers: other engineers, buyers, sellers, possibly lawyers, real estate agents, etc. These people have very different backgrounds and are probably looking for different pieces of information from the report. Writing for such a disparate audience is difficult, but we engineers need to do better.
Related to the poor communication issue is that many report readers approach the issue of foundation repair as a black and white issue. Even some home inspectors and engineers do this. Foundation performance is not a black and white issue.
Texas professional engineers are obligated to protect the property interests of the future homeowner, the builder, the lender, and all other parties involved
I have read many reports that recommended foundation repair yet gave no compelling reason, or, in some cases, no reason at all. Obviously, we have to protect our client’s property interests. Until this Policy Advisory was published it was my understanding that I had no obligation to the non-client parties other than the obligations I had to the public: state the truth as I saw it, be independent in my assessment, and report any imminent structural safety hazards or structural integrity issues.
The Policy Advisory made it clear that Professional Engineers are obligated to be fair to everyone involved.
Since the various parties to real estate transactions have different interests, trying to be “fair” to everyone can be difficult. I try to be fair by doing my best to make sure the buyer client understands the risks involved. I do not recommend foundation repair unless I am convinced that repair is cost-effective. I use the term “cost-effective” to mean that the recommended action gives the most bang for the buck.
To give a concrete example: if the client is concerned that a stair-step crack in the brick veneer is a clear sign of a need to underpin the foundation an engineer would need to recommend brick veneer repair, but it is difficult to see why any PE would recommend foundation repair.
Texas Professional Engineers must communicate using clear and concise language that can be readily understood by their client and other expected audiences
Unfortunately, this is an area where almost everyone can do better. This is a technical subject that can be difficult to explain to people who are not technically proficient. One of the purposes of this website is to help real estate agents and TREC inspectors more knowledgeable about slab foundations in expansive soils. A related site, houstonslabfoundations.com provides reliable information to the general public.
The engineer is expected to recommend and perform the lowest level of evaluation needed for an adequate analysis of the situation
The Policy Advisory recommended that there be three levels of inspection/report: level A, level B and level C. Level A is a purely visual inspection with no measurements. A Level B inspection is basically a Level A report plus elevation measurements sufficient to show the overall shape of the foundation surface.
I choose to use a Level B report for real estate transactions. One reason is that most readers find them more credible.
Engineers should substantiate all assumptions, conclusions, and recommendations using appropriate references. Terms such as “failure”, “distress”, “damage”, etc. must be clearly defined
Other than my reports, I rarely find any of these terms defined or explained in reports. I use the definitions found in an excellent book: Diagnosing and Repairing House Structure Problems by Edgar O. Seaquist, Ph.D. These terms are ambiguous and should not be used without some explanation of what the author intends them to mean.
Another term not specifically mentioned in the Policy Advisory is: “structural integrity.” This is another term that gets thrown around a lot by both the lay public and some engineers. It should always be defined as it means different things to different people.
Here is a definition from Wikipedia:
Structural integrity is the ability of an item—either a structural component or a structure consisting of many components—to hold together under a load, including its own weight, without breaking or deforming excessively. It assures that the construction will perform its designed function during reasonable use, for as long as its intended life span. Items are constructed with structural integrity to prevent catastrophic failure, which can result in injuries, severe damage, death, and/or monetary losses.
Engineers must draw any needed distinctions between “failures” discussed from a structural aspect and “failures” discussed from a performance aspect
A structural “failure” is a serious issue. It means a safety issue or a structural integrity issue. Both of these are unusual. If there is a true structural issue, the owner and local building official should be notified immediately. The truth is that slab on ground foundations rarely “fail” in any structural sense. They do sometimes exhibit poor performance such as cracks in the drywall and the brick veneer, door issues, etc.
Performance issues are almost always easily corrected without underpinning the foundation. In fact, any time a slab-on-ground foundation is underpinned, there is a risk of damaging the frame structure and the foundation.
The potential damage to the slab foundation and to the frame structure can, in some cases, be greater than what foundation distortion is likely to cause.