How many times have you encountered this typical LA situation: there’s a beautiful lot, fantastic views, great location, but impossible to build on.

That was exactly the situation for an investor and his lot in the Hollywood Hills. The property had a stunning city view, it was adjacent to a beautiful lake, a fantastic location at an affordable asking price. It had it all.

So what was the problem?

The property was on the top of a steep slope, impossible to get to. To build at the street level wasn’t an option, you lose the view. There were existing plans available for the street level construction, but nobody wanted to build at that level and miss that view. Building a drive way to the top was out of question because of the steep slope. The investor had already given up on the deal when the architect called us to the site to figure out some engineering solution. You know the old saying: If there is a will, and a good structural engineer, there is a way.

The solution? Build the garage at street level, then build a stairway on grade to get to and from the top on foot.

But who wants to walk up and down a slope that’s the equivalent of six stories all the time?

Oh, well, in that case take the elevator. A six-story high one from street level. The one with a bridge to get to the house.

But what about the height restrictions of the hillside ordinance?

Simple. If you don’t connect the elevator and the bridge to the main building of the house, you can be exempt of the very strict height limitations.

A little imagination gets another great project off the ground!

Re-posted from our newsletter originally sent on 4/25/2013


What do you do if you want to build a three-story house, but the local planning only allows for a two-story?

That’s the problem we faced when a local planning department determined the building we’ve been designing can’t be taller than 33′ with a sloped roof and 28′ with a flat roof. The 28′ height limit prohibited a third floor and a sloped roof on the top of the third floor would exceed the 33′ height limit. What a conundrum! Everybody pretty much gave up on the third floor.

But where there is a will there is a way and we are very willing people here at PTE.

The answer: an accordion roof!

We created a motif of ridges and valleys slightly offset from one side of the building to the other side to achieve proper roof drainage, so the roof has the required 4:12 slope, but doesn’t extend more than 3′ above the plate line of the third floor, thus staying below the required 33′ height limitation. A little more expensive, but the more dramatic design gave the owner the desired third floor and the planning department took lots of time to scratch their heads, but finally had to approve the concept!

Think of it as another crowning achievement of PTE.

Re-posted from our newsletter originally sent on 4/25/2013


Recently, our company was selected to do the structural engineering for a very unique single family compound — four buildings on a lot with beautiful, sweeping views from downtown to the ocean, for a very famous Swiss sculptor/artist from Zurich. He just had a very big, successful exhibition in Los Angeles. I guess my German engineering background and knowledge of the language helped to get the job, as well. In addition to doing the structural engineering our company was asked to do civil engineering and expediting for the project, due to the fact that the architect is based in Zurich and our office is next to the Los Angeles Building and Safety’s West side office on Sawtelle Blvd.

Part of the civil engineering was storm drain and sewer line design to discharge to the next public street. The problem was that the public street next to the property was a “paper street”. You know the type of streets that exist on paper only, owned by the city. To run an 8″ sewer line and an 18″ storm drain line under this non-existent public street for about 200′ to be connected to the existing lower street lines, with all the city drawing and permitting nightmares, would have cost the client 80-100K and months!

Here comes the thinking of a Hungarian civil engineer with LA street smarts.

If the sewer and storm drain go thru private land, sizes of drain and sewer lines decrease drastically, 8 to 6 and 18 to 8 inches respectively. We suggested to the owner to acquire a 3′ easement of the neighboring lot for the purpose of running these lines on private property verses on public property. The neighboring property owner was agreeable to the idea, made some money on the deal and sold our client a 3′ easement and the case was closed.

Construction saving: in the range of 50-60K

You know: where there is a will, and a good thinking engineer, there is a way…

Re-posted from our newsletter originally sent on 6/13/2013


The once in a lifetime mentality, fueled by a shortage of for-sale homes, is driving the Los Angeles area from recovery to frenzy, according to real estate agents, brokers, like my son, and experts. A report released recently by the real estate data and brokerage firm Redfin.com called Los Angeles of one the “bubbliest” housing markets in the U.S., second only to Washington, D.C.

The Redfin report comes as others have begun to raise concerns that housing might be approaching speculative territory. Professors Karl Case and Robert Schiller – creators of the widely followed home price index – have cautioned about fast rising home prices in recent months. Economists have also attributed much of the housing surge to investors’ couple with the fact that banks are very slowly releasing REOs to maintain control of prices.

Many investors are buying homes to quickly sell again at a profit. Fixing and flipping is a robust business once again. We’re going straight from Armageddon to speculation with no stops in between. That seems to be how the American economy works now, we just go from one bubble to the next and back again.

But there is a distinct difference between the home price run-up of the last decade and the current upswing. During the previous boom, listings abounded and sales soared. Now, rising prices are driven by a shortage of supply. And although underwriting standards may be relaxing, they remain tight when compared to when lenders did loans on stated income with no verification and issued enough subprime loans to crash the U.S. economy.

This is not a bubble by any stretch of the imagination. If you can’t borrow, you can’t speculate – that is the primary thing that will prevent this from happening.

What are your thoughts? Let me know.

Re-posted from our newsletter originally sent on 6/13/2013


As all structural engineers know, one of the most dangerous and unsafe building types in California is the “Soft story” structures. As you know, soft story buildings are structures in which the ground level is parking with two or three floors of apartments above. Those who know me know this is a pet issue with me.

The buildings are, by design, “top heavy” and in the event of an adverse, strong ground motion the supporting weak, mostly wooden columns snap. The floors collapse on top of each other causing death and serious injuries for the people living in these types of units. We know this from the Northridge earthquake, where many of these buildings collapsed — most notably the “Northridge Meadows” apartment complex where 16 people died in one building alone.

For years, at Building & Safety Departments in a variety of cities, I’ve championed passing an ordinance for a mandatory upgrade of these very unsafe and dangerous buildings to protect the public. It is too political, I was told, council members fear the backlash of apartment building owners, etc. There was only one city after the 1994 earthquake that passed a mandatory retrofitting program; Santa Monica in 1995. Now, another “progressive” city, San Francisco, has passed an ordinance for the same type of upgrade. And the vote was 11 to 0!

Kudos to San Francisco!

For the most part, retrofitting means additional bracing elements at the street level to make the buildings more rigid and able to withstand horizontal (earthquake) forces. It’s not as expensive as many landlords think, and it will definitely save lives in an earthquake zone like Southern California. You know, here, the question is not if an earthquake will come, but when.

There are approximately 35-40,000 soft story buildings in the city of Los Angeles alone, not to mention all the surrounding areas. This is protection the public needs.

Our office is designing an increasing number of soft story retrofit projects, thanks to a federal program. Freddy Mac, or Fanny May do not lend money for these type of buildings and for refinancing purposes, landlords increasingly are forced to upgrade their soft story buildings. Retrofitting also has a positive effect on insurance for these buildings. I would like to hear your comments and experiences on this issue.

Re-posted from our newsletter originally sent on 6/13/2013