Structural Issues Part 1

We all make mistakes.

June 4, 2016 James putting up rim joists under the ridge beam
June 4, 2016 James putting up rim joists under the ridge beam

Lately I have been framing in interior walls, digging trenches and helping to install a BC Hydro service box on the boulevard, putting up sheathing membrane and all kinds of stuff that I’ve never done before. Leanne has been running electrical wires and installing lights & outlets under the tutelage of her father who is a retired electrician. Their work is supervised and supplemented by the certified electrician who pulled our electrical permit with the city.

In among all this there have been mistakes (although Leanne points out that the electrical work is going smoothly) and we’re learning a lot.

We expect the professionals we hire to make fewer mistakes than we would, but we also recognize that they are not perfect and even they are going to make mistakes. The question is what do they do when they make a mistake?

Do they cover it up? Do they own it? Do they charge the client for it? Do they charge the client for correcting it?

Someone put their foot through the ceiling. Oh well, that ceiling will be rebuilt anyway. I hope they were okay!
Someone put their foot through the ceiling. Oh well, accidents happen and that ceiling will be rebuilt anyway.

In response to my post about what keeps people from complaining when they are unhappy with a contractor, there have been a few comments on Facebook from reasonable people who want to know what kind of complaints we’re talking about. Totally legit question. Canadians  don’t want to write off a company just because someone else complained about them.

People complain about contractors smoking on their job site, leaving a mess, playing loud music, using bad language. Is it things like this I’m complaining about?


In fact, when our contractor left the job on January 26th, 2016, I assumed that the work that had been done was basically okay. Heck, how was I supposed to know? I’m not a home builder. It was annoying when the owner of the company asked me, “With all due respect James, how many houses have you built?” but I had to admit, he had a point.

Ironically, it was one of the contractor’s employees who gave me the advice, on the day they packed up and abandoned our project, which led me to uncovering the most serious issues.

Here's the house under its plastic in January.
Here’s the house under its makeshift plastic tent in January.

He told me that, if he were me, he would ask our engineer to do a field review and then follow him around with a pen and paper taking notes. Find out what needs to be done and then do it. Simple.

Left on our own with nothing but plastic sheeting and tarps to keep the winter weather off the house, there was a delay in putting this plan into action. We frantically installed a roof as quick as we could because the plastic was leaking and being ripped off in the stormy weather (I describe the former here and the latter here) but on February 16th, Carlos of Chiu Hippmann Engineering, visited.

Here begins a series of posts which will each describe an issue and how we solved it. The first was the most serious.

February 9, 2016
Taken February 9, 2016

Flush from the success of finding a good roofer and feeling like maybe we could do this–maybe we could be our own contractors if we just listen to the experts and do what they tell us to do–I greeted Carlos and we looked around. The house seemed okay to me and maybe we could take it from here.

Carlos the engineer is a pretty calm, soft-spoken guy. So when he stepped onto the top floor of our newly roofed house and said, “Hm, there are a few issues here” my stomach dropped and I felt that homeowner vertigo.

No no no. I don’t want to go backwards. I don’t want to fix “issues”. I want to move forwards!

An engineer’s opinion matters. When an engineer gives an opinion, he or she is staking their career on it. It’s a regulated profession so if they make too many mistakes, they can have their license taken away. End of career. If you don’t believe me check out the APEGBC:

The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia is the licensing and regulatory body responsible for BC’s professional engineers and geoscientists. The association is charged with protecting public safety in BC by setting and maintaining high standards of professional practice and ethical conduct for its members and licensees.

General Contractors, on the other hand, don’t really have a club they can be kicked out of for shoddy work.

Anyway, the first thing our professional engineer and member of the APEGBC noticed on the top floor was the ridge beam. That’s the beam that runs all the way along the very top ridge of the house. Here’s what Carlos wrote in his Field Review report:

Ridge beam to be revised to be 2 ply 1 3/4″ x 11 7/8″ microlam beam. Beam to span width of house to single build up post. Follow post to beam below.

Sounds a little dry but at the time a voice was shouting in my head:

Holy crap! How are we going to fix THAT?!

When Carlos says “2 ply” think of bathroom tissue. The beam, which is essentially 2″ X 12″ should be nailed together with another one just like it.

When Carlos says “to span width of house” that’s a command, not an option, and it means do not install the beams in pieces.

When Carlos says a single build up post he means one post near the middle of the house should carry the weight of the ridge beam all the way down to the steel beam in the basement.

In photos, let me back up and show you what we started with. As you can see, Leanne’s grandfather used nothing more than two 1X4s  stacked on top of each other as a ridge beam. This did fine for 92 years probably because the rafters on either side pushed together fairly evenly. The roof sloped away from the center at the same angle, so there wasn’t much weight pushing down.

January 7th. The original ridge beam looked pretty flimsy

By the way, that is old rock wool insulation in the foreground. It compacted over the years so it lost a lot of its insulation value, but it certainly won’t burn. The modern equivalent is an excellent Canadian product called Roxul.

On the left of the photo, leaning toward the camera, you can see one of the pieces (that’s right, I said pieces, plural) of new micro laminated ridge beam the workers are about to install.

In the next photo you can see a worker cutting a rafter where it joins the old ridge beam. Those rafters remained so they needed to make space to fit the new ridge beam in.

I had to crawl into that attic space myself to add all that Roxul batt insulation
In 2008 I had to crawl into that little triangular attic space myself to add all that Roxul batt insulation on top of the rock wool and fiberglass insulation that was already there.

On either side of the window you can see the half-pound spray foam insulation that was injected into the walls in 2008. I knew we wanted to thicken those walls so I had already opened up the walls before the Contractor got up there.

Here is what I looked like when I visited the job site that day, January 7th. (Maybe we should do a caption contest for this one):

How about this: “I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”

After the Contractor put the new ridge beam in it looked like this–a lot stronger than what was there before, right? Except that I’m not an engineer and I’ve never built a house before. That’s why we hired the professionals to do it right. Right?

What I see now after listening to Carlos and working with another contractor is that the ridge beam was not supported on either end by anything more substantial than the 2X4 that the exterior sheathing was nailed to. You can see the 2X4 just below the new ridge beam in this photo. The ridge beam, which has been notched (making it weaker) to fit above the 2X4, is supported by that 2X4 which is supported by a few nails into the wall.DSC02822 The window had no header over it, either. (I’ll tell you more about headers in a future post). Had I not opened up the wall myself before this work was done, we wouldn’t have been able to see this problem so clearly.

Most importantly, the engineering drawings call for two of those beams side by side, not one. This is what they call in the trade a “deficiency”. We use that word a lot these days. (We also use the words, “incompetent” and “negligence” a fair bit.)

But what about that balance that I told you about–the rafters pushing evenly so that the ridge beam is not so important? Well, it took another contractor to point out what seems obvious now. We destroyed that balance when we added the dormer.

The photo on the left, below, is the original peak of the house with the chimney coming up the middle just off-centre. On the right you can see that the new roof peak is no longer balanced, so the ridge beam becomes more important. (The chimney held itself up, but was never a structural element. With it gone, we have a chase that runs to the basement that we can use for plumbing, ducting, electrical wires or structural elements.)

You can see in the photo below, looking the other direction from the drawings above,  that the rafters on the left are pushing to the right, just as they always have, but the rafters on the right are not pushing back as much as they once did.


So what was the solution? Carlos said we needed to add another beam. How? Well, the first idea was to cut a gap beside the first one, slide it up beside it and nail them together. Oh, and while we’re up there with a reciprocating saw cutting up through those 92 year-old rafters, let’s be careful not to poke a hole in the brand new roof!

Doesn’t that sound like a nightmare? It gets worse.

Here’s a photo of the joint in the middle of the beam which is supported by a post of three 2X6s. Can you see them running down the space where the central chimney used to be? That space runs all the way down to the basement, but the Contractor ran the post to the floor and stopped. In fact, the post was sitting on nothing more than a floor joist–and not even completely.


That explains why Carlos required us to “follow post to beam below”. He is referring to the brand new steel beam that lies ready in the basement to support any load we need it to.

I can remember the site supervisor explaining what they were proposing to do and I regret now that I didn’t insist they call the engineer. That is what the engineer is for. Practice this phrase if you find yourself in a similar situation, “what did the engineer say?”


What did the engineer say?

What did the engineer say?

What did the engineer say?

Okay, here’s a test. You’re on site with your renovation contractor and he or she says,

“Okay, so I wanted to show you this post here. See, on the plans it shows this, but then we opened up the wall and we’re seeing that. I’m thinking we should probably beef that up a little bit.”

What do you say?

That’s right! “What did the engineer say?” You’re really getting it!

Finally, there was an issue which Carlos accepted a little responsibility for.

New post
New post cutting into a cabinet

In our son’s room, the sloping roof of the staircase cuts into the space. Leanne’s grandfather built a cabinet that disguises the rest of the slope and Carlos originally stipulated that another post be put somewhere in there to hold up the ridge beam.

There were a few days there that the crew seemed to be ruminating over how to handle this requirement. They even seemed to be asking my opinion on what should be done, but I didn’t want to give it because, hey, I don’t know how to build a house.

Finally the post was installed. It was a pity that the 92 year-old cabinet had to be notched to allow the beam to go in, but we accepted it as necessary. Structure before Heritage. I did NOT ask, “What did the engineer say?”

Incidentally, sitting on that post is another joint in the ridge beam. That makes two joints and three sections of a beam which should have been one piece.

When Carlos reviewed the post, he checked to see what was supporting it from below. Nothing. Under that post is the ceiling of the stairwell. The floor joists stretch at least ten feet across the space. There is no load-bearing wall there.

This was not a good place to support that ridge beam and Carlos admitted that. Fortunately for him, the notes on the engineering drawings, written in all caps, are clear:


and covering the engineer’s butt even more is this little gem:


I can’t say what conversations the Contractor did or did not have with Carlos. All I can say is what the result was.

The result was the beam was half as thick as it needed to be, was in three pieces instead of one, and, of the four places it was supported, all four were structurally inadequate.

Here is  a photo of the north end of the ridge beam after the new 2-ply beam was added and supported below by a header over the window which sits on posts to carry the weight down the wall to the foundation. You can still see where the first ridge beam was notched to avoid disturbing that 2-foot long piece of 2X4. Carlos told us not to put notches in structural beams.


There was at least a month there where we searched for another contractor who would help us fix the structural issues so that we could get on with the work that we had been planning to do (mostly) ourselves anyway. After getting a name from our plumber, whom we trust, we finally hired a new company which is awesome. For now, I’ll give the owner the codename “Bob” from Bob the Builder. I’d like to tell you all about “Bob” but the old contractor threatened to sue “Bob” so “Bob” doesn’t want me to name him. Yup, that’s how bad contractors get better press than good ones.

Here’s the solution that Bob came up with. First of all, he called the engineer. Next, he proposed a solution which was more structurally robust than the engineer required. This made it easy for Carlos to say, “good. Go ahead.” Smart contractor! (Or is that just standard procedure and I should really say, “competent contractor!”?)

If the engineering drawings call for a 2-ply beam, Bob suggested simply shoving another 2-ply beam up underneath the one-ply beam already there. Getting the thing up there would not be easy, but there would be no cutting of roof rafters.

Here are two photos showing the new 2-ply beam just before it was raised up to support the single-ply one above. They pushed the two whole 26-foot-long beams in through the window in the south bedroom (my daughter’s room).

You may notice that the windows are newly framed by 2X6s and, on the top, 2X8s. The top piece is called a header and I believe the point is to keep the window from collapsing in an earthquake or other disaster. Perhaps the previous Contractor just hadn’t gotten around to adding structural details like that?

Here is a shot of the new beam before it was lifted to its final position. It’s all one piece. Was that so hard?


Here is a more recent picture with the ridge beam completely installed. I’m now building the ceiling myself. Look at how much new wood surrounds the window!


Now there is only one post in the center which runs down the old chimney chase and puts its weight on the steel beams in the basement. It’s not easy to photograph but trust me, it’s beautiful.

Finally, I can show you the sad fate of the cabinet that was notched to install a structurally worthless post (in Carlos’ opinion).

When I look at the sloped contact point here, I can’t imagine how anyone thought the load from the ridge beam could adequately be supported by a post sitting partially on a non-load-bearing wall and partially on the corner of the sloped ceiling of the stairwell below. What were they thinking?

The good news is the structural issues, of which the ridge beam was only one, were all fixed and we are moving forward with stuff like interior framing and electrical wiring.

Stay tuned for more gory details of Hammond Forever House!

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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