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August / September 2014
School Building Condition Surveys:
Looking Past the Cracks

by James A. D'Aloisio, P.E., SECB, LEED AP BD+C


The impetus for creation of the New York State Education Department (NYSED) Building Condition Survey (BCS) program was the 1989 collapse of an elementary school cafeteria wall. Nine children lost their lives in this tragedy, which occurred during a strong windstorm in East Coldenham, New York. The cafeteria wall - with windows on three sides of a central rectangle of masonry - was not capable of resisting strong winds, despite having functioned adequately for about 35 years previously. Most experienced structural engineers knew intuitively what the problem was, upon first seeing a drawing of the building elevation. Presumably, if such a significant deficiency had been identified before the incident, the wall could have been reinforced and the tragedy could have been avoided.


From the 1990s through today, NYSED has required, and provided funding for, all public school districts to have their school buildings reviewed by design professionals every five years. We are about to begin the 2015 program. Many districts have benefitted from having their buildings thoroughly reviewed by qualified architects and engineers. Others have accepted bargain-basement proposals from companies who may see the program as a marketing opportunity rather than an important safety program. As professional engineers, we are concerned that this price competition is precluding many school buildings from receiving the quality of structural reviews that they need.


In our building investigations, we have come across several serious structural conditions that had not exhibited any evidence of distress or damage. We recently encountered a 25-foot-tall, 80-foot long cavity wall of brick and eight-inch unreinforced CMU that comprised the exterior wall of a Cafetorium which was built in the 1990s. The wall had no wind columns, girts, or pilasters. It was grossly inadequate for wind loading. (See photo below.) It turned out that the architect had thought that the out-of-state engineer had designed or reviewed the wall for wind loading, and vice versa. Yet the wall was not bowed and had no significant cracks. Despite the fact that such practices are grossly inappropriate, these design transgressions can still occur. We were able to develop a minimally intrusive wind load reinforcing scheme using steel tubes as wind columns before any failure occurred. This example poses the following questions:


  • How many other similar conditions are present in our school buildings?
  • Why wasn't this dangerous condition identified in the four or five BCSs that had been performed on this building prior to its discovery?
  • How many BCSs are being performed by less experienced professionals who would have let this wall pass through their review without identifying it as a potential problem?


We have found that, although checklists are important, the most critical aspect of a structural building condition survey is that they be performed by a senior structural engineer. Such an individual has the best chance of identifying deficiencies in the mechanisms of load transfer that building structures, including the exterior walls of buildings, need to have in place to perform their function. Other important attributes of structural building condition assessors include:


  • Familiarity with the design and function of a wide variety of building systems
  • Willingness to access attics, crawlspaces, and the like. We have found severely compromised elements in the far reaches of very infrequently accessed spaces.
  • Curiosity to discern the cause of distress patterns. Every physical crack has a physical cause.
  • Sound engineering judgment. Not all cracks, sags, or bows require remediation.


In years past, our engineers have spent time in various school buildings observing, and commenting on, plaster shrinkage cracks that a less experienced reviewer had determined to be a "structural concern." We take any such reports of building distress seriously, because we never know when such reports are actually indicators of a serious mechanism that needs to be addressed. And it is sometimes necessary to review such conditions to provide assurance to concerned facilities managers that buildings are actually safe.


Structural engineering is not a commodity. Whenever the selection of a structural engineering firm is made based on price or any other criteria than qualifications, whether it be for a design project or for a structural condition review or assessment, the engineering profession is diminished and the safety of the public could be jeopardized. Including a qualified engineer in Building Condition Surveys will result in a higher level of assurance that school buildings are safe. 

Francis A. Hahn, 1928 - 2014

Francis A. Hahn, 86, a former principal of Klepper, Hahn & Hyatt, died July 26, 2014. A resident of East Syracuse, he was born in Brooklyn, NY, and lived most of his life in Syracuse. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve and was a communicant of St. Matthews Church in East Syracuse.


Frank, as everyone at KHH knew him, volunteered for FM-JD Meals on Wheels, F.I.S.H., Francis House, and Literacy Volunteers. He enjoyed golfing, walking, and had a passion for downhill skiing.


Frank was predeceased by his wife, Margaret F. Hahn, in 1994. He is survived by his seven children, 10 grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews. He is sadly missed and fondly remembered by everyone who knew him at the firm. 

New and Noteworthy
Adrienne Drumm


Adrienne Drumm interned with KHH during the summer of 2014, assisting with Building Envelope Systems projects. A resident of Tully, Adrienne returned to Alfred State College where she is a sophomore pursuing a five-year Bachelor of Architecture degree. She is a great-granddaughter of Howard F. Eckerlin, P.E., the original founder of KHH's predecessor firm in 1950, which became Ecklerlin & Klepper Consulting Engineers in 1954.



KHH NIght at the Syracuse Chiefs
Klepper, Hahn & Hyatt sponsored an Employees' Night on July 21 at NBT Bank Stadium, where the Syracuse Chiefs took on the Pawtucket Red Sox. Although the Chiefs lost, 4-3, the weather was beautiful for staff and family members who enjoyed a picnic-style dinner. At left are Gordon Hyatt, Rich Applebaum and Jim D'Aloisio with the Chiefs mascots.
Team Building at Destiny USA
KHH employees and principals participated in a Team Building Event on May 20 at 5 Wits in the Destiny USA complex. Three teams competed to see which could achieve the best score in a series of mazes with clues. It was all in the spirit of sportsmanship and
collegiality. Afterward, everyone enjoyed lunch at Koto Japanese Restaurant.

Upcoming Presentations

Jim D'Aloisio is presenting and lecturing at several venues this fall, including:

  • "Mitigation of Thermal Steel Bridging with Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic" at the annual CAMX - Composites and Advanced Materials Expo, in Orlando on 14 October

  • A 5-hour "Structures and Sustainability" workshop at the Structural Engineering Institute Chapter Leader's Conference in San Diego on 25 October

  • Lunchtime keynote, "Engineering The Changes in the Climate Change Era" at the CNY Engineering Expo in Syracuse on 3 November. | 315-446-9201 |

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