Civil/Structural Engineering, Vashon, Washington, USA 206-463-5311
Ellisport Engineering Blog
Geocaching - Treasure Hunting for Adults (and Engineers)

     A couple of years ago we attended the World Geocaching Party in Fremont, Washington, home of Geocache Headquarters. While there we saw a T-shirt emblazoned with the perfect definition of geocaching - "Geocaching: What nerds do when they go outside."  My wife says you can substitute the word "nerds" with "engineers" and it would also hold true. If you are unfamiliar with geocaching, I'll leave it to you to Google it and learn about it.
    We were introduced to it in May 2015 while visiting Tromsø, Norway, by good friends.  Our initial impression was, "This is hard and this is stupid and pointless", but we quickly got hooked. It truly is treasure-hunting for adults.  But, it is also so much more:
  • You'll end up going to places you've never been before.
  • You'll discover areas you would otherwise never visit, save for the geocache search.
  • You'll become very good at navigating by GPS.
  • You'll become more observant as you hone your search skills.
  • You'll get dirty, wet, hot, cold, bug-bitten, stung by nettles, and sometimes you'll be skunked (won't find it).
     But you will get exercise, walk the dog, talk to your spouse, and have fun.  Try it.  You'll like it!

One of the Best Seminars I've Ever Attended

In the late 1990's, the Puget Sound Region experienced heavy rains, followed by a heavy wet snow, and then a fast melt.  The result:  Many Landslides.

After things calmed down, the local geotechnical society held an all-day seminar to talk about landslide types and causes.  Hills will often shed their top layer (surface slough slide) every 40 - 50 years, roughly correlated to the lifetime of alder trees, which are part of the slide debris and cause much damage.

Regarding landslide mitigation, the lessons were clear:
  1. A slope is in a tenuous state of equilibrium.  Protect your slope and especially the toe (base) of the hill.  Do not cut into the toe, unless you provide an alternate and equal means of support, such as a retaining wall.
  2. Collect and control all water draining toward the slope.  A saturated slope is heavier and more susceptible to sliding.
  3. Protect all vegetation on the slope.  Plant native deep-rooted evergreen shrubs and trees.  These will mitigate erosion, and deep roots will help to anchor the hill against sliding.

Landslides Happen When They Decide To (but the odds increase in La Nina years)

It's been many years since we've worked on a landslide project.  They seem to happen in "bunches", often (but not always) correlated to "La Nina" years.

Despite the record rains of last fall, we had no landslide or earth movement phone calls.  I was surprised.  La Nina year? Check.  Very Heavy Rains? Check. No Slides in Many Years? Check. All the planets were aligned, yet nothing.

In mid-January, 2016, we received 3 landslide calls within a week's time.  Why then?  We had heavy, but not record, rainstorms.  They happened around a full moon.  The ground was saturated apparently, The Earth Decided to Move (thank you, Carole King).

Yes, landslides are unpredictable, even to an engineer with 36 years' experience.

VashonBePrepared Talk - Could Oso Happen Here? Community Meeting on Landslide Risk

On October 29, 2014, I attended, and participated in, a community meeting on Landslide Risk.  I was asked to fill in for a speaker who had a last minute family emergency and had to bow out.  The five presenters attempted to answer four questions:

- Why does the risk of landslide matter?

- What are the risks on Vashon?

- What can each of us do at home?

- What’s being done to respond if it happens?


I teamed with Dr. Tom DeVries, a PhD geologist and retired high school teacher.  We addressed the landslide risks on Vashon.  He spoke about the geology of the island, and I presented pictures of several landslide mitigation structures from Vashon Island projects and discussed their significance.  All of my pictures are shown in the special projects section of our website.


The talks were well received by the approximately 150 people in attendance.  Since the talk occurred on the night of the 7th game of the World Series, it was obvious that the attendees were not baseball fans.  Notably, nearly all attendees were 50+ in age. 


The final talk was presented by Assistant Fire Chief George Brown.  It was quite sobering to hear that he typically has no more than 9-11 full-time responders present on our island of 8500 people.  Any large-scale emergency will rely heavily on volunteers.  Many volunteer responders will be the 250 people trained in the past 10 years by VashonBePrepared.  While Vashon has a reputation as being one of the best prepared communities in the country, we’ll hope that our preparation is never fully tested.

Passport to Pain 9/15/2014

Joanne and I married and moved to Vashon Island 29 years ago, but little did we know how a small community can cajole you into doing things you would never think of doing.  Along the way, our boys rowed with the Junior Crew team, Joanne ran the Junior Crew program, and I drove the crew boat trailer (one-eyed) to regattas.  Joanne has rowed recreationally with the Masters rowers for years, and participates actively in their fundraising activities.


Steve and Joanne


Our official "Selfie" at the beginning of a very long day.


This was our second year volunteering with Passport To Pain (P2P), a bike ride fundraiser for the Vashon Island Rowing Club (new crew boats are very expensive!).  The ride has grown in popularity over the years, with nearly 300 riders registered this year.  The premise is simple: riders carry a passport book as they tour Vashon Island, conquer difficult hills to remote island locations, and receive a stamp for every check point they achieve, with a post-ride cookout afterwards. 


The ride options are:

The Idiot Ride is 80 miles & 10,000 vertical feet.

The Weasel Ride is 50 miles & 6500 vertical feet.

The Weenie Ride is a mere 30 miles & 3400 vertical feet.


This year, Joanne and I drove the complete route in our Volvo convertible, taking pictures of each of the themed check points; we could barely stay ahead of the lead riders!  We called our trip the “PnP” (Passport No Pain).  We also helped with the setup, serving food at the cookout, and the cleanup at the end. 


 Livingroom check point


Checkpoint themes were varied and imaginative.  This one featured a living room the riders could stop and rest .


Checkpoint 10


Checkpoint 10 included a group of novice rowing girls, one of their coaches (our son, Tom on the left), and his girlfriend (a very patient Emily holding the Bieber fan sign).


The mark of a good event is when both the participants and the volunteers have a good time.  Riders kept thanking us, commenting on how nice the volunteers were and how much fun they had.  We had fun too, but collapsed when finally home at 7:00pm than night.


 Spent rider


This photo sums up the day.  One of our riders could do nothing more but take a nap on the beach after reaching the finish line.  He recuperated enough later to enjoy the BBQ and a cold one on the beach.

Caterpillar Design, Really!

What’s the proper response when a client asks you to design a 30’ tall caterpillar?  And no, he didn’t mean construction equipment.  This happened to us in early March 2014, about the same time community discussions were ongoing for a possible Vashon Island edible pot products factory.  At first, I wondered if the two projects were related, but they were not.


Stageworks Productions of Vashon approached us for help, as their client asked, at the last minute, for an engineer to design their project: a rotatable 30’ tall caterpillar perched on a mushroom, reminiscent of “Alice in Wonderland.”  We had one week to work with the designer/fabricator and engineer the hidden supporting structure, later covered with caterpillar foam, paint, and lights.  The Caterpillar was shown at EDC (Electric Daisy Carnival) New York 2014, a two-day event at MetLife Stadium encompassing carnival rides, endless performances, and flamboyant clothing; however, there is a strict no-tolerance drug policy.  The Caterpillar will later travel to Las Vegas, then maybe to additional venues.  The “frosting” on the Caterpillar is the amazing state-of-the-art projection lighting.  Below is a link to a night video of the Caterpillar.  Wow!


There are no structural engineering design classes for a 30’ tall rotating caterpillar perched on a mushroom.  At least, there were no classes available like that when I attended engineering school back in the Dinosaur Days (mid-1970’s).  Back then, books were on paper, computers were the size of rooms, software was on punch cards, drafting was done by hand on tables, texting was done on a typewriter, and calculators had just superseded slide rules.  It was a simple, primitive time.


It’s projects like this that keep the job fun, stretch the imagination, and challenge us to use our full “quiver” of engineering skills. 

LEADS and LinkedIn

After the market crash of 2008, I wondered how to protect against an occurrence like that again.  Among our actions, we’ve attempted to work “smarter” in our marketing.


A few years ago, I joined a group called LEADS, a sub-group of the Vashon Chamber of Commerce.  LEADS is a group of trusted businesses serving our community and acting as a referral sales force for each other.  There is no competition within the group, as only one industry is represented by each business: our present group includes a contractor, accountant, architect, landscape architect, business CFO, structural engineer, kitchen designer, insurance broker, mortgage broker, and business banking officer.  We meet once per week at 8:00am; during that hour, we rehearse our elevator speeches, share client referrals, review projects’ status, present informational group talks, and socialize.  This year, we even planned and executed the first Vashon Home Fair; surprisingly successful, it will be a yearly event.


Coincidentally, my Lehigh University Alumni Association presented a set of 8 – ½-hour webinars about LinkedIn and how to use it effectively.  As I viewed these webinars, I realized that LinkedIn accomplishes the same thing as my local LEADS group, but on a larger industry-wide scale.  Since I’m a registered Professional Engineer in several states, it makes sense for me to implement a stronger presence on LinkedIn to attract work from clients in other states.


Though still a “novice” with LinkedIn, I see many advantages if used effectively.  However, both LinkedIn and LEADS take time, as they must be “tended” weekly at a minimum.  I judge these methods to be “smart targeted marketing”, worth the time, and one of the new ways of doing business.  In this tough economic environment, I hope I’m right.  300 million LinkedIn users can’t be all wrong.


Vashon's First Home Fair

Saturday, 3/22/14, Joanne and I participated in the first ever Vashon Home Fair.  We were part of the planning committee along with a small group of island businesses and Jim Marsh, the director of our Chamber of Commerce.  Joanne’s expertise from her old banking days was essential to our planning process.  She was great at organizing and herding the “island cats” to establish a reasonable plan for the home fair.

It took 3 months of focused planning; in Vashon time, that’s an unbelievable accomplishment.  To get Islanders to make decisions, meet deadlines, and successfully hold an event on the day, and at the time, that was published – well, it’s very mainland of us. 

Our Vashon Home Fair became quite an event:


  • 28 exhibitors, all island companies
  • surprisingly good attendance
  • educational talks every 45-minutes.  Our Ellisport talk was titled “Earthquakes, Landslides, and Floods – Oh My!”.  The talk was made more pertinent by the coincidental landslide tragedy in Oso, WA on that same day.
  • a Kid Zone, with a cardboard playhouse and blocks supplied by RO Enterprises
  • collection for the Vashon Food Bank
  • a local performing duo (who doesn’t love an accordion?)
  • a local caterer sold food
  • raffles every hour
  • filming of the event by Voice of Vashon, our local island production company
  • and our secret weapon, Joanne’s homemade “Crew Cookies”, which enticed people to our display table and sparked many conversations. 

Overall, we felt the event was very successful.  Yes, there were some things that could’ve gone better, but we’ve de-briefed about the event, and will strive to improve for next year.  

Yes, this will be an annual event!  Special props to Jim Marsh from the Chamber, who knocked himself out to make the Home Fair a success.  His energy and enthusiasm is boundless.

Stream Erosion Protection and Habitat Restoration

When we started our company in 1988, many of our early projects were protection of waterfront homes and properties.  I’ve long had an interest in balancing the structural protection aspects with the environmental implications of shoreline hard armor installations. 


An August 23rd article in The Spokesman-Review talked about a company (Wilson Precast Inc.)  in Spokane manufacturing “dolos”, 16,000 pound concrete structures used for shoreline protection.  They’re shaped roughly like giant child’s jacks, and they’re very big


Dolo’s are an old idea dating to at least 1965.  They are interlocking concrete structures used as breakwaters for shore protection against erosion and large waves.  They’re used around the world.


Recently, dolos are being used as erosion protection and habitat restoration in rivers.  Typically, they’re clustered together with interwoven logs, stumps, and branches at strategic river points for bank protection in high water situations; there are multiple installations on the Puyallup River.  The fancy engineering term is “Engineered Log Jam”, or ELJ. 


The application of dolos to rivers is relatively new.  The Spokesman-Review’s article states, “Biologists believe the dolo timber system creates partly submerged structures where fish and wildlife can hide, while also diverting the stream to protect vegetation and banks from erosion.”


Each dolo costs about $1800; though not terribly expensive, they’re probably beyond the reach of most waterfront property owners, especially when considering the barge and crane installation costs.


Overall, I think they’re an inexpensive and creative solution to mitigate erosion problems and protect against high wave damage.  They would seem to be a good solution for tsunami protection as well. 

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Fastest Engineers in the West

During the summer months, we often keep our office door open to cool the space.  Invariably, a bird will fly into the office several times during the summer.


Many years ago, we had our first hummingbird fly in.  I was not present, but Eric caught the bird and put it out.  To know Eric is to understand that Eric played football for Brown University, and his reactions are still pretty fast.  Hummingbirds can fly at 30+ miles per hour, and are quite agile in changing directions.  All the more impressive that Eric caught it.  Then I learned the truth about hummingbirds.


Yesterday, I caught my third hummingbird in our office (two this month already).  Interestingly, when they get tired of trying to fly through one of the windows, they will perch on an office bookshelf and rest.  I carefully put my hand over top of him, and gently closed it to encompass the bird.  Then I carried it outside and put it in one of Joanne’s hanging flower baskets (to keep it safe from our cats).  The bird appeared to play dead, and when I opened my hand, it remained in my palm.  Though it kept its eyes closed during this process, it periodically opened them for a brief instant to see what was going on.


I gently dropped him into the flower basket, and then watched to see if he was okay.  After a few minutes, he revived and flew away, apparently unharmed by the incident.  If you’ve never looked at a hummingbird close-up, you’re missing a beautiful bird.  Try my approach.  Others will be impressed with your lightning-fast reactions, but you’ll know the truth.

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Lessons from Steve Jobs

Over the years, I’ve searched for “pearls of wisdom” from successful business entrepreneurs and tried to learn something from their advice.  This all started years ago with my MBA training and the book “In Search of Excellence.”  There have been countless others since then. 

Recently, I stumbled across a PowerPoint article titled “Innovate The Steve Jobs Way”, by Carmine Gallo of BusinessWeek.  Aren’t we all a little interested in Steve Jobs and what made him a success?  How could I not read it? 

The article presents “seven insanely different principles for breakthrough success.”  I found it interesting, not quite as “insane” as the writer described.  Below is a brief summary of the seven principles:

1. The secret to success is having “the courage to follow your heart and intuition”.  In other words, do what you love.

2.  Jobs’ vision was to create a computer for the masses.  Inspiring visions have 4 components: bold, specific, concise, and consistently communicated.

3.  Jobs believed that a broad set of experiences leads to creativity (to him, creativity was connecting things from those broad experiences), and creativity leads to innovation.

4.  Jobs knew his customers well, avoided focus groups, and instead sold dreams, not products. 

5.  Jobs’ secret to innovation was “saying no to 1,000 things.” In saying no, his end product result was simplicity, clarity, and elegance.

6.  Apple’s retail stores were patterned after The Four Seasons, where Apple offers a “concierge-like” experience “enrich lives” and make sales soar. 

7.  Jobs was a master corporate storyteller, and he informed, educated, and entertained people about Apple’s products.  As always, communication is key.

I thought these principles were interesting, and worth keeping in mind.  The article finishes with an exhortation that businesses, when faced with challenges, should ask themselves, “What would Steve Jobs do?” 

A Blog of a Different Sort

At the end of April, I will go on a brief trip to visit my sister, Carolyn and her family, who live in Macungie, Pennsylvania.  While there, I’ll attend her younger boy’s Eagle Court of Honor.  For those who don’t know, the Eagle Court of Honor is the celebration of the boys’ Eagle Rank achievement; it’s part ceremony, part roast, and mostly party.  Justin earned his Eagle rank over a year ago, and has been waiting for some of his Boy Scout buddies to finish their projects, so they could all celebrate together.  Justin will be the last Eagle in my siblings’ families, following his older brother, Patrick, and his two cousins (my sons), Tom and Will. 


I got hooked into Boy Scouts when our oldest son Tom joined Tiger Cubs over 18 years ago, and have continued on as a Scout leader since.  I’ve always enjoyed working with kids, whether it was at a YMCA camp, coaching swimming, or running a church youth group.  Over the years, I’ve learned much about enjoying and surviving in the outdoors, and the Boy Scouts was the perfect match for me to share those skills and encourage boys to become leaders. 


Now, I’m primarily a mentor to the Scouts working on their Eagle projects, but also attend the weekly meetings and do merit badge counseling.  This summer, I’ll attend a High Adventure backpacking trip with some of our Scouts and parents, hiking the 50-mile West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.  But I digress.


I attend Eagle Courts because I find the ceremonies meaningful, uplifting, and enjoyable.  They “re-charge” my batteries to continue working in Scouting.  Unless you’ve worked with a boy for 6 years, and seen him grow from a boy to a leader, it’s hard to understand the significance.  For me, it’s a calling and a gift. 

Correcting an Omission

I felt a little silly when speaking with a potential landslide client recently.  We’ve done a pretty good job of talking about landslides on our website.  But I also wanted him to refer to our information on recommended plantings for sloped sites.  And that’s when I realized that I didn’t have any of that information on our website.  I forgot to post the planting information!


Over the years, I’ve accumulated a variety of documents from mostly government sources that list plants which are recommended for steep slopes.  These plants are intended to help stabilize the upper soils of the slope by their deep roots, by extracting water from the soil, and by shedding water off their leaves down the slope.  The documents list pros and cons of the plants, types of soils, steepness of slope, and availability of light.  Hopefully, you’ll find these documents helpful.  If you have questions, please feel free to call us.  If I can’t answer them, we also have a landscape architect on staff who can help.


Also, remember the Big Three Things that are primary considerations with slope stability:

1. Ensure toe stability, either through toe soils at a proper angle of repose, or through mechanical means such as a wall or rockery

2. Encourage plant growth on the hill to stabilize the upper soils with roots and mitigate erosion 

3. Collect and control all drainage at the top of the hill, and locally collect water from hillside springs.  The water should be piped to a proper disposal site at the toe of the slope (drainage ditch, catch basin, storm sewer, or onto the beach).


If you can assure that all three conditions are met with your slope, it will likely perform much better in our extreme rainy season, both short-term and long-term.

Current Residential Building Trends - Our observations March 2013

We’ve been observing how building trends have changed before and after the market crash, and I thought I would share some of those insights.  According to Wikipedia, the Great Recession, also known as the Lesser Depression, began in December 2007, with the effects fully felt around September 2008.  This dealt a real shake-up to the residential building industry; these effects are still “shaking out” as the field changes to reflect consumers’ needs and demands.

Before The Crash

Before the crash, owners had the following concerns and expectations:

  • Lock in interest rates quickly, before rates changed.
  • Rush the design process and submit for permits quickly to get into the permit queue.  Sometimes, permit approval could take 4-6 months.
  • Build as much as you could afford.  Building costs (labor and materials) were only going up, but so were house values, so it seemed a good investment.
  • Owners expected that they would realize an immediate increase in their house value, reflective of their improvements.  It was very popular to “flip” a house: buy an older home, improve it, and sell it quickly to recoup the investment and collect a profit.

After The Crash

After the crash, owners had a harsh reality to face.  Their house’s appraised value dropped significantly, 25% or more.  There was a glut of homes on the market, primarily due to foreclosures and upside-down mortgages.  Periodic normal home investments (remodeling, new bathrooms or kitchens, and maintenance like painting and new roofs) nearly stopped.  Today:

  • Interest rates are so low that there is no sense of urgency for home improvements.
  • The design process, especially for architects, may extend for many months longer than before.  Permit review times are still lengthy, as public agencies are short-staffed due to cutbacks.
  • Owners are now contemplating and building much smaller projects, as they consider the most cost-effective options and vacillate over how much to spend, knowing they may not be able to recoup their investment for several years.
  • Flipping homes is just now re-surfacing, as people are buying up the excess inventory of homes at deeply discounted prices.  However, these same homes may be suffering from “deferred maintenance”.  So, along with interior upgrades, there is often exterior repair work.
  • Owners won’t hesitate to “pull the plug” on a project, if they feel uncertain about the economic environment and their personal employment status.

We’ve noted that people have been waiting a long time, in some cases 5 years or more, to build or remodel.  However, most clients are taking “baby steps” – phased construction of smaller projects instead of one large project.  Most of our projects are modest remodels, and there is little new construction occurring.

What do I expect for the future?  Generally, I expect more of the same for the next 3-5 years.  I think people’s mindsets were heavily affected by this prolonged recession, which is still affecting many industries like ours.  Their spending habits have changed, and their expectations are lowered.  Most people expect “deals” and have gotten used to “discounts”, yet material prices and labor costs have not decreased much.  The building market is oh so slowly improving, but owners are still guarded in the their optimism and careful with their money.



More Hurricane Sandy Thoughts

Amidst the Hurricane Sandy work, I noticed some interesting things:

Everywhere I went (hotels, rental cars, restaurants, stores, shops), I found that, when I mentioned I was doing Hurricane Sandy work, people treated me very kindly and generously.  Budget cut my rental car bill in half.  The hotel offered me a discounted rate through AAA even though I didn’t have my card, and was willing to store our ladder as Eric and I came in and out of town.  The Lowes, where I originally bought the ladder, also stored it for me.  Restaurant service was excellent and they expedited the food if I was in a hurry.  Everywhere, I met nice people, appreciative of what I was doing.


Driving throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey is quite different than in Washington; there are toll roads and bridges everywhere.  In the Northwest, we’ve just started with tolling some bridges, and I suspect it’s a harbinger of things to come.  In my 6-day trip, I spent about $25 in tolls, including a whopping $5 on one bridge!  The bridge was a miserable drive, under construction with narrow lanes and congested traffic. 


While working in Manahawkin, New Jersey, I saw something fascinating.  As I was driving into my project location, I noticed that all of the ring road homes on the East and Northeast sides were heavily damaged and mostly red-tagged for demolition.  Yet, just across the street, the homes displayed much less damage, yet all had been inundated by flood waters.  I stopped and snapped some pictures and looked at the terrain.  There is a large salt marsh (very flat), then a row of red-tagged houses, the first to be hit by the hurricane.  It was quite obvious that they took the brunt of the wind damage, and actually shielded the homes across the street and further into the neighborhood. 

Finally, I was struck by the organized debris piles outside each of the homes.  People were attempting, as best they could, to restore order to their lives.  I surmise that everyone was gutting their floodwater-inundated first stories, and they were disposing of all damaged house contents and demolished materials in curbside piles.  There was so much debris to be removed, that everyone had to wait their turn for construction equipment and dump trucks to come in and collect the materials. 

Hurricane Sandy

While inspecting a home in Manahawkin, New Jersey, I noticed many fascinating things. Imagine two pictures: The first is from 2010, and shows the area well before Hurricane Sandy.  Note the constructed land, the two-lane road down the middle with homes on either side, and the canals on the backside of the homes.  Also note that most people own a boat, docked behind their home.

Now imagine the “after” picture, taken in early November, 2012.  When I visited the home in Manahawkin, I was struck by how, on most of the streets, many people had boats in their front yards, blocked up on cider blocks and wood cribbing (this shows clearly in the picture below).  This struck me as odd, because I knew that flooding had occurred in the neighborhoods.  Did people have enough time to pull their boats out and store them in their yards before the hurricane?  And if they did, why hadn’t the boats floated away during the flooding? 

I finally asked the son-in-law of a homeowner, why did people put their boats in their front yards?  He replied, “Steve, those aren’t their boats!”  During the hurricane and flooding, boats broke free and floated everywhere, randomly landing wherever when the surge receded.  Many landed in the roads, effectively closing the roads to traffic.  Some of these boats were over 30’ long.  The first step in clearing the roads was moving the boats.  Kindly, the workers carefully lifted the boats and blocked them up, leaving them in the front yards near where they landed.  There was nowhere else to put them.  And I’m guessing it becomes a “Where’s Waldo” moment to find your boat.  Good markings and registration numbers probably make it easier to track down the owners.

Hurricane Sandy Blog

Starting in late November, Eric and I have been doing insurance inspections for Hurricane Sandy damage on the East Coast.  Due to the overwhelming amount of damage, engineers from other states have been helping inspect homes and resolve insurance claims so people can begin rebuilding.  Our primary assignment areas have been southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.  Generally, our focus is to determine the cause or causes of the damage, allocate an estimated percentage of the damage to each of the causes, and recommend conceptual repair solutions.

The predominant situation is determining how much of the building was damaged by wind, and how much was damaged by storm surge (flooding).  Insurance companies will cover damage related to wind.  Storm surge is covered by flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP through FEMA).  However, many homeowners did not carry flood insurance, and this is why our determination is so critical.

The general guidelines are: if there was local flooding, second story damage = wind, first story damage = flood.  However, there is much more that goes into making this assessment after our detailed inspection and documentation.  Usually, there is no clear-cut boundary to the damage.  Many times, we do calculations to compare wind force magnitudes to the flood forces (if a waterline is not present on the house siding, there are other good sources to determine approximate flood height in the locale).  And we look at damage on neighboring properties for further information. 

It’s difficult and taxing work to ensure that we properly investigate the damage and ethically present our findings, regardless of the homeowner’s insurance coverage.  As you might imagine, the reports are extremely detailed; they present our findings in a clear manner for determining loss, for providing general guidelines for repairs, and for documenting our work in case of a lawsuit.

We try to see two projects per day, often spending 4 hours at a site, then driving to the next loss location.  This means long days, and we’re quite tired when we get back to the hotel.  However, it’s also rewarding work, knowing that we’re helping people resolve their house issues and helping them move on with their lives.

Innovative Infrastructures - Toward Human Urbanism

I recently attended an engineering conference sponsored by the International Association of Bridge and Structural Engineers in Seoul, South Korea.  The theme of the conference was “Innovative Infrastructures – Toward Human Urbanism”.   For the session “Structures And Materials: Green Initiatives”, I presented a paper entitled "Modern Yurts Are Viable Options for Societal Facility Needs."


My paper was the last of the session in the late afternoon.  The Chair of the session introduced us and told the audience that our session was what the conference was all about. He was especially interested in finding out what a "yurt" is.  Probably due to the late afternoon scheduling, the session was somewhat sparsely attended compared to some of the other conference sessions - maybe 50 people or so.  I felt a little bad about that until the next morning.


The first session of the new morning was titled "Innovation," and it was presented by the Man-Chung Tang, the Chairman of the Board and Technical Director of T.Y. Lin International, one of the most prestigious engineering firms in the world.  His audience attendance was equal to mine, likely because his talk conflicted with a field trip to the Lotte Tower, presently under construction.  I guess sometimes that's the way the chips fall.


By the way, his talk was excellent, and for all those who attended the field trip, you missed out.

Engineering Diversity?

Diversity has become a popular buzzword today.  “We need more diversity” is often stated as fact, like F=ma, with no alternate opinions sought or accepted.  Eric and I recently attended a webinar sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) entitled, “Engineering: It’s Time to Change How We Promote the Profession.”  The speaker did a nice job of presenting ideas on how to present our profession in a more enticing way to middle school and high school students, with the goal of attracting more students into engineering colleges and the profession.  Part of the webinar emphasis was to help “Seasoned Engineers” (old farts) learn how to promote our profession to the younger crowd.  One of the slides emphasized that we need more “diversity in engineering”.  After the webinar, I sent the speaker the following email:

Dear Ms. Robinson,

First, thank you for the webinar yesterday.  You’re a good speaker, the slides were well done, and the topic prompted much discussion in our small office.


In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of those “Seasoned Engineers” spoken of in yesterday’s webinar.   A little background: I attended undergraduate school at the University of Lowell (now UMass Lowell) from 1974-78.  My Civil Engineering class was about 65 students, six were women.  I graduated #6 in my class: #1 and #3 were women. 


From what I’ve read, little has changed in those 30+ years as far as the percentage of women in engineering.  It was 10% back then, and it’s still around 10% now, if my sources are correct.  Back then, there were programs trying to attract more women into engineering, and various programs have continued throughout my career.  From what I gleaned in yesterday’s webinar, your research and interest are the same thing essentially – attract more diversity to engineering.


I bristle at the statement: “We need more diversity in engineering”, as if that’s going to solve our country’s engineering needs.  It’s always stated as a fact: We need more diversity in engineering.  I don’t believe that.


Instead, I believe our efforts would be better spent identifying those middle school students (regardless of race, creed, color, or sex) who exhibit “The Knack” for engineering.  The shot gun approaches of using more exciting words, snazzier brochures, or special seminars targeted to minorities haven’t been very successful in my 30+ years of engineering.  Why would we expect that they will succeed now?


Instead, I believe we need to identify those students early on who exhibit the attributes and aptitude of engineers, target and mentor them through middle and high school, and match them with a college engineering program of their interests. 


I apologize for doing this: I’ve stated a problem, suggested a conceptual remedy, but provided no solution.  I’m a seasoned engineer, not an expert in your field, and don’t really know what the solution is.  I hope I’ve adequately conveyed my point – maybe it will help you in your endeavors.  I hope so.  Our country needs more good young engineers for us Seasoned Engineers to mentor, before we’re gone.



Stephen T. Kicinski, PE

I will update my blog if Ms. Robinson sends a response.  It’s clear that our country needs more engineers.  We face great challenges as a nation: re-building our aging infrastructure, developing a balanced approach to our energy needs, and developing proven-performance green technologies.  What’s not clear is, where will we find those engineers, and how will we develop them.  Let’s hope that Ms. Robinson’s efforts will be successful.

Seoul Paper - Acceptance

On April 30th, as promised by the conference dates, I received an email notice that my paper “Modern Yurts/Gers – Innovative Options for Community Facility Needs” was accepted.  Additionally, I have the honor of presenting it orally to the attendees.  The conference is sponsored by the International Association of Bridge and Structural Engineers, and the formal title is: 18th IABSE Congress – “Innovative Infrastructures – Toward Human Urbanism”.  If interested, you can view this website for more information:  Conference dates are September 19-21, 2012 in Seoul, South Korea.


I was pleasantly surprised to be selected to give an oral presentation, since my paper does not concern some big, impressive structure.  Often, the “less impressive papers” are relegated to poster presentations, where the author prepares a poster that’s displayed in a hall, and then periodically stands by the poster like Vanna White, to turn vowels and answer questions.


It’s been fun to get back to writing papers for conferences.  I’ve missed it.  It’s been nearly 12 years since my last paper, with no excuses other than getting caught up in the myriad of kids’ activities like school, sports, Scouts, band performances…   That was fun, but time-consuming. 


I have plans for 3 or 4 more papers – looking for a conference in New Zealand or Australia! 

North Carolina PE Update

Steve Kicinski was recently granted his Professional Engineering license to practice in North Carolina.  This conintues our effort to be licensed in states where our yurt clients build and sell.

With the advent of the NCEES (National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying) clearinghouse, a repository of the repetitive information that every state requires for a PE application, the process has been streamlined for many states.  They vet and maintain these records for each engineer applicant, and for a small fee,  provide this information to each state, as requested by the PE applicant.

Japanese Tsunami a Year Later

One of the most striking and sobering presentations I’ve ever attended occurred last June in Kane Hall at The University of Washington.  A group of SEAW (Structural Engineers Association of Washington) engineers had visited Japan to view first-hand the recent earthquake and tsunami damage.  SEAW has often sent a small contingent of engineers to observe and learn from disasters; many of these engineers serve on code committees, so the information is invaluable.  Additionally, they often present their findings to our engineering community at-large.  Such was the case on June 15, 2011, when they presented their findings of the March 11th Japanese earthquake and tsunami. 

My June 16th blog of last year presented an email I sent to our daughter Katherine, who lives and works in South Korea.  Japan and Japanese culture have long been interests of Katherine’s.  She studied Japanese for 4 years in high school and did additional studies at the UW, has visited Japan three times, and has always been impressed by their peoples’ strength and resiliency.  Living in Asia made the Japanese tragedy additionally poignant to her.

I thought it would be interesting to re-visit what the Japanese have done in the past year towards their estimated $309 billion recovery.  The easiest way to view the enormity of the tasks, and measure the recovery progress, is through pictures.  Below are three web links that show “before pictures” (pictures taken before recovery efforts) and “after pictures” (pictures taken one year later).,0,5361679.htmlstory

At the following website, if you click the “after picture”, you will see the “before picture” from roughly the same area – an interesting way to present it.

Viewing the pictures brought many thoughts to mind.  My overall assessment is that they have made tremendous progress, but still have a long ways to go.  And there are many nagging questions: How will the Japanese fund the recovery when, undoubtedly, they will suffer other earthquakes?  How do they prepare for the next earthquake and tsunami?  If 5 meter seawalls were overtopped by 15 meter waves, do they design for 15 meter waves?  Is it even possible to stop a 15 meter wave?  With land at a premium, do they simply forgo building in any tsunami zone?  Do they evacuate other undamaged coastal areas with similar risks?  What other lessons-learned can they implement to protect themselves for the next emergency?

And the bottom line to all of us locally is, we in the Northwest have similar coastal conditions, similar plate tectonics, and face similar earthquake and tsunami risks as Japan.  It behooves us to watch their lead and learn from them.

Some Additional Tornado Insights

With the recent outbreak of tornadoes in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky, I thought it might be a good time to revisit some tornado discussions.  In July, 2011, I wrote a blog about Eric’s work in Joplin, MO, helping to resolve tornado damage insurance claims.  His experiences were quite striking, and I summarized many of them in the blog (see below to read it).


Additionally, I included a link to a YouTube video that showed a tornado traveling over the Connecticut River (Springfield, MA), and how the water highlights the airflow being sucked in at the tornado base to “feed” the tornado.  That link has since been de-activated.  Here’s a new link, though you have to put up with the ad at the beginning: 


The 2009 and 2012 International Building Codes have included new provisions for high wind and hurricane design and loadings.  Building protection from wind-borne debris is important, and IBC Section 1609 provides recommendations for windows glazing, walls, and openings.  The design debris missile is a 15 pound 2x4 traveling at 100mph – not an insignificant challenge, yet likely smaller and lighter than some debris.  Still, they had to choose something. 


FEMA has provided many references for building a storm shelter (outside your home) and a safe room (inside your home).  These are summarized in FEMA DR-1669-RA2, “Storm Shelters: Selecting Design Criteria”.  Additionally, The Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) has provided further recommendations for what they call “Fortified Homes”:

  • -         Design for an ASCE 7 wind speed 20mph higher than minimum site requirements
  • -         Components and cladding loads (C&C) shall be determined for terrain Exposure C, regardless of the local site.
  • -         Roof sheathing shall be fastened with a factor of safety of 2.0 above Exposure C loads.
  • -         Entry doors, windows, skylights must be impact-rated.  Above 160mph, garage doors must be similarly rated.
  • -         Soffits must be designed for the C&C wind loads.
  • -         There are strong recommendations for storm shelters in tornado regions, and outward opening doors in hurricane country.


The IBHS provides an estimate of the increased cost to construct a “Fortified Home”: approximately 10% above the cost of the average home.  It’s implied that some of this increase might be recouped in home insurance savings.



Valentine's Day Webinar

On February 14th, Eric and I attended a webinar about a new FEMA document:  FEMA E-74 Reducing Non-Structural Damages from an Earthquake.  This document is available through a free download from the following link:

The webinar focused on earthquake damage, often featuring buildings undamaged structurally, yet unusable from the interior damage.  There were many horrendous pictures of fallen ceiling tiles, overturned bookcases, fallen pipes and overhead equipment, clogged exit ways and stairs, and water damage from leaking sprinklers.

General statistics pointed to 60% of the building's repair costs related to non-structural components damage.  Yet, retrofit costs before the quake can cost as little as $2 per square foot.

Of special concern are hospitals, police and fire stations, and emergency response centers.  After the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake, six hospitals were rendered unusable, chiefly because of non-structural damage: fallen ceiling tiles, broken sprinkler lines, water damage, and toppled equipment.  This happened at a time when the hospitals were most critically needed.  FEMA E-74 addresses these issues, providing guidelines and recommendations to mitigate future non-structural damage.

Building Recovery?

In the past couple of weeks, Eric and I have seen reasons for optimism in the building industry.  MSNBC interviewed some experts discussing that 2012 will be a better building year than 2011. Why? Record low interest rates continue, and very good profits are being reported for both Home Depot and Lowes.  The experts claim that, when Home Depot and Lowes sales are up, these are harbingers of good things to come - makes sense.


Additionally, the Wall Street Journal reported that some of the large home builders are predicting more new construction in 2012.  Why?  In select markets around the country, the housing glut inventory is nearly depleted, due to demolition, disasters, and sales.  There are still "bubble markets" like Las Vegas which will remain difficult for years to come, but many areas are ready for cautious new building.


Our experiences and gut feel are that remodeling will remain the primary residential construction work for 2012.

First Floodplain Determination Completed

Eric and I just completed our first floodplain determination with our new surveying equipment. The laser level is quite accurate, and the measurements went well, balancing within 0.01' with two different setups. Our client is located on the west side of Quartermaster Harbor, below Pillsbury Beach Road on Vashon Island. He was looking at over $1200 per year for flood insurance. Our measurements showed that the first floor of his house is over 4' above the designated floodplain. Once the paperwork is processed, he will not have to pay for flood insurance. A little upfront engineering expense, will save him thousands of dollars in insurance later.

His house is a good example of a house located on locally high ground, yet included in the floodplain designation. We're certain that there are many others. For more information, see our "Floodplain Designation" button above, or give us a call.

Abstract Accepted for Korean Engineering Conference

In early December, I received notice that my abstract had been accepted for an engineering conference in Seoul, Korea.  The conference is titled "Innovative Structures - Toward Human Urbanism", and it's being sponsored by the international Association of Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE).  Previously, I presented another IABSE paper at a 1995 conference in San Francisco.

My abstract title is "Modern Yurts/Gers Are Viable Options for Societal Facility Needs". The conference emphasis is Social Infrastructure, defined as a system of social services, networks, and facilities that support people and communities.  Social Infrastructure encompasses many aspects, but affordable, functional, and sustainable facilities are a primary concern in any community.  In my short 300-word abstract, I proposed that modern yurts are viable options to fulfill many of these needs.  My final paper is due February 28, 2012, and the conference is September 19-21, 2012.

I'm pleased that the review committee found my abstract worth consideration.  Previously, I've been fairly successful when submitting abstracts to conferences.  I suspect my submissions help broaden conference topics, because I represent small buildings, small design firms, and unique structures.

Plus, either before or after the conference, Joanne and I will take some time to visit our daughter, Katherine, currently teaching English in Gwangju, about 4 hours south of Seoul.

It's the Landslide Time of Year Again...

It's that time of year again - landslide season.  I use Halloween as my mental reminder that the rains are coming, the ground will saturate, and the land will slide.  Landslides are a fact of life in the Puget Sound area.  Every 20 - 50 years, steep slopes typically "shed" their upper few feet of loose soils, usually during periods of heavy rains.

If you're concerned about your hill, what should you do?  We recommend the following steps:

  1. Research and understand landslides.  Click on the "Landslide Mitigation" button above on our website.
  2. If you think you need help, email or call us.  We can discuss your concerns, visit your site, and recommend a course of action.  Whether it's preventing the slide or fixing the slide, let us help.
  3. If needed, we con suggest geotechnical engineers and contractors who can help you.
  4. If needed, we can design landslide mitigation measures tailored to your specific site situation.


We have 20 years experience dealing with landslides in the Puget Sound area.  We're innovative in our approaches, well respected by local jurisdictions, and we know contractors who can do the work properly for you.

Yurt Abstract Submitted for Korean Conference

I’ve just completed an Abstract for an engineering conference in Seoul, Korea, to be held September 19-21, 2012. The conference title is Innovative Infrastructures – Toward Human Urbanism, and it is sponsored through IABSE, the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering. In 1995, I presented another paper at an IABSE conference in San Francisco, titled “Lateral Strength in Older Homes.”

For this conference, I’ve decided to submit under the category “Structures and Materials – Extending the Limits.” The emphasis on the conference is how Social Infrastructures play a crucial role in improving our quality of life. Social Infrastructure is defined as a system of social services, networks, and facilities that support people and communities (shelter, health, education, income, safety, recreation and leisure, cultural expression). Obviously, affordable structures are a primary community need.

I thought it would be good to incorporate some of my Yurt Standard work into this paper, so I’m presenting a paper titled “Modern Yurts/Gers Are Viable Options For Societal Facility Needs.” I know of no other structure that is as nice, and affordable, as yurts. In our Yurt Maker’s Conference last February, one of our discussion topics was the need for education building officials, community planners, and the public about yurts. This paper will help in that process.

Generally, I suspect most conferences try to provide a wide breadth of topics. Since my papers are from a small company working on small buildings, I have been somewhat unique with my submittals, and have had 5 of 6 Abstracts accepted. I hope this Abstract will be similarly viewed. If accepted, the final paper must be submitted by February 28, 2012. My fingers are crossed.

A side benefit of this conference would be an opportunity to visit our daughter, Katherine, who is teaching English at a middle school in Gwangju, about 3 hours from Seoul.

Getting Registered in Additional States: Start the Process!

In order to become registered in other states, I just completed my registration with NCEES, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.  NCEES is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing professional licensure for engineers and surveyors.  Among other functions, it is a national clearinghouse that maintains records of engineers, to simplify and facilitate registration in other states.

It was an arduous process, complicated by my having 3 college degrees, having PE licenses in 4 states, passing the PE exam in two different states, and being so old.  In 30 years, my college names have changed, the EIT and PE exams are called by other names, and my former bosses are dead or retired, making it difficult to verify work experience.

Still, this NCEES should help to simplify the application process for PE registration in other states.  Thank goodness it's done.  The next step is to get registered in Montana, New York and Virginia, where we have clients eagerly awaiting our engineering services.

Road Trip to Meet Yurt Clients. aka: Empty Nest Convertible Trip

Joanne, Elli (our yellow Labrador), and I took a road trip in our Volvo C70 convertible over the last few days of August to Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Western Montana.  First, the weather: sunny across WA (top down), sunny/cloudy/cold/thunder showers in the ID/MT mountains (top down, top up, heater on), sunny on the WA return trip (top down). 

We had several reasons for our trip:

To meet Michael Villardi of Smiling Woods Yurts (Twisp, WA) and see his “hard-sided” yurts.

To meet Hays Daniels and Vince Godby of Shelter Designs (Troy, MT) – fabric yurts

To see Becky Kemery, author of “Yurts: Living in the Round”, at Medicine Circle, ID

For much of our drive East through wheat country, we were the only car on the road.

Unfortunately, we arrived too late in Winthrop to meet with Michael, so will have to try again later.  Fortunately, we were able to see one of his hard-sided yurts, an impressive and beautiful building (with interior loft), located a few miles north of Winthrop.  Hard-sided yurts are currently the only “permittable” yurts, since they combine the yurt shape and roof framing with stick-framed insulated walls to meet the energy code.  During our approach on the driveway, we disturbed thousands of grasshoppers, which leaped over, under, and into our top-down convertible.

We headquartered in Post Falls, ID at the dog-friendly Red Lion on the Spokane River.  The next morning, we visited Shelter Designs, north of Troy, MT, on the ID/MT border.  This was an adventure through Forest Service lands on a gravel road across the border into Montana.  We found Vince’s 2-story straw-bale house, and drove in to Shelter Designs’ yurt office, adjacent to their newly-expanded shop.  Vince and Hays were very generous with their time, as they were in the middle of packing up one of their Eco-Yurts for shipment to California.  We could’ve talked yurts much longer, but didn’t want to delay them too long.

Then on to Becky’s yurt at Medicine Circle, a 5-acre land trust parcel near Priest Lake, Idaho, dedicated to permaculture, sustainability, and natural building.  We met Becky and David Kirchoff, and toured an outdoor kitchen, various yurts, tipi’s, sawdust outhouses, and some experimental structures.  Becky showed Joanne some “must-have” plants.  We even discussed a little business, including the North American Yurt Alliance (NAYA), our work on the Yurt Standard, and Becky’s future plans.  Medicine Circle reminded me of Boy Scout camps, though Dave stays year ‘round.  Last winter included 4’ of snow.

The trip included some beautiful country we’d never seen before, all the better experienced in a convertible.  We met some great yurt people.  This is a small, but growing, industry; relationships are important.  To successfully develop the Yurt Standard will require extensive collaboration with many yurt manufacturers, so it’s important for us to know them well.

Lessons From Joplin, Missouri:

In early June, Eric Rice, PE from our office, visited Joplin, MO to provide structural investigations for insurance claims related to the recent tornados damage. Eric worked with clients on the periphery of the tornado path, often within 1 - 2 blocks of the devastation swath of the tornado. Here are some observations and lessons learned:


- Eric saw utter devastation reported on the news. In the direct path of the tornado, nearly all objects were reduced to debris of a uniform size, almost as if it had been run through a food processor. In fact, people reported that the tornado sounded like a blender.


- The debris field extended vertically up to 15,000 feet - 3 miles in the air!


- Often, a main tree trunk remained, albeit stripped of its bark.


- Though pavement was slightly more cracked, it generally was not ripped up by the tornado. It is almost surreal to see everything destroyed on both sides of the road, yet the road itself is in good shape!


- Eric's investigations involved damage from directional high winds, meaning high winds coming from predominantly one or two directions. The tornado generally passed from west to east. Eric's projects were located on the south side of the damage path, and the wind damage came from the southeast and southwest high winds. Why?


- Surprisingly, tornados require a tremendous amount of air to sustain themselves. They draw this wind in from the ground, at the base of the tornado. The wind is not spinning, but directional, following the path of the tornado. This effect is clearly demonstrated in a video of another tornado from Springfield, MA. The tornado passed through the city of Springfield, then up the Connecticut River. If you watch the waves and river surface, you can clearly see how tornados suck in air. The video link:


- Another surprising fact is that peripheral damage was not spread over a larger area. Eric was looking at high wind damage only a few blocks from the actual tornado path, yet some of the homes were substantially intact and sound. Much depends upon luck and chance.


- On the surface, it seems hopeless if you're facing such a huge tornado. However, in our research, we've learned that tornado Safe Rooms generally performed well, and that they saves a substantial number of people's lives.


- Here is a link to guidelines for construction of Safe Rooms:




Letter to Daughter About Japan Earthquake Seminar

Note: Steve Kicinski's daughter has been working in Korea for over a year, and is about to travel to Japan.  The following is a letter he sent her about a seminar he attended on June 15, 2011, regarding the recent earthquake in Japan.



While you were watching an eclipse last night, I attended a 4-hour seminar at Kane Hall (University of Washington), presented by a group of local engineers from the Structural Engineers Association of Washington (SEAW), who just got back from Japan on June 6th.  The goals were the following:


  • To view earthquake damage from the 9.0M earthquake and the multitude of large aftershocks – conclusion: buildings built with post-1980 codes performed well.
  • To view tsunami damage
  • To compare Japan’s readiness (the best in the world) with our readiness, since the northwest, and especially the Puget Sound and Portland areas, face exactly the same seismic and tsunami risk
  • And to learn from their recovery efforts

There are many things I heard that are too numerous to relate in an email, but here are a few highlights:


  • Hybrid cars were the main cause of fires after the earthquake and tsunami (cars tossed around, batteries shorted out, start the interior of the car on fire, then car lights the surroundings on fire)
  • High-rise refugees – without power, and sometimes water, those above the eighth floor had to go to refugee centers, even though the high-rise buildings were undamaged and structurally livable
  • The mayor of Minamisanriku survived the tsunami by climbing a tower at the top of the emergency response center, at the encouragement of his co-workers – they said he must lead them out of the emergency. On the second floor was a young woman, Miki Endo, who continued emergency broadcasts of the tsunami warning, even as the wave crashed into the building.  She is considered a hero.
  • Minamisanriku actually had 14 tsunami waves over a 12-hour period.  The highest was 15 meters.  Tsunami waves do damage as they approach shore, but they also do damage as they recede.  A world record was set, as one wave went inland over 6 miles!
  • The highest recorded wave was in another region, over 18 meters!
  • One neighborhood response coordinator, in his 70’s was swept away in the tsunami wave, but survived by landing on the second story of a building as the wave receded.  He lost his wife in the wave, and yet went right to work helping his neighborhood.
  • The translated slogan for the town of Miyagi is: “Miyagi will overcome.  Miyagi will recover and be stronger.  Smiles will be overflowing in our region.  Because of the support from our international friends.”
  • High rise buildings in Tokyo experienced ground shaking for over 10 minutes, and buildings continued to sway much longer – over 12 minutes.  People in the upper stories were getting seasick.


Kane Hall was 90% full, with a large proportion being people of Asian-heritage.  When the presenter showed pictures of Minamisanriku’s damage, he said, “The pictures will tell the story.  I’m just going to shut up.”  Complete silence in the auditorium – you could have heard a pin drop.


There is much more I could tell, but above all else, the graciousness, strength, and bravery of the Japanese people were shown.  I have respect upon respect for the Japanese.  Wow.




Ellisport Engineering Provides Nationwide Assistance in Disaster Situations


Ellisport engineers, Eric and Steve, have recently begun providing investigative engineering assistance in areas hit by natural disasters.  When these disasters occur, large numbers of people are affected.  Insurance companies need to settle these claims as soon as possible, to allow people to repair their homes and get on with their lives.  Local engineers cannot handle all of this work in a timely fashion, so out-of-state engineers are called in to help.  The work is a nice change-of-pace, challenging, and taxing.  Typically, we will see about 6 projects in a weeks’ time.  Our final product is a detailed report to the insurance company, explaining the cause(s) of the damage.  From this report, the insurance company can then determine coverage related to the damage.


In March and April, both engineers visited New England, primarily MA and CT, to investigate insurance claims related to the heavy winter snows of early 2011.  In New England, we saw mostly roof and leak damage, resulting from heavy snows and the formation of ice dams.  Ice dams result from periodic thawing (generally caused by poorly insulated and ventilated roofs) and re-freezing of snow/ice, creating a dam that obstructs water from flowing to the gutters.  Instead, it backs up under the roofing shingles, often prying them up, and eventually leaking into the attic space. 


In mid-May, Eric visited Tennessee to investigate high wind damage to buildings.  This is likely peripheral damage from the plethora of tornadoes that occurred over the last month.  We will soon provide an update on what he saw.


New Coastal Flood Maps and Proposed Regs for Vashon-Maury Islands.


On Thursday, April 28, 2011, Steve Kicinski, PE and Eric Rice, PE attended an informational meeting at the Vashon High School Commons.  The topic was “New Coastal Flood Maps and Proposed Regulations for Vashon-Maury Islands”. 


Recently, waterfront homeowners have become aware that they are listed in a coastal floodplain.  Who knew that there could be flooding on an ocean?  This information relates to flooding that results from high tides, low pressure storm conditions, and storm-driven waves (it does not account for tsunamis).  Large remodels, re-financing, or new construction require consideration  of the house placement relative to the flood plain mapping.  The maps presented on April 28th now list flood plain elevations.


Years ago, a large number of waterfront property owners were caught in the wide net cast by FEMA, King County, and the Department of Natural Resources.  Previous flood plain maps had no numerical elevation assigned to the flood zone, only a general map showing approximate flood zone areas.  This meeting provided preliminary floodplain elevations for the full coastline of Vashon-Maury Islands.  Each waterfront property owner’s home is clearly shown relative to the floodplain designation.


The maps are termed preliminary so the public can comment on the maps, so reviewers can check the technical accuracy of the maps, and so the final map adoption process can be completed in approximately 2 years (2013).  If located in flood zones, homeowners will now have to spend approximately $400 per $100,000 of house valuation for flood insurance.  If extensive remodels or new construction are contemplated, there are special design requirements that must be followed: chief among them is that all floor framing supporting habitable living space must be elevated a minimum of 3’ above the mapped flood zone elevation for the house location. 


There is still much work to be done in reviewing, commenting, defining what it all means to homeowners, and what the cost impact will be.  Suffice it to say, it will be another cost of owning waterfront property.  For more information, you can contact us. 


Additional King County information can be found at the following links:


King County general website about flood control


Information brochures about floods/flooding


Vashon-Maury Island Coastal Flood Hazard Mapping

log here.

New England Damage Assessments

I'm about to head to Providence, Rhode Island, and points beyond, to assess snow and ice damage on residential and commercial properties.  After the winter they've had back east, it almost makes me appreciate our rain.  The operative word:  almost.

An Engineer's Role in a Landslide Mitigation

In the northwest, we've had to endure a particularly wet winter/spring.  This year, has been one of the worst years for landslides in quite a while, mainly due to the heavy rains and saturated soil conditions.  If your slope is showing some signs of movement, it's often better to take preventative action to mitigate further movement, rather than wait until the slide occurs.  Often a landslide will do much damage and is more difficult and expensive to repair. We are civil/structural engineers, and while we have a strong background in soils engineering, we are not geotechnical engineers.  It may be necessary to hire a geotech, and typically, the landslide repairs proceed like this:

1) A geotech engineer is hired to research the geology of the site, determine the landslide causes and provide conceptual recommendations for repairing or mitigating the landslide risks.  The geotech produces a report summarizing his findings; the report may include maps and conceptual sketches.

2) A civil/structural engineer is hired to review the geotech's recommendations and design the appropriate structures to mitigate the landslide risks.  The engineer produces structural calculations, permit and construction drawings, and coordinates with the homeowner, geotechnical engineer, permitting agency, and contractor.  If there is an insurance or FEMA claim, the engineer may provide a report to the insurance company and/or FEMA.

3) A contractor specializing in steep slope landslide repair work is hired to construct the structural engineer's permitted design.  Often, the geotech and/or the structural engineer will periodically observe the construction, to ensure compliance with the permitted drawings.  it is likely that the permitting agency will require both engineers to sign-off on the construction installation.  Note that this work may include installing pipes to collect and drain water from the slope, as well as mulching and plantings on the exposed soils.