BUREAUCRACY (almost spells: Bureau-crazy) by S. Joshua Brincko

This is what an architect's stamp looks like in Washington. After 6 years of architecture school, 3+ years of interning, passing 9 state board exams, reciting all professional codes, and visiting your local stamp store, you can buy one! (or you could probably forego all of that and just buy one)

This is what an architect's stamp looks like in Washington. After 6 years of architecture school, 3+ years of interning, passing 9 state board exams, reciting all professional codes, and visiting your local stamp store, you can buy one! (or you could probably forego all of that and just buy one)

City of Kent, eventful experience with the building department

While attempting to do some good for a non-profit, the City of Kent Building Department made the simple task of permitting the installation of storage shelves in an existing warehouse into quite a debacle. One of the nation's largest non-profit charities chose the City of Kent to collect donations for underprivileged communities, and the city neglected to see the positive effects this could bring to their municipality. The plans were professionally prepared by a licensed architect and licensed engineer to ensure the storage racks would be installed safely and meet applicable seismic and fire codes for the safety of the building occupants, so there is no valid reason to unjustifiably scrutinize such a project.

(This is what I communicated to the City of Kent, Feb 2015): There is no justification for you to deny the acceptance of drawings because the 3 required copies are not on the same brand of paper. One copy is on regular white 28 lbs bond paper, and the others are on white 24 lbs bond paper. It is all the same white paper, and you have no authority to make an applicant reprint the drawings on the same paper weight. There is no codified ordinance that requires this. Furthermore, you cannot claim the State of Washington requires you to deny acceptance of drawings because an architect's stamp was electronically printed on each of these papers instead of "wet stamped." This is an archaic formality that is no longer applicable, and the Revised Code of Washington has allowed copies of architects' and engineers' seals per RCW 18.43.070 for quite some time. (Somehow I cited this off the top of my head because of the significance it has in my line of work - imagine no longer needing to stamp and autograph 3 copies of a set of drawings with 100 sheets in the set.) Most building departments no longer require printing of plans in the first place because they want to reduce the carbon footprint of extraneous paper and unnecessary trips to their office. Government agencies should be on the forefront of sustainable practices and embrace the technology of electronic submittals to help our environment and speed up the process of approvals which in turn helps the growth of our economies. 

The building department should focus on their true role of analyzing plans for their content, not the invented problems of whether or not a stamp was photocopied on a type of paper that is not their favorite paper weight. Hard to believe this really happened, but I did convince the City's reviewers to review the plans after unnecessary pleading and reasoning. These types of things happen all too often, and it is really unfortunate that some bureaucrats think it is acceptable to waste people's time and affect their livelihood. Building construction and property is an expensive endeavor, and delays are extraordinarily costly. There is no reason paper choice needs to contribute to these costs. If you ever hire an architect, this is why it's so hard to hire them for a fixed fee. We fight on your behalf to ensure your project moves forward as quickly as possible, and there is no way for an architect to predict these outrageous circumstances ahead of time. In this circumstance, I estimate my diligence saved my client a few thousand dollars that they can now spend on benefiting the underprivileged populations they serve. I shouldn't need to "save" my clients money though. The building department should look at the bigger picture instead of focusing on irrelevant factors unrelated to their job description. This is a waste of tax payers' dollars and fees when we are subjected to paying for unnecessary requests.

The building department plays a very important role in protecting the safety of building occupants, but these types of behaviors undermine their importance and relevance. Architects and engineers are extraordinarily educated and experienced professionals that are regulated by state boards, and they take their jobs very seriously. We respect the role of building departments and welcome their productive input that contributes to the well-being of our projects.

FOLLOW-UP: The next day I received a phone call from the fire marshal. From the start of the conversation, it immediately sounded like he was trying to stall the "project." (I put project in quotes because I was just helping a non-profit move their donated items from shelves in one warehouse to another warehouse - not much of a project, but happy to help.) The fire marshal asked me if the items to be donated would be "encapsulated." I replied "there's a chance, but I don't know how the non-profit receives or stores their donated toys/goods. Some items may be boxed, some might be wrapped...I just don't have control over the way people donate items to charity." The fire marshal remarked that he would have to put the project approvals on hold until we know for sure. Since I know it is not possible to look into the future and ask future donors how they intend to donate their used items, I had to interject. It is not a matter of answering the question, but rather providing a requirement for facility operations. I pleaded, "how do YOU want the items stored? We can require the non-profit to store their donations to meet your recommendation. If you delay the project, there is too big of a financial burden on the non-profit due to lease agreements, moving arrangements, and so forth." The fire marshal reluctantly said he would allow the project to proceed if the donated items were not shrink wrapped since the shrink wrapping would cause the existing fire sprinkler system to be less effective. Fair enough. Everyone is OK with this. The approval process should not be focused on stopping or slowing down projects. The bureaucrats should be honored to be part of such a good cause and positive development within their community. Since they are the expert authorities on building code issues, they should offer their expertise to team up with the community to offer possible SOLUTIONS instead of creating unnecessary road blocks.

UPDATE: The fire marshal called back a few minutes later. Again, he had the tone of postponing the project for two reasons. 1: He did not have structural engineering drawings. The day before, I gave the building department 3 copies (as required) of structural drawings and calculations (stamped by a licensed engineer), so he should have had access to those. I requested he check with his co-workers before postponing the project. 2: He did not want to allow the project to proceed because he did not know the height of the storage racks. I guided him to the 1st page of the drawing set that shows the only drawing of the storage racks. It clearly indicated a 12' height, but his concern was the ceiling clearance above the rack. He wanted to be sure the items stored on the rack would not come within 2' of the fire sprinkler heads on the ceiling. I assured him the ceilings in the warehouse are quite high, and there would be several feet between the donated items on the top shelf of the rack and the sprinkler heads above. He asked how I could be sure since he didn't know the size of the items to be stored on the top shelf of the rack. I told him, "nobody could ever be sure or have total control over the items to be stored on the rack, but we could inform the non-profit to never store anything within 2' of a sprinkler head." He was uneasy since I did not know exactly what donated items would be stored on the rack in the future. I told him it would depend on the generosity of the people in his community throughout the years. Some people may donate bikes while others may donate dolls or maybe even doll houses. A toy giraffe could be an issue because of such a long neck. Again, with a reluctant tone, he decided he would move his review process ahead since we agreed the items would not be within 2' of the sprinklers. Rather than immediately taking a stance to delay the project, he would be well advised to offer acceptable solutions which in turn would benefit his community on many levels.

Why do building departments delay? There are likely many reasons, but one may be due to the financial incentive caused by delays. They collect an "intake fee" to simply take your drawings. Next they charge a "review fee" to cover the hours they spend reviewing the drawings. If they need more information, they issue a notice requesting that information, and the architect needs to pickup the drawings, revise them, resubmit, and the process starts over with additional fees. The more times the building department can get the applicant to re-submit drawings (due to paper color, stamps, or boxing methods, for example), the more chances they have to invoice the occupant for more time. As a business owner, I understand that you need to bill for your time to cover business operating expenses, but it should be done in an ethical manner. It should also be done in a way that keeps the goal in mind: keep building occupants safe. Delays due to paper color do not keep anyone safe - in this case, it prevents generous citizens from donating gift items to their community.