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[SEAOC] Re: [SEAOC] Re: [SEAOC] BORPELS May annual report.

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Tom Harris wrote on May 26th:

>>I received the CA Board of Registration for P.E.s and L.S.s 
>>(BORPELS) May annual report, that i assume is mailed to all CA 
>>engineers. Page 7 is interesting. If plan checks are "engineering 
>>reports " should they be stamped and signed ? What are your 
>>thoughts ?
>>
>>Here in Ventura county i don't believe Ojai and Fillmore (heavily
>>damaged in N.R. earthquake ) have engineers on staff. I imagine 
>>this law is broken on a widespread basis in other small cities 
>>throughout the state.  Is this an opportunity to promote 
>>engineering and make buildings safer ? What are your thoughts?


Terry Weatherby wrote on May 28th:

>Of our local Bldg. depts. only one has an engineer "on staff" 
>while a couple use plan check services (RSM and Associates, 
>Willdan). One local bldg. official told me BORPELS told them at an 
>ICBO member that they "recognize" the hardship on local 
>jurisdictions and won't enforce that provision of requiring a 
>licensed engineer to review licensed engineering work. He told me 
>they won't have anyone for "a while". A couple of the local
>cities use their public works engineers in that capacity.
>
>After a couple of experiences educating these public works  
>engineers on structural work, I'm not sure this is a good 
>requirement. We'll just have to wait and see.

There is a definition problem here that has confused even the 
BORPELS legal counsel.  Plan checking is, of course, not design 
work.  But it also is not a peer review which evaluates how well the 
structure will perform and meet the owner's requirements.  It is a 
code compliance review.  Code compliance determinations often 
require little or no use of professional judgment.  It's been 
observed, accurately, that a building can be designed that meets 
code but will perform poorly and/or not meet the owner's goals.  And 
the building department will issue a permit for it!  The reason is 
that most code requirements are prescriptive in nature, and once 
these are met, the building official has a ministerial duty (legal 
mandate) to issue the permit.  It doesn't matter if the plan checker 
or building official believes the code may have inadequately 
addressed an engineering aspect of the submitted design.  That's a 
situation to be corrected through the code development process, 
which SEAOC can and does actively participate in.

Let's look at what a code-compliance review is.  If the design 
engineer sized the roof framing for the uniform roof loading 
required by the code, and the plan checker noticed that some  
roof-mounted HVAC equipment appeared unaccounted for in the 
calculations, a punch list item sent to the engineer along the lines 
of "roof framing supporting HVAC is overstressed", or "account for 
weight of HVAC in roof design" is not engineering design or an 
"engineering report".  It expresses no professional opinion.  The 
checker is merely requiring compliance, or verification, with 
allowable stresses in the code.  If the checker, instead, used a red 
pen to cross out the size of a framing member and write in a larger 
size, then I would agree that BORPELS's interpretation has some 
grounds.  Most building departments have had longstanding policies 
against such redmarking practices on structural components, and I 
suspect any that still don't soon will adopt one in light of the 
misinterpretation by BORPELS.  BTW, the "recognition" referred to in 
Weatherby's e-mail was made by a State Deputy AG at the annual CALBO 
meeting last February.  I talked with her after her presentation, 
and she agreed my point above has merit.

Don't get me wrong - I am not suggesting that structures of 
significant size or complexity be checked by plan checkers who are 
not engineers.  There are many situations, especially those 
involving modifications of existing buildings, where the codes 
cannot draw bright lines delineating code compliance.  And I don't 
think that is happening to any extent.  Most building officials have 
a feel for when a set of plans should get an engineering code 
compliance review and, if in-house staff is not available, will send 
it out to a private firm in the plan check business, or to ICBO.  
But not every structure that now requires a licensed architect or 
engineer to design needs a plan check by an enginer.  We have to 
keep in mind that the shrinkage of non-exempt buildings in recent 
times more reflects successful efforts by design professionals to 
expand their turf, than to demonstrated need.  From the point of 
view of protecting public safety, it's arguable that the value added 
by the involvement of an architect (or engineer) is not 
cost-effective on a 5-unit, 2-story, wood-frame townhouse building.  
Such a building is no more complex than 5 row houses with zero side 
yards.  Yet, this building is no longer exempt from the Architect's 
Act as now codified in the B&P Code.  I have no concerns over my 
counter techs doing code compliance reviews, including structural, 
for such a building.  Adding to my point, in the recent spate of 
e-mails on this mail server on conventional framing, some laments 
were expressed that the new prescriptive provisions in 2326 will 
allow more contractors and owners to bypass engineers and draw their 
own plans.  In my opinion, and considering the historical 
performance of 2326 (nee 2517) buildings, that's as it should be in 
most cases.

Final parting thought:  Structural code compliance review probably 
accounts for less than 20% of the review work/time, and it's not 
surprising that building officials at times don't give it the 
resources and priority that engineers believe this activity 
deserves.  The structural chapters account for less than 10% of the 
pages of all the model codes, plus Title 24, that building 
departments are charged with enforcing.  Just one example: 
determining whether the types and quantities of hazardous materials 
(and it may surprise readers how broad this term is) used or stored 
in a proposed building or tenant improvement will require a 
State-mandated Risk Management Prevention Plan, and if so, whether 
the RMPP must be approved before permit issuance, or can wait until 
final inspection.  At times, it would be helpful if the checker had 
majored in chemistry.  As further examples, readers undoubtedly have 
been affected by the voluminous energy conservation and 
accessibility requirements in Title 24 that building departments 
must check for.  Building departments are audited and graded on the 
levels of committment and enforcement of these provisions by State 
agencies and by interested citizens.  Building officials 
understandably give significant focus to these two areas, sometimes 
at the expense of other areas such as structural/seismic reviews.

Franklin Lew, SE
Building Official


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