Return to Attic and Roof Renovations: Converting an Attic Space into a Kids Bedroom and Bathroom

Part 3: Engineering - Overbuilding for Dummies

Please note that I have omitted several names of people and firms that I have interacted with. The reason is either I am actively working with them, I decided not to work with them, or I ran into problems while working with them. The only names that I will provide here are those that I would personally recommend. If you would like to discuss this article or any of the parties involved with me in greater detail, please contact me directly.

Who Needs a What Now?

After demolishing and exploring much of the attic's structure, I set out on a mission to figure out what could be done about the structure, what needed to be done, and what had to be done. Having never really explored this kind of project before, i decided to start by contacting someone that I could reasonably expect to have enough experience to provide some direction.

The Roofer: I called a roofer / renovation specialist at Above All Roofing & Renovations who have worked on a number of places in my neighborhood and who I have heard a number of good things about. They sent out Bill Ehlers in a timely fashion to take a look, who was able to explain that his company specialized in exteriors and interior renovation & insulation - they couldn't help me with the structural components, but Bill was very knowledgeable about a variety of topics and advised me to speak to a contractor that specialized in roof structures, and gave me the name of one to talk to.

The Contractor: I contacted the reference I was given, an older man who had several decades of experience and who had done significant structural work on a nearby church-turned-community center. He examined the structure, and we discussed options which allowed me to formalize in my mind exactly what I wanted to have done. The contractor advised me that my plans were certainly feasible, but that I would need to contact an engineer to do the drawings necessary to obtain a permit from the city, and that I should specifically contact a truss manufacturer. The manufacturer would not only have engineers on staff who specialize in the work, but could design and build prefab trusses as well.

More on that in a minute...

The Plan

The existing roof is a complicated structure, sloped sides on the front and back, dual gables on either side, flat center, and two valleys - not to mention the not-quite-full-width addition on the front. Since both slopes were intact and structurally sound, it was only the center section along the north-south axis that needed repair. Considering that keeping the valleys was an invitation for future ice-dams and water damage, the plan was to demolish the entire center section of the roof - both valleys and that flat center - and keeping the two ridge boards that ran the width of the house and formed the peak for opposite gables.

The new roof would bridge the gap between ridge boards at a gentler slope, using a 4/12 pitch (18.43 deg) rather than the 12/12 pitch (45 deg) of the existing sloped sides. The resulting peak would be a gambrel roof (barn style) and allow for improved drainage, the elimination of the existing ice dam problem, and work to retain as much of the existing structure that we could reasonably do.

Current                 -----------                Demolition                -----------                Future

Proposed cross-section of roof structure

Is That Necessary?

The Truss Manufacturer: One of the two that I attempted to contact returned my call and told me right off that they could not help me. Manufactured trusses are only used in new construction or complete replacement.

The Engineer: I did manage to locate an engineering firm on my own that specialized in roof structures, both commercial and residential. To engage an engineer, much like a lawyer, they typically require a retainer fee and an hourly contract. In this case the contract was to conduct a site visit and structural assessment, and to gather the information required to do their work.

After making initial contact on March 15th, the engineer was able to come out to inspect the structure shortly after. The engineer was very courteous, and expressed agreement that the plan (as detailed above) was reasonable and that they would be able to create the drawings that I would need to obtain a permit. Progress! After thanking him for his time, I requested that he send me a quote for the work and we could proceed very soon.

I contacted the engineering firm again a week later on March 22nd to follow-up at which point the engineer promised and sent a quote and a fixed price contract the following day for $1800.00. Expensive, considering the scope of the work - but within my range of expectation. I agreed to the contract based on the work that I had outlined and eagerly anticipated moving forward.

More Contractors: In the meantime, I contacted several other contractors in order to get a better idea of costs involved so that I could secure financing for the project. I managed to convince a couple to come out and take a look, but there were more than a few that I simply never heard back from. One contractor however seemed particularly promising. He had done work of a similar nature before, and was actively working with other clients at the time that we spoke, and he too agreed that my plan was workable. It would be tricky, the houses in my neighborhood are very close to one another and any construction project of this nature poses a risk of falling debris. As well, the route through the house was narrow and steep - but after nearly giving me a heart attack by stepping out of the third floor window onto the neighbors roof (as I said - the houses are very close together) to better examine the situation, he certainly thought he could do the work.

Note: I am petrified of falling, which is one of the several reasons I was not about to do work on my third story roof myself.

The contractor also had worked with the engineering firm I was using previously, though he thought that full stamped engineering drawings would be overkill. He informed me that he has worked with another engineer who could do the work for a lower price, but that it likely wouldn't even be necessary for a renovation of the nature I was proposing.

The Engineer: A week after returning the contract, I contacted the engineer again on April 1st to inquire about an estimated delivery date. I was given a target of April 8th - 11th for a draft of the drawings. Meanwhile, the firm invoiced me for the first 25% of the contract on April 7th.

The following weeks were a series of emails, where I would make contact to inquire about progress and I would receive an excuse and a new target, although I was assured that progress was being made and that they would "very closely" match my requirements. Finally, on April 15th (one month after initiating contact with them) I received a draft of the drawings (completed by a junior member of the firm).

To put it mildly - I was not pleased with the result.

The drawings as provided required the following:

  • Completely new trusses across the entirety of the roof
  • Removal of all roofing material, save a 3 foot strip along the upper edge of the east and west slope (but which would require extensive work to tie-in with the material removed lower down)
  • Entirely new knee walls that required cutting the existing slope structure in order to secure them to the new structure (leaving a 3 foot 'hanging' section of existing structure near the peak of the slopes, and an unattached 2 foot 'secured' section of existing structure near the bottom)
  • The cross-bracing on the ceiling would reduce the height from its existing 7ft, to 5ft9in - leaving not enough room to even stand upright.

In essence, the result was SO BAD that complete demolition and reconstruction of the roof would actually have been the CHEAPER option!

I replied outlining the ways in which the design failed to meet requirements on April 16th. On the 18th I received a terse reply that the changes made were necessary based on modern construction code and that they would not make adjustments sufficient to meet my needs.

Strangely enough - removal and replacement of the existing trusses and damaged structure using the exact same plan (and all its inherent flaws) would not require a permit or engineering. But the moment that I start making incremental improvements to the structure to reduce weight-load, and prevent further damage - suddenly the only available option is complete reconstruction?

On April 18th, I terminated the engineering contract for failure to deliver. A month later, on May 17th, I received an invoice billing me an additional $450 (the second 25%) for the contract. After a few rather livid (though polite) conversations with my financial institution, the engineering firm's accounting manager, as well as their president - the second charge was reversed.

In case you are wondering what that discussion was like, it simply came down to identifying myself and my relationship to the firm, identifying the disputed transaction, affirming my refusal to pay, and listing my reasons for refusing which were as follows:

  • Failure to contact me with regards to significant changes to design.
  • Repeated failure to meet self-imposed target timelines.
  • Incorrect assertions by the engineer that draft drawings would 'very closely' match discussed requirements.
  • Failure to deliver drawings that satisfied requirements as agreed upon.
  • Refusal to make modifications sufficient to meet requirements.
  • Applying charges to an unapproved payment instrument - which an argument could be made that this activity constitutes fraud. (A credit-card was provided for the original Time & Materials contract to inspect the site and provide a quote, which was completed on April 1st. No method of payment was provided for the second, separate, Fixed Price contract to complete the drawings, nor was any agreement made to use the previous method of payment. Despite this and against my wishes, the credit-card provided for the original contract was used to bill against the second contract).

Part 4: Structure - In a Hurry to Wait