AHJs Can Make A/E/C Sing the Blues

Posted on September 30, 2010

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One of the least discussed construction industry wastes is the code and permitting process.

Design and construction professionals nationwide are at the whim of code reviewers and fire marshals (generically referred to as AHJs, Authorities Having Jurisdiction) in city or county government, who review all projects for life safety, accessibility and other, more specific, local design requirements. For military projects, there are similar reviewer gauntlet requirements set up.

This is an unfortunate procedural issue gift-wrapped with the red tape of county/city, state and occasionally federal administrative oversight.  Why the rub?  Because anything government-run is inevitably 1) not efficient, and 2) not subject to the whims of the free markets; therefore normal motivations (read:  ‘time is money’) do not apply. 

This is not something any single professional can change; it is a job for professional lobbyists and organizations. But I digress.

I think every architect, engineer and builder has at least one story about an AHJ who had an especially bizarre / unreasonable /creative / untenable /illogical interpretation of written code in one of his projects. Sure, it makes for good storytelling at the next conference, but such a cheap thrill.

Arbitrary and inaccurate code interpretations, though common and occasionally quaint, are not mere whimsy, but have real project impact. Unusual rulings take time and resources to clarify design intent (or more colloquially “fight”).  They take time waiting for comment responses and final rulings (did I mention reviewers are not exactly speedy). Unusual rulings undermine designers’ and builders’ professional reputations and expertise in the eyes of clients. They cost clients money.

In fact, AHJ interpretations are not too dissimilar to judges interpreting law—except code is not a scholarly pursuit with doctoral degrees and centuries of precedent with philosophical underpinnings rooted before the founding of our country to influential thinkers like John Locke. 

Building code, like our federal tax code, should be treated the same:  linearly with minimal human interpretation.

Unfortunately, AHJs always seem to be on the critical path:  they are the hurdle at initial permitting, and at project close-out via inspection and occupancy certificate approvals. In between, there is not much interaction from reviewers. Still, the beginning and end of projects are crucial momentum builders and killers, respectively, for all involved.

The last thing an architect or builder wants to do is explain to their client that the way they have been designing or building bathrooms for the last fifteen years is apparently not good enough for the particular individual reviewing this specific project in the code office. Then, to have to revise a design and all the systems, or tear out and rebuild until it is satisfactory (at an owner’s expense) is unfortunate. Often times A/E/C must guess at the real intent of cryptically worded responses or must resort to schedule a meeting to hash things out in person if all else fails.

This is all after a particularly protracted review process on the agency’s end:  reviewers by discipline working on their own time table with multiple sets of drawings. It is a process not aligned with the speed and fluidity of project delivery methods of today, specifically design-build and IPD. And with rules that seem out of line with the times, like 30 days notice to schedule an inspection, it is not uncommon for administrivia to eat up at least one month in project schedule, an often two or three—not an insignificant chunk of time for the building professional or owner.

There are many suggestions for fixing this process, from streamlining with more manpower, technology, automation and deadlines for action / reaction to committee decision-making and adoption of universal codes. Architects, engineers and contractors do not want anarchy and no code, just code that makes sense without requiring the patience of Buddha to persevere.

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