Residential Structures

The DC Container Apartment Building – Final Product

SeaUA  Housing  Travis Price Architects24

If I had to say what was the best project I have ever worked on as an engineer in the 33 years since I graduated from the University of Maryland, it has to be the shipping container apartment building on 3305 7th Street in Washington, DC.  It was a rather unusual project in how it started as far as I was concerned.  I was working on a job in New York, and I stopped in Washington, DC to visit my sister on my way home.  While I was at my sister’s house, I got a call from a DC area code on my cell phone, so I went ahead and answered it – normally I don’t answer my cell phone when I am visiting people, but this seemed a bit different.  The call was from Kelly Davies at Travis Price Architects.  She had a shipping container building project that had an investor, and a contractor.  Her firm was an established architecture firm in Washington, DC.  Was I interested?  Of course, and not only was I interested, I could meet with her that afternoon, since I just happened to be in the area.

We met in a conference room in the Acela Lounge in Union Station, and the meeting went very well.  Travis Price came in and joined us, and we came to a preliminary agreement.  A couple days later I had the contract and we began design.  Since DC is fairly easy to get to from here in Atlanta, I went up to work in their office a couple of times.  The design basically started in April, the house was permitted, and finished by October.  For this size and complexity of a project I have never seen it done this fast.  I’ve seen permitting take longer than this.  Of course it took some very fast reaction times.  One morning I was in Binghamton, NY waiting on the bus to New York City, and I got a frantic e-mail needing some sort of letter from me.  I wrote the thing in the waiting room of the bus station and sent it back before I got on the bus ( I really, really hate airports so I will do anything to avoid flying, even if it means riding a bus – which is actually kind of fun ).

What amazed me is the publicity we got.  The project got on page one of the Washington Post on the day the containers came in.  We were featured on news outlets all over DC and covered nationally.  Not all the reviews are positive for this project, which is expected.  Many are ignorant – like comparing shipping containers to house trailers.  Structurally  this building is very stout and I thin has a life span of about 200 years.  Others didn’t like the look, and aesthetics are a matter of personal taste.  Others felt it somehow was wrong to live in a box originally designed for shipping goods.  In such case, you don’t have to live there.

Anyway, here are pictures of the final product taken by a professional photographer:

View of House From 7th Street

Rear Bedroom With Balcony

My favorite part – the kitchen

The Building at Night

Bolting the Corners Together Was A Method I Used To Provide For More Capacity From the Columns


3d for Residential Structural Design

Structural Rendering of Residence From the Side

This is one of my more recent projects, the architect was dencity Design in Atlanta.  It’s a very difficult house – look at the cantilevers:

3d Structure of Residence In Decatur, GA















This kind of strucutre is difficult to engineer because you have to visualize a very complex 3 shape from a 2 drawing.  To make things easier, the Architect, Staffan Svenson, sent me a rendering done in Google Sketchup so I could visualize what was happening.  I then built a 3 model in RAM Elements software to cover all the different forces we would encounter.  The problem you get is not only vertical forces in a complex structure as this, but the wind action.  How do you brace it?  I used fixed connections to the foundations, which required me to spend time engineering anchor plates, anchor bolts, and very large foundations.  I could do this by hand (and I have) would be very time consuming, and you run the chance of what I call “calculation fatigue” – you do so many calculations you get blind to the errors due to simple mental fatigue.

Here’s a view of the rendering from RAM Elements:

Rendering From Structural Design Program – RAM Elements



Working this way, I was able to model all of the effects of the structure – note how I put in concrete walls in the basement and OSB (Oriented Strand Board) walls on the first and second floors.  All of this could factor into the design.  Once the structural calculations are done, it’s time to do what the illustrious professors I had as an undergraduate didn’t think was important, but is actually critical – translate it into a drawing that can be understood and constructed.  This is a pet peeve of mine, I run into engineers that can’t seem to understand how to develop their ideas into drawings.  In such case you may as not have any ideas.

I personally had two choices for drawing this, well I guess three:

1.  I could send the drawing out to a CAD service with hand sketches of what I wanted.  We could go back and forth for a week or so until I got what I wanted.  Maybe two weeks.  Well, really four weeks.

2.  I could draw it myself in AutoCAD – there is another type of fatigue you encounter when drawing.  After working so hard to do the calculations, now you are drawing all these boring details, and repetitious joists, and then trying to make it all work.  I could do this drawing in about 40 man hours.

3.  Draw the drawing in Softplan, and use exported details from RAM Elements for the connections, foundations, and baseplates.  RAM Exports details in DXF (Drawing Exchange format), so it’s easy to import into Softplan.  Softplan generates drawings in 3d from your floor plans, and automates a lot of stuff like drawing columns, foundations, walls, and joists.  The beauty is you can have a 3d model that constantly updates as you create your drawing.  That way you can catch things you might overlook.  I was able to make sure I had load bearing walls stacking to the floor, and that I had foundations placed properly under all walls.  Also I was able to show the Architect, Staffan, what I was trying to do.  To do this, I shared the model over GoToMeeting with Staffan, and he did point out a few changes I needed to do.  I modifed the drawing, showed the model to Staffan again on GoToMeeting, and finished it.  It worked out really well.

As you can see, I chose Option 3 above.  My father was an engineer also, and he generally did his own drawings.  He could draw well and very fast, and he said the time it took to explain his ideas to a draftsman (women weren’t in the business in his day), he could the same drawing several times over.  I have the same issue.  I can’t hand draw like my father could, I never had to put the time into it to learn the skill like he had.  However, I’ve taken a lot of courses on AutoCAD, and I think I’m pretty good at drawing on the computer.  I’m also pretty fast, so like my father, it’s not worth it for me to use a CAD person.  I do use my son on many jobs because we’ve worked together enough he knows what I want, but some jobs like this I really feel like only I could do right.

Anyway, the design of this project worked out pretty well.  The next stage is construction.  I hope to intimately involved in the construction.  My contract requires the client to contact me for a minimum of two site visits.  I also explained to the builder that I want to go over everything with him to make sure there are no misunderstandings.  The builder told me he has  a great steel supplier, and he understands how critical this structure is.  I have great hopes for this job, the key to making any job work is close communications between all parties.

Here’s a final view of my model in Softplan:

Structural Rendering of Residence From the Side


Retaining Wall Failure, Gainesville, GA

Beginning Construction of the Retaining Wall

Client: Residential Customer

This project involved replacing a poorly constructed residential retaining wall.  The failed wall was 24 feet high, and was constructed in 4 foot increments of treated yellow pine timbers to get around permitting requirements (generally walls under 4 feet high don’t have to be permitted in most jurisdictions).  The builder set the walls on a massive pile of uncompacted fill, and buried trash from the subdivision.  The wall started to fail about 10 years after construction, which meant the contractor was nowhere to be found, and the Statute of Limitations had run out.  The wall was showing a wide open tension crack at the top level, which can mean it is beginning to get global failure.  We recommended a geotechnical firm come out and do an investigation.  They couldn’t get a boring rig onto the site, so they did hand auger borings to about 12′ and found poor soil.

We designed three walls made of reinforced concrete to step up to the back yard.  Excavation began, and the contractor encountered a deep trash pit about 15 feet below the ground.  This raised the specter of serious global failure, so we recommended a different geotechnical engineer examine the site, Mr. Robert Turton of Oakhurst Geotechnical.  Mr. Turton has many years of experience with soil engineering, and he performed a slop stability analysis to determine what soil improvements had to be done.  He also monitored removal of poor soil and placement and compaction of fill.  We had to change our wall design to reflect the new profile, and we were on site several times a week.

A year after the new walls were constructed, the 500 year storm hit the area, flooding many areas, and causing many structural collapses.  Our walls remained stable, which we are certain is more than can be said of the original walls.

The original walls as failure was starting.

The Original Wall - you can see cracking in the mulch at the top about two feet from the grass.















A view of the trash pit that we found.

A View of the Trash Pit We Found















Compacting Fill After The Trash Was Removed















Beginning Construction of the Retaining Wall

The House of Pain


Every now and then you come across construction that is so bad it takes your breath away.  This house is the most extreme example that I’ve seen.  It’s not uncommon to see shacks out in the woods put up in a haphazard manor, usually that’s because the people that are putting them up have very little money, so they get stuff to build with as they can.  They also have little in construction skills and can’t afford to pay contractors to do the work.  This house was in a very nice suburban neighborhood, and actually looked somewhat OK from the street with the exception that it was on temporary power.  It hadn’t gone to permanent power because it hadn’t passed any inspections and there was no certificate of occupancy.

The homeowner called me because the county had shown up with an order for them to vacate the property.  Apparently they had bought the property “as is”, and they wanted to sue the seller.  I was asked to do a report on the property, and I knew immediately that I’d never get paid for my work.  However, curiosity took over and I did the evaluation, wrote a lengthy report, and of course got stiffed for the fee.  I never did find out what the final disposition of the house was.  I talked to one of the senior county inspectors about it, and he said the house had changed hands numerous times and the ownership wasn’t too clear.  That should be expected, because it’s hard to believe any financial institution would lend for something like this.

While this is an extreme example, there are a fair number of houses out there that have similar defects.  Towards the end of the housing boom a lot of people jumped in to build houses that shouldn’t have, and many of the foreclosures on the market have very significant construction defects.  What looks like a bargain price may be in the end an expensive transfer of misery.

Let’s start from the outside:
Rear of House

This is in the rear of the house – where do you start?  The stucco is totally jacked up, look at how it’s peeling from the house.  There are no joints in the stucco.  The deck is made from untreated lumber and is not supported correctly from the post.  There should be a concrete landing outside the door, and there is no drip edge under the stucco.  The paint is peeling off the windows, there is excess erosion, and it’s not a good idea to leave trash around your foundation, it attracts insects and vermin.

Garage entrance
No gutters, the roofing is sloppy, look at the garage door opening, it’s a mess too.  The difference in color of the stucco is due to lighting, it doesn’t actually have multiple tones.  Here’s a close up of the electric meter:
Electric meter
The holes are supposed to be sealed to keep the weather, insects, and rodents out.  I don’t think that meter was hooked up by the way.  Let’s go inside, it gets much worse:
Living room
Ok, the wallpaper is peeling off.  It also is two clashing styles.  The house was moderately messy, I’ve seen worse.  It was the rotting garbage in the sink that made it uncomfortable, but we’ve only just begun.

Let’s go up into the upstairs:
Yes the wires are hot
Yes, those wires are hot.  In the upstairs they didn’t finish the wiring, and it was hanging out of the junction boxes and fixtures.  By the way, the wires aren’t supposed to be all the same color.  Typically black is hot, white is neutral, red is hot, green is ground.  That’s so the electrician can wire things right and you don’t get electrocuted in your shower because the wrong wire was grounded.  Now we better go up and see what awaits us in the attic:
Attic 1
No junction boxes, the condensate piping is all wrong (note the tees are in for some unknown reason).  The framing is chopped up, and water damage is apparent in the right side.  How do you like the way the wiring is wrapped around stuff?

Attic 2
I couldn’t for the life of me figure why the vent pipe had the tee in it and branched out through two different outlets on the roof.  Note the wire that was used as a support.  The framing is completely wrong, and space doesn’t permit me to outline everything.  Note how the rafters aren’t properly supported at the bottoms, and the purlins are wrong too.
Attic Framing
Look in the rear of the photo wher the braces for the roof come down onto the beams.  There is nothing to keep those beams from twisting, which they will ultimately.  The framing is more or less randomly done.  Note the orbs in the center lower right – some believe those are spirits caught on film.  I think they’re dust particles, but maybe being confined to this attic is some poor soul’s punishment for misdeeds in a previous life…

More Random Framing
More random framing in the attic.  Note the ceiling joists seem to be placed with no rhyme or reason.  Also, look at the lower right and see the water damage.

Really Bad Wiring
We can’t stay in the attic forever, so we’re going downstairs.  But first, look at this wiring – it is sandwiched between the floor sheathing and ceiling joists.  That will wear the insulation off the wire and start a fire ultimately.  Although it will be a race between that and all the other wiring misdeeds to see which one will ultimately burn the house down, if it doesn’t fall down first.

Now, before we go in the basement, I want you to look at this shower:
This is the shower.  I’ve seen worse, but usually in places where the people are really poor, or in third world countries.  I wouldn’t step in here barefoot though.  However, look at the underside:
Under Shower
The shower doesn’t connect to the house sewer.  It just drains into the basement.  That sewer line slopes upward by the way.  They kept a plunger by the toilet to help things on their way.  Now, even though the shower didn’t drain into the sewer, the people here in this house were very clean.  Look:
They showered and bathed anyway!  Look at the water in the basement, AND the black mold.  The sheet rock was put up to cover worse mold behind it.  I am highly allergic to black mold, and I should have left.  However, like watching a train wreck, I couldn’t turn away.  I ignored my sinus pain and kept on…

While bathing may be healthful, it probably is risky in this house.  The rotten floor joists are under the tub and you might make a very quick trip to the basement.

Rough in Plumbing
Ok, they were roughing in a bathroom in the basement.  Look how close the sink drain is to the toilet.  That way you can sit on the throne and do your business while you brush your teeth.   The pipes were above the floor slab, so they never finished.

Water heaterWater heater 2
Part of the basement was bare ground, and that’s where the water heater was set.  The installation wasn’t quite completed.  Note the there is no pipe attached to the temperature and pressure valve, and the panels were left off.

Well, we’ve been here long enough, and just looking at this makes me have an allergic reaction, so let’s go, but…
The Stairs
Be careful going up the stairs.  These look like something you tried to climb in college after a night of heavy drinking, don’t they?

I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit in the House of Pain.  Please don’t buy anything like this.  If I find out what happened to the house, I will update this page.


House Design Project

House Design

This interesting project was for dencity design in Atlanta, GA.  It’s an interesting house with multiple cantilevers.  Here is a rendering of the house:

Rendering of proposed house.











The items in red are the steel beams.  Notice we have a cantilever deck on one side, and we are cantilevered over the garage.  This is not an easy thing to design, the beam sizing is hard, the connections are hard, and so are the baseplates and foundations.  To design this, we used Bentley RAM Elements.  Here is the rendering from the software:

This is a rendering for the steel cantilever structure in our structural software.














In the analysis process, RAM Elements solved 132 equations.  I could have designed this by hand, but figuring about 15 minutes per solved equation, it would take me 30 hours.  Considering I tried numerous alternatives, triple that number, it would be more like 90 hours.   Since you can’t just sit and solve equations day in and day out, humans did not evolve to do such things, we’re talking about month to do this design by hand.  That’s for an experienced engineer.  Of course the chance of error is extremely high in such a complex undertaking too – typically on projects this complex in the days before computers another engineer would have to be assigned just to go over the calcs done to make sure everything was done right.

What was the biggest hassle?  There is a bit of a gotcha in the way this house is built.  In the first run of calculations, I had all of the deflections (bending) of the beams in accordance with Code, but the end of the house dipped down a couple of inches, which is not a good thing.  What happened was the beam deflected ever so slightly, and so did the columns, and it all added up. So, I had to make the beams and columns really beefy to make sure there was next to no deflection.  The beneficial effect is the floors feel really solid, which is important in a house with this type of architecture.

Here are some of the pictures of the house under construction:

This picture shows the cantilevered deck in the front.

The house is nearing completion – the sheathing is up, and the contractor is putting on the vapor barrier.

Rear of House

This is the rear of the house – the temporary posts are still in place. This part was harder to engineer than the front part oddly enough.

Rounded Windows

View down the left side (from the street) showing the rounded windows.

This is a good view of the second floor cantilever – the floor feels as solid as concrete when you jump on it.

This walkway crosses a two story foyer to get from the front to the rear of the house. It looks different, but actually this was one of the easier things to design.


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