Monday, August 31, 2009

You can't fight city hall (but you can befriend it)

Nearly any architect I've ever spoken with has complaints and even horror stories about dealing with regulatory agencies--the building inspector that prevents the building from opening on time because of one minor infraction that wouldn't actually prevent the building from functioning properly, the plans examiner that takes six weeks to look at a seven-page set of drawings for a one-room renovation project, the health inspector that interprets an arcane piece of code differently from everyone else and creates a $100,000 headache, and so on. While these may be extreme cases of bureaucracy gone wild, it's important to remember that these folks have a real purpose. They make sure that buildings are built to code and will protect the health, safety, and welfare of their occupants and users. Having a third party to do that is one more set of eyes to catch things that sometimes even you can't check (or forget to check, which happens). A building inspector can call out a contractor on a poorly-constructed detail if you've missed it (or aren't familiar with it), and a plans examiner can catch little mistakes that you never thought about because you've been staring at your drawings for so long that everything looks right to you.

As it is with everyone you meet in work and in life, begin with the end in mind. As you begin a project, figure out the group or groups that will be inspecting your building and reviewing the plans. Often, a trip to the city or county's website to get the name of whoever runs the building department will tell you everything you need to know. Review the jurisdiction's process and find out what kind of drawings and information they want and when they want it and how long it's going to take them to get back to you. After this, you may not be sure that the building department (or fire marshall, or whoever) will even need to see your plans or inspect your project. If you're still not sure, give the building department a call and ask someone about it--you're doing an x or y project that this big; will they need to review it the plans? can you send them a PDF of the demo and new work plans and get their take on it?

Getting a cordial, professional relationship established with someone in charge at the building department so that you can ask questions and get timely answers generally smooths out the entire process. Not only can you avoid some pitfalls up front because you have the "inside scoop" on what plans examiners and building inspectors are looking for, but you also have broken down a barrier between two entities that usually end up on conflict. You are no longer "that damn architect" and "that stupid guy at the building department"; you are instead "Carrie-Ann" and "Marcus". Anytime you can make a working relationship work, based on clear and respectful communication, you make life a little easier for everyone involved.

Got a question you want answered or topic you'd like to see discussed here? Email me in the sidebar or tell me about it in the comments--thanks!

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