A Step in Time Structural Engineering

Ray Gessner is the founder and C.E.O. of A Step in Time, Inc. Ray graduated from Virginia Tech in 1991 with a B.S. in Civil Engineering. Working at various structural engineering firms and geotechnical engineering firms in the 1990’s, Ray completed a Masters of Engineering from Old Dominion University in 1998. Ray took and passed the Virginia Professional Engineering exam in January of 1999 and opened A Step in Time.

The focus of A Step in Time Structural Engineering over the past 25 years is to perform residential structural inspections to help home owners understand the conditions of their home. Examples of these types of inspections include the following:

Unlevel Floors

One of the most common issue we encounter are homeowners having concerns with unlevel floors. These issues can arise from foundation contractors recommending repairs or simply a homeowner noticing the floors are out of level. We have performed hundreds of structural engineering inspections and the answer can be from a variety of reasons. Perhaps underlying floor joists have been improperly penetrated by HVAC or plumbing pipes. It could be that the underlying girders have been undersized and are deflecting. It could be that the foundations have excessive settlement does require repair. However, many times it could be that the home has settled a normal amount verses building code tolerances and there may be easier and less expensive repairs that can be performed to resolve these issues.

Cracks in exterior brick or foundation walls

Many times homeowners will call us because they notice their exterior walls have cracked. The question they want to know is if the crack is normal settlement and is cosmetic in nature or is the crack going to continue. When we perform a structural inspection, we will typically inspect inside the crawl space to determine if the crack is only on the exterior brick or if it has moved completely through the wall to the load supporting masonry foundation wall. Other factors that help us determine the severity is my laser leveling the interior floors to determine exact settlement, locations of down spouts and grading of the exterior landscape to determine if water is causing the underlying soil to expand and contract. Many times, we can determine additional reasons why these walls may be cracking and offer alternative an more economical solutions then reinforcing the foundations.

Cracks in interior drywall

Homeowners notice cracks in drywall and immediately conclude that these drywall cracks are the result of failing foundations. The location and the size of the drywall cracks can come from a variety of reasons. We ask the homeowner a series of questions after our inspection. Sometimes they may find that doors near these cracks open during certain times of the year and have a difficult time completely opening during other times of the year. Our investigation tries to solve and offer a professional opinion regarding these answers. If the issue happens during the hot and cold seasons than this may lead our team to believe it is something related to the attic and proper ventilation. Rafters and roof trusses will expand during the hot season because of thermal expansion and can apply pressures on the exterior walls and can cause truss uplift on interior walls. This movement can cause drywall cracks. On the other hand, are the cracks coming and going during wet and dry season. We can determine if you have clay soil and we can tell you about the effects of shrink swell clay and how clay can expand during the wet season and lift your foundation and sink or shrink during the dry season. Trying to understand reason for structural problems is like a detective trying to solve a crime. We gather information and determine the most likely problems and educate the home owner.

Insurance Claims

Most homeowner insurance policies cover wind, hail and water damage. Most homeowner insurance policies exclude foundation settlement issues. Many times insurance companies will have insurance adjusters visit your properly and determine the cause of the issue is foundation settlement and they will deny the claim based on that opinion. When this occurs, our services can perform a structural inspection and determine if this opinion is correct or if it is not correct. Many times our opinion differs from insurance adjusters and even their own structural engineers. Here is a true example of a case we were involved with. A homeowner, who had a tree fall on his house had the insurance company come and their engineers from the insurance company offer solutions and connections to a contractor to repair the damage. After nearly 10 month and almost all the way through the repair process, the homeowner called our firm for our opinion. Through technical code reference and analysis of previous photos, and review of engineering reports. We stated the home had substantial structural damage and the insurance company repaired the home with the advice that it experienced less than substantial damage. This repair is less expensive and does not have the stringent requirement to comply with various building codes. The result was that the insurance company settled the lawsuit for just under $500,000 of additional payments from before our initial inspection. We have also had success of roof/hail damage claims, wind induced chimney damage events and many more. Many times insurance companies and large builders have teams of lawyers and engineers who protect their side. Most of the engineers have been trained see their employers point of view. Sometimes this can lead to a biased point of view and may need another engineer to point out the facts, codes and opinions that they may not have considered.

Our Inspection Process

Most of our inspection locations are in either Hampton Roads, Richmond, Fredricksburg or Northern Virginia. We try to make the inspection process as economical as possible without sacrificing quality. With that said: we have basically copied the inspection process for most government city inspectors which have gone to a virtual inspection service. This inspection process was developed during the 2020 Covid pandemic but has been widely successful. One of our local team members from our company will arrive at your location and greet you at the door. Initially, they will take a series of basic photos for the engineering report and when the time for the inspection comes, Ray Gessner will be connected by video conference with either Facetime, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or 360 Youtube Live stream. Ray will speak with the customer, gather details of the problem and just like he is standing in your home, he instructs the technicians to perform various engineering procedures which may include laser leveling floors, inspection inside crawl space, inspection inside attic and such. After gathering this information, Ray determines the nature and probably cause of the problem. We discuss with the homeowner our conclusion and explains it in common sense approach. Nearly 100% of the time, the cause and solution makes perfect sense to the homeowner and this allows the homeowner to go to the next steps of this issue. We do not blur the conversation with technical engineering terms, but we explain it with a common sense approach. After the inspection, we compile photos, write and engineering report with Inspection results, recommendations and conclusion and apply a professional engineering stamp. This allows the homeowner to share the report to various people including contractors, city officials for permits, insurance agencies and even for their own personal records.

Meet the Inspection Technicians

Jeff Hughes is the general manager at A Step in Time. Ray has known Jeff for over 20 years. Both of Jeff’s parents have worked for A Step in Time and Ray trusts Jeffs ability to do nearly anything including managing A Step in Time. What makes Jeff special. First, Jeff is a genius with computer applications including how to correctly operate video sharing devices, uploading photos and anything technical. Jeff is also smaller and very physically capable of navigating through tight spaces like attics and crawl spaces. Jeff has great common sense and has worked with Ray longer than any technician at the company. Many times, Jeff already knows what Ray is looking at and will be looking for, so the camera action and camera flow helps Ray experience the inspection like he is there.

Andrew Tuggle is the manager of the Richmond and northern Virginia location. Drew is a more seasoned technician and has experienced in a more wide range of construction processes. Drew is great on roofs and has performed many attic and crawl space inspections. Drew may be a little big larger than Jeff but he is still not as large as Ray and is definitely capable of the engineering inspection process.

Nicole Gearhart is the office structural engineering manager. She has work at A Step in Time for nearly 20 years and is solely responsible for answering all inbound telephone calls that contacts A Step in Time. She has such knowledge of the structural engineering inspection process that all called that go to A Step in Time from the website are forwarded to her cell phone. When a client calls and asks about a structural engineering question, she has usually heard of it before and can likely explain our procedure and how we can perform services for you. She also watches pets in her spare time so if you get her voicemail you may hear something about a perfect pet sitter. But she is definitely the person you want to speak to initially to find out about our services.