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Condo Communities Can Reap Benefits By Hiring A Professional Civil Engineer

Most people would not risk purchasing a home without an attorney; or, starting a business without an accountant; however, when it comes to assessing maintenance and repairs necessary for condominium communities, many associations do not take advantage of the technical assistance that a professional engineer can provide. A reserve study, in particular, requires the expertise of trained individuals to provide input on infrastructure conditions and future needs. A civil engineer (trained in the respective field of design and construction) has the background and education to assist in providing these services to condominium communities for their use in preparing a reserve study.

Similar to the infrastructure assessed by municipal engineers in New Jersey’s municipalities, a condominium association can benefit tremendously from the trained expertise of a civil engineer. A municipal engineer monitors his/her jurisdiction’s infrastructure including roadways, bridges, drainage, sanitary systems, street lighting, sidewalks and other improvements. Implementing a repair or maintenance plan often calls for the engineer to determine the cause of damage or deterioration in order to either improve the lifetime of the system, or reduce the need for ongoing maintenance and repair. In addition, a municipal engineer inspects and reviews construction activities being performed in their municipality. Some condominium communities are comparable in size, or can even exceed the size of a municipality and can reap the same benefits of hiring a civil engineer. Even for a smaller condo community, it makes sense for a trained professional to be on-hand representing the interests of the association in review of ongoing construction activities and to assess the infrastructure needs of the condo community.

Many of New Jersey’s condo communities were built decades ago and are now faced with serious maintenance costs as a consequence of deteriorating infrastructure. In most cases, neither the condo association nor the property management company is equipped to deal with certain technical issues associated with these improvements. Hiring a civil engineer can provide a condo association the confidence that the property is being thoroughly evaluated; cost-saving options are considered; unplanned capital expenditures are minimized; and that governmental regulations are being adhered to. With a prudent civil engineer conducting the association’s reserve study, the condo association can have the peace of mind that costs are based in reality rather than on averages or on hypothetical life-expectancy tables.

Condominium communities often approach a reserve study from a financial perspective with minimal engineering consideration. Many reserve study specialists are financial experts, but they lack the valuable experience that a professional engineer or architect can provide. A financial specialist is certainly an integral player in the reserve study process; however, the services of an engineer, or in some cases an architect, are equally important. Without the involvement of a trained professional, the community association may not be informed with valuable, cost saving details.

For example, an association may request an evaluation of the building’s roof system. In addition to the building’s location, there are many other characteristics that affect the longevity of a roofing system. A trained professional (an architect in this case) will typically have the expertise to evaluate many other characteristics of the roof. These characteristics include roof pitch, sun exposure, presence of overhanging trees, existence of proper eaves, gutters and flashing, quality of material and installation, extent of cuts and corners, ventilation, roof color, and a host of other affecting factors. An architect with the appropriate background can provide an informative assessment of the actual roof system conditions.

A second example, involving the expertise of a civil engineer, involves the assessment of asphalt-paved roadway. In this case as well, there are a host of reasons that pavement will deteriorate and fail. Of course, similar to a roof, pavement will eventually deteriorate over the course of time due to ongoing use from traffic and weather. But a close evaluation of a paved road can often expose many other underlying issues that should be considered prior to investing in a new pavement overlay or repavement project. Water, for example, has an enormous impact on a paved road. So what may happen if an untrained individual assesses a paved road and simply suspects that the road needs repair because it lived its “useful life?” The newly paved road will likely endure the same lifetime, and the cycle repeats. However, hiring a professional civil engineer may expose the reasons for the failure and open new approach to the repair method. An engineer may conclude that the roadway system is failing due to poor drainage and propose a solution to mitigate the problem. Or the engineer may calculate that based on the subsurface soil conditions, the pavement can endure a much longer useful life—perhaps ten additional years—by incorporating an addition half-inch of surface pavement (wearing course). Even a combination of both these solutions may apply. These options may be of interest to the community association, but they would never know unless a qualified individual is engaged.

When it is time to implement new construction, repairs, or improvements; hiring an engineering and/or architectural professional can be instrumental in ensuring a smooth permitting and construction process. Many engineering and architectural professionals have extensive experience in this area; and a condo association will reap the benefits of their involvement and costly mistakes might be avoided. A reserve study specialists typically will not have in-depth knowledge of the local regulations which, if left unchecked, can result in costly fines. Little information can be expected from a reserve study that focuses solely on replacement costs and omits information regarding the necessary permits that are needed and their respective costs. The right professional understands activities that are within the jurisdiction of an area’s regulatory agencies and they are accustomed to providing clients with the cost of permits. Engineering professionals are often a part of the permitting process; therefore, they understand state, county and local regulations pertaining to sanitary sewer, potable water, stormwater management, natural resource protection, soil erosion control, highway access and more. Land development in New Jersey is notorious for its onerous, and sometimes, conflicting regulation. Attempting to budget or implement construction activities can prove to be grossly underestimated from a cost and timing perspective.

In addition to permitting assistance, most engineering professionals are experienced in reviewing contractors’ bid documents and providing construction oversight to ensure construction activities are performed in accordance with plans and specifications. Some condo associations attempt to rely on the general contractor or elect a board member to oversee construction.

To recap, there are many areas where a condo association can reap the benefits of hiring a professional civil engineer. The primary occasions are as follows:

· Evaluation of maintenance needs
A prudent civil engineer can easily spot maintenance needs that might be overlooked by a layperson. Also, a civil engineer can save a condo association a large amount of money by addressing maintenance issues on a preventative basis—before repairs become too costly. For example, by repairing a roadway before the base course failed for our client, Leisure Village, we were able to save the community tens of thousands of dollars.

· Knowledge of regulations and the regulatory review process
New Jersey is arguably one of the most difficult states with respect to regulation. Without the advice of a civil engineer, an unwitting condo association could incur costly fines from state regulatory agencies. For example, the simple matter of replacing a fence bordering a stream could involve both wetlands and flood plain regulations.

· Construction administration
In addition to preparing design plans, a civil engineer can assist a condo association in evaluating bids from contractors and inspect a contractor’s work during construction. Many contractors provide lump sum costs or simply lump a whole subcontractor’s cost into one line item rather than itemizing each activity. For example, in the case of imported fill material, our engineers typically request that the contractors provide a cost to import it; haul it to the site, and place/compact it. Before awarding the contact, it is important to know the unit cost of additional imported material in case there is a need. Likewise, it is common for unsuitable fill to be encountered on site that cannot be reused. Again, a unit price should be known in advance. Many contractors’ change orders are justified; however quantities cannot always be determined precisely. Having a pre-established unit price for extras helps control contingency costs.

Our Civil Engineering Studio at Jarmel Kizel Architects and Engineers, Inc. provides all of the aforementioned services for condo communities in New Jersey and beyond. One condominium community we are actively involved with is Leisure Village in Lakewood, Ocean County, N.J. Leisure Village is an active adult community comprised of nearly 4,500 residents.

Indeed, Leisure Village provides a good example of the potential scope of responsibility for a civil engineer who is retained by a condo community. The community, which was built in 1963 on 457 acres of land, has 2,433 units, 21 miles of lighted streets, 51 miles of sidewalks, seven freshwater lakes, two recreation centers, two swimming pools, a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course and several park areas. With respect to governance, it resembles a small town in every respect.

In order to relieve the burden of caring for such an extensive property, many communities in which large condo developments are located institut requirements that the maintenance of those communities be turned over to the condo associations. Now the bill for maintaining these communities is coming due. Faced with deteriorating infrastructures, other condo associations—especially the older ones— also would do well to reevaluate the way they are meeting their infrastructure needs.

By hiring a civil engineer , the condo associations can not only save money, they can protect the residents’ investment by maintaining the property and—perhaps most important of all—keep their community free of the internal strife that stems from the need to reassess residents, who may be living on fixed incomes, for unplanned additional expenditures.

About Jarmel Kizel Architects & Engineers, Inc.
Headquartered in Livingston, N.J., Jarmel Kizel Architects and Engineers, Inc. is a full-service integrated architecture, engineering, interior design and energy consulting firm serving a distinguished client base of commercial and residential real estate companies, and a myriad of corporations throughout the Northeast.  The company employs registered architects, interior designers, professional engineers, LEED-AP professionals and technical support personnel that provide clients with a single source for all of their facility needs from architectural design, interior design, structural, MEP and civil engineering, to energy solutions and product procurement management services.  For more information, contact the company’s Livingston headquarters at 973.994.9669 or visit