Code Du Jour

As part of the process of getting a design permitted in just about any city, the building department reviews the plans.  In the San Francisco Bay area, it has become a method of saving money by each jurisdiction to have outside “third-party” reviewers do the work and bill it to the applicant. In fact it has become pretty big business. It has also become a fashion among third party reviewers to include comments on reviews that compel architects to include notes, specifications and directions to contractors that are pretty much direct quotes of current state building code. I have been told by multiple plan reviewers that such comments are pretty much an attempt by each city or jurisdiction (i.e. Building Department head) to get contractors to pay attention to new code. Including additional educational code elements in drawings incurs a kind of unwarranted tax on applicants.

However, the vehicle they use to advance this agenda is funded by the applicants, under the aegis of code compliance. If the applicant does not make said changes, they will not receive a building permit. In other words, the cities are using the building application process as a means for educating contractors, billing the applicants for it, rather than just issuing communication by some other means. This has become an ever expanding litany of absurd requests by reviewers, since they get paid for the hours they spend enforcing this education process.

In my opinion, the goal of an architect is to provide the city with plans that when reviewed; do not require any comments or corrections.

Aside from the occasional mistake which I would expect the city to question, how are we supposed to know what the reviewer or city is choosing to emphasize at this moment ahead of time?  We all know that each project presents both standard issues and specific site related conditions.

The Code du Jour issue presents a new component to review. It provides a way for third party reviewers to always justify billed time on review when such educational issues should be handled in a different venue.

The infuriating aspect is that we get back plan review comments that request that we include California code in our drawings, rather than drawings that comply. The purpose of having a standard code is that all participants are supposed to know and comply with said code without having to constantly issue copies of said code to all participants. So when we say that the drawings use CBC 2007 and all other code types and trades, it is short hand for including 14 volumes of code with every drawing.

The purpose of hiring a certified and bonded electrician is that they will look a the plans, see an electrical outlet near a bathroom basin and be certified to know that they are to have it within 36 inches at a particular height without having the architectural plans tell them so. That’s how it is supposed to work.  As soon as you start requiring more and more code to be repeated in the plan set, it both burdens the Architect with more back and forth with the reviewers, burdens the clients with more cost, and lowers the bar for the electricians and degrades the expectation of craftsmanship and quality.

Ultimately, it’s more of a choice about who you’re paying, for what and how much of it is redundant.  There are plenty of circumstances where review comments are necessary, but I think the goal of a smooth and predictable process has gotten lost. The cities seem to think they have the right to choose where you spend your money and why in this process. Rather than spend it on educated craftsman, you’re putting more money on plan review so that the builder can take less responsibility for knowing their trade and the code pertaining to it.

My current solution: publish something that can be included by the city in the plans when they go out to the jobsite, but don’t have us do it unless you want to hold hearings and have the public make the choice.  I welcome your comments and suggestions on how we can resolve this.

Another topic I would like to expand upon is the fee structure that cities have continued to use and abuse. It may seem fair to have those who are doing new work to pay for the review of such work. However, the problem with such fees is that the city staff and administrators choose what you pay, not the taxpayer or citizen. Therefore you are forced to pay without a voice as to what is reasonable. This is a great example of what you need to pay attention to as a citizen (even if you don’t plan to remodel or build), but would not know since such issues are not real attention grabbers.