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Why We Don’t Do Work in California

We get a lot of requests for engineering in California, and we have turned them all down.  Why are we doing this?  Wouldn’t it be better to make the money?  Turns out it is not so simple.  There are really severe problems that we can’t overcome right now.  Let me go through it:

1. I am not licensed as a Professional Engineer in California.  To get licensed requires a specific Seismic Exam, which I have not had time to take.  I had to first complete my Master’s Degree, and now I am preparing to test for the Structural Engineer license.

2.  I have had people say they could get a Professional Engineer to stamp my drawings in California.  “Plan Stamping”, where an engineer stamps another unlicensed engineer’s work is forbidden in every state. While this restriction is sadly universally ignored, if something happens there can be very severe adverse consequences to my license and my liability.

3. One way we have worked around the “Plan Stamping” is that I have partnered with another engineer in California.  This has caused my costs to go way up because I’m working with another engineer that lacks experience in this type of work and we end up spending a lot more time then budgeted on the project.  Worse, the partnering engineer also spends more time than he or she budgeted, and that runs their costs up too.

4.  The distance.  We are thousands of miles away from California and 3 time zones.  If there are problems with a project, this can be a serious issue.  To fly out to California to deal with an issue will take up 3 days and a significant cost for air fare, car rental, and hotel.

It just doesn’t make sense at this time for us to take up projects in California, so for the foreseeable future we won’t be able to help you in that state.

Finding a Home Inspector

Getting Under a Floor

We at Runkle Consulting don’t do home inspections, but we very often follow up after home inspectors to check out things that they have found and have noted to the home buyer.  It may be cracks in the foundations, deflection of floors, or anything that looks suspicious that an engineer’s opinion is needed.  As such, we’ve gotten quite familiar with home inspectors, and I think I can provide some guidance in choosing the right one.

One problem with home inspectors is in many jurisdictions there is no licensing requirement.  If you see an advertisement for a home inspector here in Georgia and it says “Licensed/Insured” that only means the inspector has a business license.  That says nothing about his or her qualifications.  The Insurance may be just General Liability and Workman’s Comp, which is a good thing if he falls through a ceiling while doing an inspection, but doesn’t cover you for Errors and Omissions.  The second problem is there is no clear pathway to becoming a home inspector. Many I know have been practicing engineers, others were home builders.  However, more than a few that I’ve known had no background related to anything remotely related to residential construction.  They just decided one day “I think I’ll become a home inspector”, got a business license, and there you are.

In my business, I mentally categorize the bad home inspectors into three categories:

1. The Blind Mice: These inspectors are totally dependent on referrals from real estate agents, and don’t want to derail that gravy train.  They will find minor items, but never the big stuff.  They don’t want to make the real estate agent mad.  So, your real estate agent refers you to a home inspector, you get charged about $400 or so, and the inspector comes out, finds some inconsequential stuff, and you buy the house.  Later you find the foundation is settling and you are out $10,000 or so in repairs.

2. The Idiots:  I’ll give an example of one in particular.  I got hired by a builder to evaluate a bunch of stuff a home inspector wrote up about a house he built.  One of the items was that the nails in the deck were countersunk into the treated lumber, “breaking the protection”.  The stupidity of this is astounding.  Pressure treated lumber is treated in a pressure vessel that forces the preservative through the depth of the lumber.  Sample cores are taken from the batch to assure the treatment has gotten all  the way through the lumber.  Of course if it is so important to protect the surface, what did the inspector think about the cut ends?

OK, that was bad.  The same inspector pointed out the ground floor was built out of level.  It wasn’t.  There was a load bearing wall setting on the floor that was not supported by anything underneath.  If he had gone in the crawl space, he would have seen this.  The reason the floor was out of level was it was deflecting (bending from the weight above).  It needed foundations and a beam installed below it.  The house was twisting completely out of shape and the inspector didn’t catch this.

I wrote my response to the report, and pointed out the major issue in the basement.  The builder never paid me of course, which is why I generally don’t work for builders anymore to answer home inspector’s reports (there is only one I work for to do this now).

The Deal Breaker:  The deal breaker may be a form of #2 above.  He or she finds minor items wrong and blows them out of proportions.  They will scare you to death.  I’ve seen reports that pretty much accused everyone in the chain from the real estate agent, the bank, the builder, the engineer, and anyone else remotely involved to be in collusion to cheat you, the poor buyer.  My favorite one was where the inspector insisted that brick had been removed and replaced in the veneer of the house by the bank after its foreclosure.  Seriously, banks never do that kind of repair, they replace carpets and repaint and that’s it.  Replacing brick veneer with exact same color and type of brick in small sections is pretty difficult to do if it can be done at all. Certainly no bank I’ve ever seen in possession of a house would spend that type of money.

The deal with the Deal Breaker is you go along to multiple houses, the deal gets broken on each one, and you pay this fellow yet another fee to break the next deal.  This inspector is not a great deal either.

OK, so should you get a home inspector given what I said above?  The short and only answer is yes.  A good home inspector will be able to tell you if there are problems or potential problems with your roof, the heating system, the AC system, the electrical system, and the structure.  A home inspector has to have good attention to detail and have a working knowledge of all the areas of construction of a house.  If I was buying a house tomorrow, I would hire a home inspector and I’ve been in residential construction for 18 years now, I’ve been in the construction business for 40 years, and I’ve been an engineer for 36 years.  There is a lot of general stuff a good home inspector knows that most of us just don’t know.

How do you pick a good home inspector?  Well, your real estate agent can refer you to one, but I recommend going against that way.  You don’t want an inspector that even has it in the back of his or her head that your real estate agent (who will get a commission from you if you buy the house) has passed on this work to him or her. I recommend using the Internet.

First off, you want an inspector that is qualified, and carries proper insurance.  A good place to start is with the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) This society has a qualification system for its members, and provides continuing education to them also.  Here in Georgia there is also the Georgia Association of Home Inspectors (GAHI), which I have a high opinion of.  Getting the name of the inspector is only the first step.

Next, check out the inspector’s website. If there is no website, go to the next inspector.  What kind of qualifications does the inspector have?  Other than the qualification from the association, there should be certifications from the International Code Council (ICC).  You want Residential Combination Inspector certification.  That certification means the inspector has passed a series of exams in the Building Codes  in framing, electical, plumbing, and mechanical (heating and air conditioning).  It can give you a level of confidence that he or she knows their job.  Also, check out their bio.  Do they have a relevant background? Were they in construction or design?  Or did they just hate their job one day and decide home inspection would be great (if you got this far, they probably do have a good background).

Now, there are those that feel you should get a licensed engineer (Professional Engineer or PE) or licensed architect (Registered Architect or RA) to do the inspection.  While I am a PE, and I have seen some very good home inspectors that were PE’s, I don’t feel it is necessarily a requirement.  I believe a person with a solid background can do an inspection as good or better than a PE or RA.

Finally, you need to check references.  Fortunately, you don’t have to get the inspector to give you a list of names and phone numbers to call and hope you get truthful answers like you would have had to do a few years ago. You can now check the reviews online, like from Kudzu. Of course reviews can be misleading.  Often less ethical people will “salt the claim” buy having bogus reviews posted about them.  Also, you can get the occasional crazy and angry dissatisfied customer posting a negative review.  The fake reviews are pretty easy to spot, they will all be written in the same language.  Often the language in fake reviews lacks specificity, but is very flowery.  The crazy angry customer is pretty easy to spot too, and usually there will be a rebuttal to a negative review if the inspector is any good.

Now, you found your inspector.  What should you expect?

1.  The inspector cannot possibly find everything, and an inspection is not a warranty on the house you buy. While the home inspector may carry Errors and Omissions insurance, if something is missed forget about suing.  Typically the contract you sign only allows for a refund of your inspection fee.  Also, taking someone to court costs about $50,000 to $100,000 which is a lot of money to spend on an item that costs $10,000 to repair.  True, the jury may award you attorney’s fees and punitive damages, but I would rather go to Vegas and hit the slots.  That way you at least get free drinks while you blow your money.

2.  The inspector is bound by ethics to point out everything that he or she finds wrong.  You have to decide whether you can live with it.  For example, I went to a foreclosure years ago.  The home inspector was worried about the slope on the rear of the house. I examined it and agreed.  I told the buyer that it could cost about $40,000 to fix. The buyer said “OK, I’m still buying the house.”  The house was being sold by the bank at such a steep discount that $40,000 to repair the rear slope wasn’t a big deal.  That’s the most extreme example I could think of, but it points out that some things that the inspector finds can be lived with.

3. The inspector should not be designing repairs. I’ve followed up after a couple that did this, and their designs were just plain bad.  Leave the repair design to the contractor, and architect, or an engineer.

4.  Codes are not retroactive.  I followed up behind an inspector once that pointed out all the code violations from the 2009 Residential Code on a house built in the 1970’s. First, the 2009 Code was not in effect in Georgia, the 2006 Code was.  Second, the Code doesn’t require you to retrofit existing structures.  Doing this confuses the issue, the inspector needs to look for signs of failure, or items at the end of their service life.

5.  In my opinion there are a number of areas that need extreme attention:

– The Decks.  Decks fail catastrophically (in other words, complete failure with no warning).  As a deck gets older, it gets weaker. They have about a 20 year service life, and are often not safely erected.

– The Roof.  Home inspectors often carry binoculars so they can examine a roof up close.  A poor roof has to be replaced, because water leakage can cause major structural damage.  Replacement can cost you a lot of money, which you don’t want to be hit with when you get in the house.

– Foundations.  Look at this post – do NOT allow this to happen to you.  Please click that link, it will scare you. Foundation repair can be exceedingly expensive.

– Mechanical: Does the house you are looking at have a 15 year old air conditioner or furnace?  Guess what?  You will be buying a new one soon.

– Electrical:  Look out for “jack leg” (substandard) electrical work.  Homeowners will often engage in really bad DIY projects, and electrical is not one to do bad.  Some homeowners will hire “handymen” to come around and do work, and in my experience what they do is often just as bad or work.  The worst thing about bad electrical repairs is they can make your house burn down, or electrocute you.  In other words, kill you, which is not what you want.

How long should a home inspection last?  Depends on the size of the house.  A large house can take all day.  It takes me one hour to look at one item on a house.  If you call me to look at a settling foundation, I will be at your house for at least that long. A home inspector has to look at everything, so I would say at least 4 hours.

How much should your inspection cost?  Depends again on the house. Don’t go cheap.  Around here in Atlanta, I would say around $400 to $600 for a standard size house.  Larger houses (5000 + Square Feet) could cost $1000 or more.  An “expensive” home inspection could save you thousands in repairs later, so don’t practice false economy.

I hope this helps,

George

Early Adoption – A Bad Idea For Business

The Apple Newton, great technology before its time.

We all know someone that has the latest of everything, and many of us engineers are guilty of that.  In marketing class this type of person was called an “early adopter”.  An early adopter would have had the first iPhone, and then maybe jumped over to the Android phone when it came out.  Maybe she had the first iPod.  Most early adopters that I’ve known, which includes me and most of the members of my paternal side of my family (most of us are engineers by profession).  As a group, we like gadgets.  My father purchased “Pong” (one of the earliest video games), and the Timex Sinclair computer, which was a very early, but useless computer. It’s OK on a personal level, but horrible for a business to be that way.  The reason is you need technology to mature before it is useful, and I’ll give a bit of a history lesson.

Way back in 1981 IBM produced its first PC.  It had 16K of memory and ran on the Intel 8088 processor that ran at 5 Mhz.  For comparison, the computer I am writing on now has a 4.5 GHz processor, which is a thousand times more cycles, and it has 4 cores in the processor.  So, we can say it processes four thousand times faster.  Except it’s faster than that.  The 8088 was an 8 bit processor, and this processor is a 64 bit.  I’m not really sure what that means, but it does mean it’s faster.  It also has 4 cores, so it is in effect 4 processors vs. the one processor in the early IBM PC. This computer has 32 MBytes of memory, so that’s two thousand times as much memory, not counting the memory that is on the video card, the hard drive and the processor itself.

Ok, the technology has advanced. The big question was, what could you do with the technology in 1981?  It turns out not so much.  You could use Visicalc (the first spreadsheet – an earlier version of this post was in error, it became available in 1979) and one word processor.  So, if you bought a PC for yourself, you could write some letters, do some budgets on the wordprocessor, and play with the BASIC computer language that came with it, and that was about it for a while.  If you were a dedicated hobbyist, that was probably OK.  You could play with BASIC and write various useless programs (like I did).  For a business, a PC would be a pretty expensive investment for the few functions it provided initially.  By the mid-eighties a lot of businesses had them though – I remember they would decorate the offices of senior executives and never get turned on.

Software did follow rapidly, but it was horribly expensive and often hard to use.  In 1984 when I bought my own PC there were I don’t know how many different word processors out there, there were “flat file” databases and “relational” databases.  VisiCalc had been the spreadsheet program, but it fell to Lotus 1-2-3.  There were also “integrated” software packages that included a word processor, spreadsheet and database.  I bought FrameWork from Ashton Tate, which was good, but in the Government we had the Perfect Software from some company that went out of business early on, and the package which was next to useless.  Then the Federal Government went big on Enable, which was a little better than useless.  Basically, in an office environment we all flopped around trying to figure what was best while a dizzying array of various software packages came and went.

The only things that consistently worked well were the boring stuff.  Word processors, databases, and spreadsheets.  Even those sometimes weren’t so good.  The word processor in Enable was horrible, it was almost easier to type on a manual typewriter.  The other software that came out in the first few years of PC’s added more work than they took away.  Then there were the CAD programs.  In 1981 there were a handful of companies that produced CAD systems that were based on minicomputers.  The systems ran hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Other than mapping, utility uses, or mega projects like nuclear power plants, I can’t see how that type of cost could be justified, you could never make that money back on the investment.  As I remember the first CAD users were organizations like the Army Corps of Engineers, companies like Bechtel, and utilities – which makes sense.

In the late 80’s I worked for a very short while for a large architectural and engineering firm that was exceedingly proud of its CAD system that they bought some years back.  It was an Intergraph system, which was really good at the time and technologically advanced.  The management never would tell me how much it cost, but they said it was in the mid six figures.  They were desperately trying to make it work by having the system operating 7 days a week 24 hours a day.  There is only so much you can charge for creating drawings, and to make that money back you have to run your system.  However, a drawing created by a CAD operator at 2AM when the design engineer is at home in her bed and not available to look over the CAD operator’s shoulder is usually one that needs to be reworked a few times.  So, the system was time consuming and could run your cost on a project to two or three times more than hand drafting.

Because the company had put so much cost in the system, they refused to even consider a PC based solution like AutoCAD, which had started to mature nicely.  An AutoCAD workstation at the time would cost you about $2,000 for the PC, $2,500 for the software, and $5,000 for the plotter.  With about a $10,000 price for a workstation, you could put in 20 or more workstations for one Intergraph machine.  The system wasn’t as advanced as Intergraph, but so what?  This would have made a serious difference for the office I worked for, because at that kind of cost we could have given a CAD computer to every engineer and draftsperson, but they had already put a lot of cost in the older system and were suckering for the Sunk Cost Fallacy.  That is when you pursue something down the rabbit hole because you put so much mone into it, and it never pays back.

Going forward, there were other things that came out that made little sense for a company to buy.  The Palm is a good one.  This was a Personal Digital Assistant that did things that later were added to cell phones and became smart phones.  It had a schedule, it could synchronize e-mail to your computer, and it could hold an address book.  It had a word processor too.  OK, I had an appointment book that kept my schedule just as well.  The synchronizing e-mail was silly, why connect a little Palm to your PC to download email when you could just check it on your PC?  Also, were you really going to type a document on a screen about 3×4 inches with a little stylus?  Yet loads of people bought them.  They were fun toys, but would it be worth it to spend money to outfit your employees with them?

Today the technology has matured into smart phones, which are more like handheld PC’s.  They are exceedingly useful with GPS, e-mail, texting, weather reports, web access, ability to read books…  If you resisted the urge to be an early adopter for your business and got the devices when they started to mature, the investment would be justified.

A less extreme example are the tablets – like the iPad and Android tablets.  I had an Android tablet, which I carried with me when I traveled to read books and watch TV and movies on the Internet.  It was not so good for business though, actually useless with the exception of the Kindle app, which I could use to reference various texts wherever I was.  Then the Microsoft Surface Pro came out, which can use a keyboard and all the Microsoft Office Applications along with doing what a tablet can do.  We got one for all the engineers, the technology had matured.

So, where are we at today?  In more recent years in engineering there has been a move to 3d type design software.  The costs at first were outlandish, and there still are a lot of different packages out there.  In recent years the price has started to come down and companies are drifting to a few different packages.  We’ve gone with Autodesk Revit for buildings and Inventor for other uses.  If we’d gone to these packages a few years ago the cost would not have justified the expense, we could not make money back on the investment.

I haven’t even touched on the things that led to a dead end.  There were PCs with the CPM operating system, the Apple Lisa that cost almost $5,000 in the mid-eighties, the Commodore Amiga.  Imagine if your office bought a bunch of Apple’s Lisa computers and then the system was discontinued?  What if you bought a bunch of Next PC’s?  My cousin, Bob, got the Apple Newton, which I thought was really great.  Apparently not too many other people did though, the product was discontinued.  Does anyone remember the OS/2 operating system that was to replace DOS?  All of these got rave reviews by the media when they came out, but the technology ran into a dead end.

The Apple Lisa - it cost about $4,700 in the mid-eighties, which is about $10,700 in 2017 dollars.

The Apple Lisa – it cost about $4,700 in the mid-eighties, which is about $10,700 in 2017 dollars.

There are few things I can predict with certainty, but I can predict that newer disruptive technology will appear.  Maybe it will be a quantum computer that can calculate at a dizzying speed.  Maybe some form of holographic technology.  Whatever it is, from a business side you need to be careful before you invest in it.  History has shown that it is best to wait until technology matures a bit before you jump into it.

 

Education Late in Life

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Just this week I was awarded a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Columbia University at the tender age of 60.  The most common question I get is, “why did you do it?”  I own my business, so it won’t get me promoted.  There will be no increase in pay.  I just wanted to learn.  That never satisfies the people that ask me why I did it, because if you ask that question you won’t understand the reason.  Education is not about diplomas, certificates, or pay raises.  It is about gaining knowledge.  The certificate or diploma is something that is tangible that shows you worked to get the knowledge.

To be fair, I originally didn’t want the MS.  I wanted to take a course at a local university in structural analysis.  I went to Admissions to see if I could take the course, most schools will let you take a couple of courses without formal admission if you already have a degree.  I was told I could if I could get Department approval. So, I went to the Civil Engineering Department and sought approval. I met with the Dean of Something or the Other, and he told me Admissions was wrong, I would need to be admitted. I went back to Admissions, and they told me HE was wrong, and showed the policy to me in writing in the catalog.  I went back to Civil Engineering, and the Dean of whatever told me both the catalog and Admissions were wrong.

It got worse.  I suggested I could apply for Admission.  He told me “you need a 3.0 GPA.” I told him I although my undergrad GPA was 2.3, I had a 3.3 GPA in the MBA program I was in.  He told me “graduate school GPAs don’t count, only undergraduate.  Besides, this course you want is too hard for you. You should just take continuing education courses.”  It went on this way for a while.  It became the most important thing in the world for this guy to keep me out of school ever again. He even called me later on my cell phone to continue telling me why I couldn’t get into his university.  I told him I was busy and hung up on him.

Obviously, I was pretty sore about being treated in such a way.  I was visiting family, and I told my nephew about it. He had just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Software Engineering.  He told me they had a pretty good online program, maybe I could take a course there.  Sure enough, Columbia does have an online program, and you can take some courses without being admitted.  I signed up for the structural analysis course that I was told was too hard for me by the dean of something at the local university.  It was a nightmare since I hadn’t done this type of course work for 30 years, but I passed.  Then I saw that Columbia was offering a course on Wind and Earthquake Design online. Well, I needed that, so I took it.  Then I saw a course in Forensic Engineering, which is what I already do – well, obviously that would be helpful. I took it too.

In the meantime I discovered I was eligible for Veteran’s Benefits under the 9/11 GI Bill because of all the time I had spent being activated by the Reserves. Well, I didn’t want to let those benefits go to waste, so I ended up applying for admission to Columbia, and was accepted.  In what seemed like an instant, I was finished. Now I have a Master’s degree from an Ivy League school because a dean of something at a local university was such a jerk towards me.

Now, going to school later in life in a technical subject is no picnic, and even harder if you do it online. With Columbia’s program, you watch the lectures of the course online, have the same assignments as the rest of the class, and take the same exams as the rest of the class. It’s just like being a student on campus but twice as hard. You can call or e-mail the professor or teaching assistants any questions that you have, which honestly doesn’t work at all.  Not only that, watching a college lecture on a computer is a truly agonizing experience.  You can’t ask questions, and lectures just don’t work well watching them on a 2d screen.  If you a have trouble with an assignment, there really is no way to go see a teaching assistant or the professor unless you travel to New York City, which I did a couple times.  I also went up to New York just to sit in on the classes.

The very worst experience was in a math course I took – Introduction to Dynamical Systems.  This course seemed like it would be interesting, but it is past Differential Equations, which I took over 30 years ago and never used since.  It was an absolute nightmare.  The best experience was my course in Advanced Structural Steel design.  We covered stuff I had already done, but I learned the theory behind the equations in the standards. In the midterm, the class average was a 60, I got a 90.  I was That Guy that blows the class average and screws up the curve for everyone else. My saddest course was in Linear Algebra. I was holding a strong “A”, but I went blank on the final and got a “B”.  I did that repeatedly as an undergraduate by the way.

After that experience, I found out my blanking out on the final was pretty common.  There are all kinds of ways recommended to deal with it – hum to yourself, or somehow provide a distraction.  Well, I got that on another exam.  I was totally blanked out, and was terrified I’d have to send in a blank test.  Then I got an emergency call about a job that something went terribly wrong.  My terror of the exam was superseded by my terror of what was wrong on the project.  As it worked out, about 15 minutes on the phone solved the issue on the project, I went back to the exam, and everything was easy.  I got a good grade, but I’d rather not use that way again to get over the exam terror.

One more story – my very last class I took was a repeat of the analysis course, which was my first course I took.  I wasn’t happy with my grasp of the subject matter, and another course I had signed up for was canceled.  The analysis course is titled “Elastic and Inelastic Analysis”. The first time I took it was under Dr. Christian Meyers, who was probably a couple years older than me.  The professor this time was Dr. Shiho Kawashima.  Doctor Kawashima was named in 2015 as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 List in the science category.  She was an excellent professor, and is the youngest professor I have ever had (I’m not counting part time adjunct professors).  She told me that she believes I am the oldest student she has ever taught, which is pretty cool.

What is it like going to school so late in life? Well, it gives you understanding of the stuff you have experienced.  I found myself totally enthralled with items that I believe went totally over my fellow students’ heads.  The different equations in Advanced Steel Design, the proper format of reports and the way to present evidence in Forensic Engineering, the use of stiffness matrices in Elastic and Inelastic Analysis…  All of these things had real world meaningful applications to me, where to my fellow young students these seemed to be stuff just to be mastered to pass the tests.  On the professional side, extremely complex articles in professional journals and difficult texts are like first grade readers to me now. You can’t put a price on that, and you can’t explain it to people that put a price on education.

Networking the Office to the Cloud

If you have more than one person working in an office, you inevitably run into the need to share files on the computers.  Back in the late 80’s there were networks available, but they were very, very expensive.  In the mid 80’s I was in the Air National Guard, and I did a one year active duty tour at Andrews AFB.  We had a mainframe based network system that included e-mail, and awful word processor, and a spreadsheet application that was not much better than useless – it was the Wang VR system if I remember right.  It had e-mail, but my inbox was mostly invitations to retirement ceremonies for Colonels I never heard of, so I never used it.  I then went to work in the late 80’s for what would become a very large engineering firm (ECS Ltd), but at the time we were pretty small.  We used what my boss called a “sneaker net”.  Our computers had removable hard drives, which the secretaries could remove and move from computer to computer.  They kept them locked in their desks at night for security.  It worked pretty well as long as you could get to the disks and the secretary downstairs didn’t need to use the disk you needed upstairs, and of course as long as you didn’t have a hard disk failure, things were fine.

In the 90s I went on to work full time for the Air National Guard up in Pittsburgh.  This was where I first ran into a network that worked with PCs.  By the mid nineties we had good e-mail, and pretty good applications.  If I have to criticize the system, it was the speed.  I couldn’t use it for CAD files, it was too slow and the IT guys got mad at me for hogging what was then valuable hard drive space.  We kept our files on floppies, which was not real secure.  Again, you had to know where everything was, hope nothing failed, and sharing work was difficult.  However, the network allowed us to easily get to various regulations and references, and provided a level of security for whatever was on it.  The system was still less than perfect.  By the end of the nineties I was writing for the Motley Fool, and we had something called a VPN (Virtual Private Network).  We could access the servers at our main office through the Internet much like you access the server on a network in the office.  However, it was slow, and I discovered that I could see the hard disks on every computer attached to the network.  I never tested to see if I could get in the drives (I wanted to keep my job), but I suspect I could.  That can be a major security flaw, and I hate to think what a really angry disgruntled employee could do to his or her coworkers.

In 2005 I had Runkle Consulting, and we were growing.  We moved to a large office, and we had a decent sized staff.  We installed a server, and it was fast.  The hard drives were inexpensive and it automatically backed up every night to tape and it also backed up online.  I figured how to set up a VPN, which technically would allow me to work from home on stuff on the server.  I could work on a drawing at the office, go home and finish it later that night or the next morning.  I could write letters and reports and save them to the office network from the comfort of my home.  Except I couldn’t.  It was really, really slow.  Not slow in making a microwave meal in 2 minutes instead of 2 and a half minutes, but slow as in waiting 30 seconds for a response every time you hit a key on the keyboard slow.  It just wasn’t practical at all.  There was also the issue of maintenance and security.

If you have a server, everyone has to have passwords.  One of my employees had the ingenious password of 3333.  I didn’t think anything of it until I took a trip to China, and coincidentally when I got home my server got hit with brute force attacks.  Someone would try to hack into my server thousands of times a day with various combinations of user names and passwords.  I tried all sorts of things to stop the attacks, but they continued for a long time.  I don’t think anyone got in my system since I had limited access into the server to only myself and I had a very long and difficult password.  Still, the potential of damage was disturbing.  There of course was the hassle of updating the software on the server, keeping up with its back ups, and taking care of the hardware.  I once had to run into the office late at night because we had a long power outage and my power backup was very limited and if the server went down it could mess things up. Then I ran out of space on my hard drives.  Changing over hard drives on a server is not easy.  Then I had a hard drive failure, which was an annoyance but not a disaster because I had backups.  However, replacing it and getting everything back up was a very BIG annoyance.

Going fast forward the Great Recession hit and “we” became “I” as the business retrenched.  “The Office” became my dining room, and “the network” was one PC.  As a result of the Recession, I began to seek work out of state, and that required a laptop.  I carried my files with me on a thumb drive, and the hassle with that is that I had to remember to download the updated files to the computer when I got home. Then one day I left for a project in Upstate New York, and I had forgotten my thumb drive.  I found I could download the files I needed from my backup service (Carbonite).  That was a revelation – I no longer had to carry around a thumb drive.  I also had subscribed to Google for its cloud drive, so I could simply upload the finished to Google.  Pretty cool.

As all good things have to end, so did the Great Recession.  “I” has become “We” again, and “The Office” is The Office.  However, I kind of liked working from the Dining Room.  If I had to get a project out, I could jump up out of bed and get right to work.  If I had to work late, I was home, and when I got tired I could just stop.  So, how should this be handled?  I looked at the idea of getting a network again and setting  up a VPN.  With faster Internet speeds, it ought to work.  However, there were some issues.

First is security. I hired an employee that didn’t last very long (a few hours actually, but that’s another story).  He chose as his password “Pass2041″.  Well, that would take about 30 seconds longer for a good hacker to figure out than “Password” or Pass2014″.  The damage a hacker could do to my system is phenomenal.  I could protect the files easily enough with them synchronizing to Google Drive and a separate online back up service, and that was the key to my problem, but let me work up to it.  I looked into what it would take to get a server again.  I would have to buy a server, get it fit with the right hard drive configuration, and buy large hard drives.  Then I would have to get the software, which is expensive, and set it up, which is time consuming and/or expensive.  OR, I could skip all that.

Google Drive was pretty good in that it constantly uploaded my files up to the Cloud.  What I didn’t realize was I could set it up to synchronize the files on my computer hard drive with what was on Google Drive.  I can also share certain files on Google Drive with the employees.  I could share the project files, the reference files, and database files with them, and they could have them synchronized to their computers through the magic of Google Drive.  I could synchronize everything to my computer at work and the hard drive at home.  My employees could work from home if they wanted to, a coffee shop, or a hotel room.  No longer are we dependent on “The Office”.  “The Office” became anywhere we were.  This was perfect.  The physical office is now a place to meet and collaborate, not a place have to spend 8 to 12 hours a day of our lives at.  Perfect.

Oh, and for security.  Someone stole my laptop shortly after I set the system up.  I changed the password to Google Drive, and I had a hard password for Windows on the laptop.  My files are safe.  No one got into the system.  As for finance files – we use Quickbooks Online, so there are no finance files on the computer.  If the office burns down, I lose some cheap furniture and maybe my laptop.  It’s a minor annoyance, not a disaster.  If we have an extended power outage I don’t have to run to the office to shut down the server.  If and when we need more drive storage, we sign for more storage from Google.  There is no changing hard drives.  I don’t have network software to keep up, or the need for antivirus software on a server to maintain.  If an employee opens the wrong e-mail it won’t set loose a virus to get across everybody’s computer and destroy everything.

The system still is only as good as the people involved.  If someone has a password of “3333”, there is a good chance that a hacker can get in and mess up the files on your Google Drive. That’s why I also backup with another service.  Also, if I didn’t have a password on my laptop that got stolen, or a weak password, someone could get sensitive information.  That can be an issue.  It is not advisable to have sensitive files up in Google if they are going to be synchronized to a laptop.  Laptops are highly pilferable, and if you travel with one, it will eventually be stolen.  Also, the synchronization takes time, and sometimes stops and has to be restarted.  So, your files may not always be up to date.

However, at the state we are at with technology, this is the best solution for our needs.  Two years from now, there may be a better system, and when it comes about, we’ll switch over to it.

So You Want To Build A Container House? Here Are Some Serious Issues You Have To Deal With

Cutting requires skill in handling a plasma torch.

I get a lot of calls and e-mails from people who want to build a container house, and unfortunately I come across as rude when I don’t mean to be.  A lot of times I am called when I am really busy, and the person tries to hold me on the phone.  This costs me a lot of money, which does lead to me being short to get the person off the phone.  Let me go ahead and put down the issues here, and that way I can be a little less short and come across not so rude:

1.  To build a container house you need these important items:  A competent Architect, a Structural Engineer, a competent contractor, and funding.  I will cover each one.

2.  I’ll start with the last because it is the most important, funding.  From my experience, banks generally won’t lend for a container building.  The reasons will be obvious as we go down the list.  Also, you need to figure about $150.00 a square foot, I don’t care what the other blogs say, I have been involved with building these things, just look at the pictures on my website.  A lot of the people that purport to build container houses have no photos, or photos they lifted from other websites (like MINE!).  Also, you need to set aside a good amount of money for architectural and engineering fees.  Oddly, people call me up and argue with me on this, and try to advance negotiate me and the architect down – that’s when I get irritated, and please don’t do that to me.

People from around the world have claimed to have built the houses below.  One guy even spoke to the news media in front of the houses like he was constructing them.  They were not built in China, and if you see them in a recording of a newscast, the guy appearing had nothing to do with building them.  None of the team involved ever was interviewed on television.  Glen Donaldson is the owner/builder, James Kirkpatrick the architect, and my company did the structural engineering.  Anybody else you see in the media featuring these houses was probably not involved in the construction or design:

These are the first two shipping container houses in Atlanta, the one on the left was the first. We performed the structural design of both.

3.  You need an Architect.  I mean a LICENSED Architect, not a home designer or unlicensed Architect.  It will be more expensive, but you will pay less during construction.  There is a lot to designing a building that a licensed Architect knows how to do, such as detailing windows, roofs, and doors.  There is space layout, egress, size of windows, finishes, all that stuff that an Architect is trained to deal with.  I can’t help you find an architect by the way.  I used to refer people that called me to Architects I know, but after endless meetings with the potential client, it always ended up the same way – the project disappeared, probably due to item #1.  This wasn’t a big problem during the Great Recession, but today meeting with you for a couple of hours on a project that probably won’t happen costs myself and the Architect money in work that isn’t done.  There are a few Architects that specialize in this type of work, you can use Google to find them.

4.  The contractor is the next issue.  As I said in an earlier post, Bob the Builder is not the one to call.  For the houses here in Atlanta, the owner built them for himself.  He contracted directly with container yards to do the modifications, and he directly contracted the subs.  It took a lot of work on his part, and you may have to do the same.  The problem is if you intend on doing it that way, it may be hard to find a good Architect or Structural Engineer, because you will end up taking up a lot of their time.  OR, you will need to budget in your fees for the time you will need to take up from the Engineer and Architect.

The problems I have had with individuals that have called me is that they have little knowledge of construction and unrealistic expectations.  In every case, they were totally unprepared for the cost of the project, and had no real source of funding.  They usually had no knowledge of how a project is designed and built.  I have had ones that wanted to use junk they found lying around to build the buildings, one sent me pictures of some old beams he found and bought, another wanted to use some old light poles he scrounged up.  You can’t do that.  I’ve had people convinced they could build the houses completely for free.  Others have argued with me why it was so expensive to pay me – it was “only a few hours work”.  It took me 35 years of experience and more education than I care to talk about to get to that couple of hours work.  I also get people that call me that know more than I do – they don’t need an Architect, they can do that, they don’t need a contractor, they can do that, and I am certainly wrong with the cost of construction.  One caller went so far to tell me not only those items, but my website was no good and he could fix it for me.

Cutting requires skill in handling a plasma torch.

 

Working with the crane requires specialized skills too.

So, if you want to build a container house, lets sum it up.  First you need to make sure you have the money to do it.  You may need to get private investors or use your own money.  Please don’t expect myself or an Architect to come with you to meet potential investors.  Preparing your presentation is something you have to do.  You need to find a good licensed Architect.  Expect to pay him or her for Construction Admin services. Find a contractor, early.  This isn’t something you can bid.  Then get your Structural Engineer.  The Structural Engineer and contractor need to be involved in the design process from the beginning to make sure the Architect prepares a practical design.  Expect the permit process to be long and drawn out because you don’t have conventional construction.  You may have significant resistance from the neighbors, and this could kill you depending on the zoning in your location or the permit process.  Some areas require approval by different community boards, and this could sink you.

If you can handle all of the above, you can probably do it.  Again, don’t expect it to be easy.  I hope I didn’t come across as rude or snippy here, it wasn’t my intention, and hopefully this answers a lot of questions.

George

No, You Can’t Bury Containers!

This didn't work out so well.

I get asked over and over again if you can bury shipping containers.  Fortunately, most people accept my answer, which is simply – no.  In fact, just the other day an architect I work for sent me a question about whether a container could be buried.  I answered, “no, it will crush like a beer can.”  He wrote me back – “thank you George” and that that was it.  I guess that since I am a licensed Professional Engineer with 35 or so years experience in construction, plus a Master of Science from Columbia University in with a heavy concentration of structural engineering convinced him that I know what I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, not all people are like that.  One one site I was quoted about this matter, and the answer came back from some fool that said,  “hey, they stack them like 30 high on ships, so they can be buried”.   Well, do your math.  A container is 9 1/2′ tall.  If you stack them like 30 high, that comes out to be 285 feet high.  That’s a 28 story building.  Have you EVER seen a 28 story high merchant ship?  A slight wind from the side would roll the thing over.  OK, let’s look at how incredibly strong containers are – for STACKING!  You can stand on top of a can of beer can and it will probably hold your weight (provided you aren’t too heavy).  Lay the beer can on its side and stand on it.  If you are stupid enough to do this experiment, do it in your living room on the carpet right after your mom cleaned it.  Because if you are this stupid you probably don’t have a job and you live in your mom’s basement.

Shipping containers have very little strength from the side.  They have 0.07″ thick steel on the side which is about 2 mm thick (that is the metric system for you out there that remain convinced you can bury these things).  That thin steel can take a bit of a beating from the random forklift hit, or someone hitting it with a hammer.  However, the pressure of soil at 9 feet deep is about 315 lbs/sf.  That’s a bit high for 2 mm of steel.

Now, one idiot called me and wanted to know if he could bury a container.  I told him no, its sides are too thin.  He said “but it’s made of Cor-Ten steel”.  Look, Cor-Ten steel is not a magical substance.  It is steel that is chemically formulated to not scale when it rusts.  The rust then provides a coating that protects the underlying steel, making it great for bridges and outside structures since you can save on painting them.  It isn’t any stronger than any other steel.

Every now and then I get an e-mail with a link to a You Tube video where they bury a container.  There usually is little commentary in the e-mail, I guess the sender figures I will watch the video and have a reaction like this:

 

Well, I don’t.  There are all kinds of You Tube videos.  So what?  I.  They need to do a video of that container three or four years from now when its sides have crushed in.

The next one I get is – “Well, what if I encase it in concrete?”  Yes, that is an excellent idea.  It will work.  Here’s another idea – why not just make a concrete vault and save the hassle of the shipping container?  Here in Georgia there are wall contractors that have metal forms that piece together and you can form a wall, pour it, and reuse the forms for another wall.  You could hire one of these contractors and save the hassle of entombing a container.  Unless you really, really like shipping containers.

I also get asked, “can’t I reinforce the container?”  Yes, with a lot of steel. Or, you can pour a concrete vault.  OR you can even build a vault from reinforced masonry.  Both are probably a lot cheaper and easier than reinforcing a container.  Also, neither will rust through. Cor-Ten steel is rust resistant, but I don’t know how well it will do in a buried environment, especially if you have corrosive type soils.

If you’ve gone this far, and need some more proof – look at this website!

At What Point Do You Do Structural Repairs?

A lot of houses I look at have issues with settlement in the foundations and floor slabs.  A lot of times I only recommend cosmetic repairs.  Why is this?  If the house has settled, should you put in piers under your foundations to stabilize it?  Not always, and here’s my rationale:

In many cases I am looking at houses that have been in existence for 20 years or more.  The settlement is often rather minor, and can easily be hidden with simple cosmetic repairs like spackling cracks in the drywall, and filling cracks in exterior mortar.  Let’s say the repairs cost $200.  Usually settlement occurs at its maximum in the first five years or so of the life of the house, from there the settlement never really stops, but proceeds at a much slower rate.  So you would have to do cosmetic repairs on a fairly regular basis – maybe every two years or so.

Generally, it takes at least two foundation piers to repair settlement.  With a budget of about $1,100 a pier, the cost of the repair will be at least $2,200.  How many years will it take for your regular cosmetic repairs to be greater than this cost?  It will take 22 years!  Now with more severe cracking, recent settlement, or if windows and doors are affected, the piers are the best option.  However, in many cases it doesn’t really make economic sense to put out that kind of money.

The other issue is floor slabs.  Often garage slabs are built on soft soil, and they settle over time.  It costs about $6,000 to $8,000 in Atlanta to replace a two car garage floor slab.  If your garage slab has settled about 1/2″ towards the center, and only has minor cracking, do you really want to spend $6,000 to $8,000 for a room that you park your car in and store all your junk?  I wouldn’t.

So, oftentimes I give people the option in my reports – you can do a permanent repair for X amount of dollars and this will happen, or you can cosmetically repair the issue for Y amount of dollars and this other thing will happen.  It often times boils down to economics and personal preferences.

George

In this case, the cracking is probably due to minor settlement. It would require at least three piers to repair ($3,300), or you could reparge the block every couple of years for the cost of a bag of pre-mixed mortar..

Here’s a Good One!

I just got back from checking out a foreclosed house, and I am always surprised at what stuff people do to houses.  Look at this:

Do you know what it is?  It’s a WINDOW through the basement subwall.  The only thing holding the dirt back is the geo fabric that you see.  Obviously, it’s not working so well, the floor of the basement is covered in mud.  When I was in college, a couple of friends of mine and I were discussing the idea of underground houses, and one of my friends said they weren’t a good idea.  If you opened the windows, dirt would come in.  Well, here they opened the window to the dirt.

Why Don’t We Do Shipping Container Houses For Individuals?

I get e-mails all the time from people that want to build their own shipping container houses.  Some of them are actually quite belligerent as to why we won’t work for individual homeowners in designing these.  Some plead with us to make an exception, others ask for us to point them to a builder that they can go to that we will work with.  Let me explain our reasoning, and hopefully clear up some confusion.

First, we have done work for individuals in the past, and it didn’t work out well.  In most cases they had unrealistic ideas as to what this type of construction would cost.  If you are building a container house by yourself, I don’t care what the many other websites tell you, it will cost you about $150.00 a square foot.  Now, somebody will reply to this pointing out they “know a guy” that built a house for couple hundred dollars.  I’m not talking about a hermit living in a box in the woods.  I’m talking about a permitted legal house .  I’ve challenged people to come up with a specific house that has been permitted and follows all applicable codes that costs less – I need specifics.  If I get one of these, I will happily post about it here on the website.

Second, if you’ve ever built your own house you know what a pain in the neck that it is.  Shipping containers are not conventional.  Cutting them requires a skilled hand with a plasma torch or diamond saw.  Welding them requires a lot of tedious grinding to get rid of the epoxy paint, and a skilled hand at welding.  When you cut the sides off, the containers spring out of shape.  They have to be lifted by a crane.  This is more commercial type work, not residential.  I don’t care if you’ve built a wonderful wet bar in your basement, it’s not a DIY project. I know there are websites out there that say that they can be built as a DIY project, but there are also websites out there that say the moon landing was faked, and that the US Government has an Alien breeding program where aliens are cross bred with humans. Look, I worked for the Government, and we were too incompetent to fake a moon landing, and you would have better luck mating my parrot with my dog than a human with a species from another solar system.  You also would find building your own container house only marginally easier that mating the parrot with the dog, and would have better luck faking the moon landing.

Third is the liability.  “Liability” is often used as an excuse for poor service, but in this case it is real.  If you contract with us to design a house for you, and you run into all kind of problems as you find it’s sprung out of shape, you can’t get the floors to match up, you have problems stacking the containers, and the details have to be changed, you may get very angry instead of realizing you waded in over your head.  That’s how lawsuits begin.  It’s just not worth the risk for us.

Now, one other problem is that people that want to build a home for themselves with shipping containers get very angry when we don’t return their calls or e-mails. It comes off as impolite, but let me explain why this happens.  First off, we say in our contact information that we don’t do shipping container houses for individuals, we also say it again in this post.  So, if you are calling or e-mailing us, you probably had read that we don’t do work for individual homes, but you chose to contact us anyway.  That’s a red flag right there.

If we respond to an e-mail or a phone call, it almost always starts a bargaining session that can be very time consuming.  If you spend 15 minutes talking to me on the phone, it costs the company $50.00 in billable time.  That’s a lot of time to be spent to tell you “no”.  With e-mails, if I respond, it starts a flurry of back and forth e-mails, again trying to bargain with us.  Again, it is time consuming going back and forth on e-mails for projects that the answer will certainly be “no”.

If you really want a container house, what do I recommend you do? I don’t really have any recommendations on this.  This is something we just can’t help you with.

George