“Alternate or Alternative Engineered Design”

Using alternative engineered designs allows for innovative designs and advancements in the construction process.

by David Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE

All design documents that require the seal and signature of a Registered Professional Engineer, by definition, are engineered design documents. By placing their seal and signature on a set of design documents, the engineer is attesting that the design meets or exceeds the minimum requirements of the various codes, standards, regulations, and laws that cover the specific systems in the design.

In the interest of disclosure, I am a Registered Professional Engineer as well as a Certified Plumbing Inspector and Plans Examiner in the State of Ohio. This discussion is based on the policies in Ohio, which may differ in other jurisdictions. However, Ohio’s laws, administrative code, and the construction code front-ends are based on a nationally recognized model code. While each state may have slightly different language, the underlying principles are basically the same.

The Responsible Parties

So, let us discuss who has oversight and legal responsibility for design documents. The design team develops design documents to bring the owner’s vision to life, while remaining in budget, meeting or exceeding the minimum requirements of the code and other regulations, and always protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare. These documents are submitted to an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) for review and approval.

Chief Building Official

The authority having jurisdiction is operated under the control and oversight of the Chief Building Official (CBO). The CBO is a management position that administers plan check duties and provides building inspections (including the inspection of plumbing systems) along with the training and supervision of the staff assigned to perform those functions. Everything that occurs under the Building Department is done by or on behalf of the CBO’s authority and signature. The CBO is the only authority who can issue an approval or disapproval of the documents. In the event of the rejection of submitted documents, the CBO issues an adjudication order that outlines the perceived violations and must cite the code sections/policies/regulations related to that rejection.

Plans Examiner

The Plans Examiner is responsible for the review and examination of the design/construction documents, based on the applicable codes and under the administrative rules of the law. They also have an obligation to determine whether the structure is suited to the engineering and environmental demands of the building site. A plans examiner needs to effectively communicate the results of the plan review to the owner or their representative in a professional, courteous, impartial, responsive, and cooperative manner. The plans examiner is the CBO’s eyes-on for reviewing documents. The plans examiner is the interpreter of the codes on the CBO’s behalf.


The Inspector is responsible for performing inspections and determining that work for which they are certified to inspect is performed in compliance with the approved construction documents. All inspectors are required to inspect the work to the extent of the approval given when the construction documents were approved by the building official and for which the inspection was requested. Inspectors are expected to effectively communicate the results of their inspections, while conducting themselves in a professional, courteous, impartial, responsive, and cooperative manner. Note, the inspector is not the person responsible for code interpretation; that is the plans examiner. An inspector is not allowed to approve or reject the installed work, and in the event of non-conforming installations, they do not have the authority to issue a stop work order. It is their responsibility to confirm compliance or non-compliance with the approved construction documents only.

Yes, this differs from how some inspectors view their authority and responsibility. However, the rules and laws do not grant them such authority. Should an inspector observe something in the field, their obligation is to bring it to the CBO’s attention; the CBO is the only one who can take action. The inspector must be satisfied to know that they have done their due diligence in reporting their observations and offering their interpretation of the code.

Adjudication Orders

Once an inspector has made a CBO aware of a possible conflict between the inspector’s interpretation of the code and the plan examiner’s as shown on the approved documents, the CBO has to act. The CBO has a couple options to address this possible conflict:

  • Thank the inspector for bringing the issue to their attention and exercising appropriate due diligence. At that point the inspector’s involvement is complete. Unless a potential for severe injury or loss of life exists, the CBO will work with the plans examiner to ensure that this issue is addressed in future plan reviews. If there is no likelihood of injury or death, the issue would be considered closed and the work remains as shown on the approved documents.
  • Should the CBO believe that the issue does present sufficient risk of injury or possible death, the CBO will issue an adjudication order to address the issue and potential changes to the approved construction documents.

The owner has every right to construct their facility based on the approved documents without change or alteration. If the CBO issues an adjudication order, the owner has the following options to address the situation:

  • Request the design professional to review the situation and address it as necessary. This may mean that the engineer simply provides a written response to show why the design, as shown/installed, is within code compliance and justify why no change is needed. If the CBO has a valid issue of concern relating to injury or potential harm, revisions would be made by the design professional without question to update the documents and clear the adjudication order.
  • If it is agreed with the owner that this adjudication order does not rise to the level of harm, a meeting between the design team and CBO can be scheduled to discuss the issues and resolve the problem.
  • Should the design team and CBO not be able to resolve the perceived issues, the owner has a legal right to seek a code variance before the Board of Building Appeals.
  • Should the appeals board reject the appeal, but the design team and owner do not agree, they may seek judicial relief through their due process rights. This is usually a course of last resort, as it has associated costs and the potential for construction delays.

Alternative Engineered Designs

Now that we have discussed the typical administrative rules and the responsibility of the AHJ, let us return to the concept of alternate or alternative engineered design. An alternative engineered design shall conform to the intent of the provisions of the code, not necessarily the “letter” of that code, and provide an equivalent level of quality, strength, effectiveness, fire resistance, durability, and safety as compared to a conventional design. This concept has been contained within the model and other codes for many years as a means to allow for design flexibility as well as to utilize new approaches to advance the profession. The alternative design must still comply with the testing, inspection, and approval requirements mandated by code, but using alternative engineered designs allows for innovative designs and advancements in the construction process.

While the codes used to be prescriptive, in that they mandated the requirements of the design, today’s codes are more performance based. Alternative engineered designs make use of intent and performance to accomplish an innovative design to better serve the public good while minimizing overall construction costs and enhancing the owner’s vision. This approach allows the engineer to think outside of the box to achieve advancement in the profession and improved design.

This really brings clarity to the meaning of “engineered design,” as it requires the engineer to apply engineering principles to their design. It also requires the engineer to be willing to stand behind their design, documenting it for review by the AHJ. If the engineer has done their due diligence and provided sufficient documentation, the CBO will have no questions and approve the alternative engineered design, and if not the CBO will provide an additional pair of eyes on the engineer’s design and seek clarification.

The CBO is there to seek clarification of a design when the engineer has not provided sufficient supporting documentation or there is a basic lack of understanding of the documentation by the CBO. Therefore, the engineer needs to be able to support their design by clearly showing that it meets or exceeds the intent of the code while protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare. An engineered design should provide another means of addressing a design issue that advances the profession while conserving resources and minimizing costs.

Regardless of what jurisdiction one might be working in, learn and understand how the process is intended to work. The codes and the AHJ all have their beginnings in the state law. The underlying law is placed into the administrative code where it is managed and filled in by the appropriate government agency assigned protect the public. In the case of the State of Ohio, the rules come through the Department of Commerce, to the Board of Building Standards, to the Bureau of Building Code Compliance in which the CBO operates.

The administrative code establishes the rules and regulations and spells out the responsibilities and authority of all personnel under the CBO. These areas are generally not reviewed by the engineers, designers, or contractors; however, they can have a large impact if not fully understood. The same goes for chapter one of the various codes—most if not all participants in the design/construction environment have never even looked at this chapter. However, it is part of the code and therefore applicable to your work. It might be wise to review and understand it as it can make your work much easier.

Which Approach Is Right?

So which is better, conventional engineering design, using the prescriptive elements of the code, or utilizing the alternative engineered design approach that makes greater use of the performance elements of the code? The answer will depend on the design conditions one is attempting to satisfy. I make use of both in an effort to provide the client with the best design to achieve their vision, while conserving resources and advancing the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

Just remember, either approach is an engineered design as attested to by affixing one’s seal and signature. Both are subject to review and oversight by the AHJ. This authority, granted by the law, is to review and ensure that public interest is protected by meeting the intent of code. So, with either approach, the engineer needs to be prepared to provide documentation that supports the design and allows the authority to understand that the design is appropriate with the intent of the code. At the end of the day, it is the design professional and owner who hold the liability and must protect public good. It is the AHJ’s responsibility to ask questions when the design does not clearly show code compliance. It is not the authority’s place to alter or change a design, as they are not the design professional.

 So, perform your engineering in a competent manner, ensuring that it is clear on your documents, and work with the authorities having jurisdiction to protect public interest while serving the needs of your client.

David Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a Registered Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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