Potential clients call to discuss their projects on a routine basis. Most of the conversations are similar. They almost always ask about experience, timing and pricing. Often, people who have had prior experience with their local Building Officials would ask some form of this question:
“Have you ever dealt with the AnyCity, USA building department? They can be especially difficult.”
Architects and Engineers shouldn’t be surprised to hear my standard response to this question. They are probably in major agreement with my sentiment. However, clients do seem surprised when I say:
“All jurisdictions have their quirks. Most are not a big deal.”
We are proud to say that most of our projects sail through the Building Departments with no comment or objection from the Building Officials. With that in mind, over the course of the past two years my mind has been changed about certain Building Departments. Within this post, I am probably going to reveal thoughts that dwell deep within the minds of other Architects that are not spoken to most non-architect types.
The Role of the Building Official
Recently it seems that the interpretations of the Building Codes are seemingly more and more inconsistent from one jurisdiction to the next. Even worse than inconsistent – some Plan Examiners are down right unreasonable. We appreciate the role of the Building Official. A good one can protect us and our clients from . They can also help to ensure that our design properly accommodates the needs of the disabled that need access to the spaces that we create.
A brief job description for a Plan Examiner will help to provide an understanding of what should happen, and serve as a contrast for what actually happens.
When the drawings and specifications are complete, signed and sealed they are ready for permit review. Next, a permit review application is filled out and the application package is prepared for submission to the Building Department. When the package is delivered to the building department with a check, intake staff reviews the package to ensure that the package is complete. Depending on the project, the review is routed to through the various reviewing departments, each with their own Plan Examiners. The reviewing departments are tasked with reviewing our plans and application of the relevant code sections to ensure that they are generally consistent with the language in the applicable codes.
The Process Seems to be Objective and Simple.
It isn’t. I have gathered some real life examples here from my friends in the Design and Construction community for your entertainment and enlightenment.
Examiner – You need to provide a fire rating for this corridor.
Architect – The Building Code doesn’t require a fire rating here.
Examiner – It used to
Examiner – Please describe the scope of work for the mechanical and plumbing system.
Architect – The description of work on the drawing states that there is no mechanical or plumbing work in this project.
Examiner – We need a drawing of the systems to show that there is no work.
Examiner – We cannot accept your drawings.
Architect – Why not?
Examiner – The drawings are rolled and not folded.
Examiner fails drawings noting that the font is less than 1/8″ in height.
Examiner fails drawings noting that a scale drawing of the specified nail sizes is required.
Examiner rejects waterless urinals citing job security for plumbers.
What do you do?
Applicants can’t do much without the will to stand their ground. Most supervisors will defer to the examiner. Department heads defer citing their lack of licensing to interpret code. Clients want speedy resolutions and are unwilling to navigate the appeal process with their Architect. The Building Departments win by default.
I have chosen some of the more light-hearted examples to use here. Hopefully it is obvious that the items of disagreement can be far more severe, expensive, and time consuming.
The bottom line is that we want you to know that the process involves humans and their individual personalities. Responses can be unpredictable.
We would love to hear about your permitting experiences. Feel free to comment below to tell us your stories.