Engineers are not generally known for their sense of humor, perhaps because whenever you see one it means something is substantially wrong with your house and it is going to cost a lot of money. As regular bearers of costly news, engineers seem to view themselves as a bit apocalyptic. So do their clients.
There are exceptions, of course, and the wise man seeking his fee will present the worst, or even the best of news with levity. Such was the case a few years ago when a client, who I will refer to only as Ante, had an exchange with my good friend and colleague, Jim Hands, P.E. As we walked through Ante's home, a John Gaw Meem Pueblo Revival in a spectacular location, Ante asked Jim, "Well. . . what do you think?" To which Jim responded after ponderous thought, "Are you a religious man?"
Now, there's a stunning way to invoke arrhythmia. Fortunately, by the time Jim made his irreverent comment our client had already been through the worst of his ordeal and knew it.
That tale begins within a few months of the time Ante and his family bought the house. They were not living in Santa Fe at the time and so when disaster struck in the form of a frozen pipe, a biblical quantity of water had invaded their crawl space and footings before it was discovered. By then, a significant portion of the house had settled into its new environs and a remarkable network of cracks and separations had appeared in walls, floors, and -- provoking the invocation of prayer -- in a cantilevered ceiling over a stairwell.
We began, Jim and I, by underpinning with helical piers the area most severely impacted by the flood. There was hope, later dashed, that by arresting settlement in the most saturated area we might halt movement in the rest of the house. That approach often works and is based on the idea that buildings are systems. Perhaps, we thought, if we stabilize the most highly mobile walls we will relieve strain on the roof diaphragm and continuous footings that might be the cause of the cracking in the more remote areas. It was a nice try, and Ante appreciated the approach. Thank Fortune, he and his family had not yet re-located.
That took another year or so and it was good to have that amount of time as a convenience. (Well, I thought of it that way!) We had time to repeatedly assess the house and its newly idiosyncratic ways and to underpin selectively over many months. As it turned out, we underpinned everything.
I am pleased to report that the movement has been arrested and all the cosmetic work that followed is holding its own. Cosmetics, for your information, with both Homo sapiens and architecture are the best crack monitors.
Jim's query, at the tag end of the project as Ante and his family were about to move in, doubtless did cause a momentary palpitation and then a great sigh of relief as humor, well placed, indicated success.