Structural engineers ensure that the support framing of a structure will support its own weight, and anything it might contain. A structural engineer will often be the professional that designs the truss system, wall supports, and foundation of your home.
A home inspection can involve a structural engineer when the design is complex and building codes do not directly address the forces acting on the building.
Here we will discuss the role of a structural engineer as it relates to home inspections, and when their services may be needed.
What Is a Home Inspection?
A home inspection involves a close, professional look at every aspect of the home, including the framing, roof, electrical system, plumbing system, and any other accessible area. Professional home inspectors are often hired by buyers in an attempt to accurately value a home before purchasing it.
A home inspector will provide a detailed, written report to their client, along with photos of their findings. The home inspector does not place a value on any aspect of the report, but rather describes the circumstances at the time of the inspection.
A common practice among home sellers is to provide a third party home inspection report as part of the listing. Most home buyers will ask for one anyway, so this gives the owner the opportunity to correct any concerns before putting the property up for sale.
Will the Home Inspector Make Repairs?
In most cases, the home inspector is responsible for noting any and all defects of the property depending on the scope of the inspection. In whole house inspections, the inspector’s job is to identify the condition of the home at the time of the inspection, and note any conditions that may manifest into future repairs.
Some home inspectors are also builders, but many are not. Home inspectors usually know and can recommend local contractors if they don’t offer construction services. If your inspection uncovers a structural problem and the home inspector can’t help with a solution, contacting a structural engineer should be your next step.
What Does a Structural Engineer Do?
A structural engineer typically has a four year degree in structural engineering or related field, and will have the expertise to provide design services professionally. Structural engineers are experts in the field of physics and use this knowledge to design structures that are stable, strong, and purpose built.
Let’s say a home inspector discovers a structural defect in the attic framing, which has caused a roof to sag. Although the inspector may not offer a solution to the defect, they will identify the weakness in their report.
Structural engineers can then investigate the defect and create a plan to resolve it. Most structural engineers provide a plan or blueprint that illustrates the defect and its solution, which can then be provided to a contractor.
Structural engineers are often well versed in building codes and standards as they relate to structural framing. This ensures that whatever design they create will not need to be adjusted to comply with local codes.
Structural engineers can also help design a home that meets your personal requirements. For example, if you wanted to add extra insulation to your walls, a structural engineer might substitute a 2” x 4” wall with a 2” x 6” wall, allowing for extra room in the wall cavity for insulation.
How Is a Structural Engineer Different From an Architect?
Some structural engineers may also have training in architectural design, and some architects are also structural engineers.
The difference between the two professions is vague but you can think of a structural engineer as focused on the structural integrity of the building, while an architect is focused on its appearance.
Architects are trained in design, building flow, efficiency, and system integration. You would work with an architect to design a new home for example, so the architect’s job is to take your idea and create a design that is buildable.
A structural engineer’s job is to take the architect’s design and ensure that any forces acting on the building are adequately supported by the design. A structural engineer may be hired to measure and calculate an architect’s design to ensure the structure can be built to an acceptable standard, especially if changes to the plan are proposed.
A structural engineer will also have expertise in the building materials proposed by the architect. These skills can extend to concrete, wood, steel, and even the quality of the soil.
Why Would I Need a Structural Engineer?
Structural engineers are often hired to provide a solution that is not addressed in the building code. In most cases, the structural problem is caused by a change made to the original design, which can impart forces on the structure it was not designed to support.
A structural engineer will take detailed measurements between supports, measure beams and headers, and inspect the forces acting on the house all the way to the ground. They will also inspect drainage issues that could erode away the lateral support of the foundation footings.
The structural engineer will then assess the situation and provide a plan that will correct the problem to the satisfaction of the building code. Building officials often default to the opinion of a structural engineer when no code addresses the issue, and ask the engineer to provide an affidavit of their findings as part of their report.
What Will a Structural Engineer Add to a Home Inspection?
Building codes try to address the most common questions builders have, but as designs become more unique and creative, sometimes a pro is needed for clarification. For example, these engineers can offer guidance for how to place the foundation around an immovable obstacle, like a large rock.
If the home inspection uncovers that a builder modified or damaged a truss, a building inspector may require that a structural engineer approve the modifications.
If your home is “stick built” (using standard lumber instead of trusses) the builder should follow the load capabilities of the materials used. If the home inspection discovers these capabilities have been exceeded, a structural engineer can provide a builder with a list of approved corrections that bring the home back up to code.
If building and remodeling projects involve the removal of structural support, like moving a wall or adding a doorway, the approval of a structural engineer can be a requirement for a certificate of occupancy.
Home Inspections and Structural Engineers: When Do I Need Both?
Here are the important takeaways for deciding when a structural engineer will be needed as a result of a home inspection:
- Building codes do not directly address a part of the building design
- Trusses have been modified or damaged
- Home inspector discovers a structural defect
- Plan requires working around an obstacle or drainage
- Weight bearing walls, headers, posts, columns, or girders have been moved or modified
Even if you aren’t planning to sell or buy a home soon, having your home periodically can be a wise investment. As your home ages it can settle and form small cracks that lead to big repairs. The important thing is to catch small problems before they become big hassles.
Is hiring a structural engineer expensive?
A structural engineer inspection can cost anywhere from about $350 to $800 dollars, depending on the scope of the inspection. Some charge by the hour, while others offer design services for a flat fee.
How do I know if I need a structural engineer?
In most cases, you will need a structural engineer if either a home inspector or building inspector notes a defect that needs repair. Generally, structural problems need to be addressed as soon as possible, so structural engineers are brought in early to keep the repairs as small as possible.