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Building Permits

2011-11-30 18:56:55.457542+00 by Dan Lyke 4 comments

I was in the Petaluma Community Development Department Building Division office yesterday, picking up my permit for my electrical work (and I'm now home waiting for my framing inspection). While I was there, a contractor came in asking questions about a deck rebuild. The questions were two-fold:

  • What does the Building Division want to issue the permit (to-scale drawings, paper size doesn't matter). I kind of thought a contractor would know this, but I guess if you've been doing bathroom remodels or something non-structural you might not know.
  • What are the criteria the building department is using to approve the structure described in those plans.

I don't remember the exact words, but both the nature of the question and the response to the second portion of that has me pondering things. Petaluma has developed a reputation for being "building unfriendly", and I'm trying to understand that. I've had relatively good relations with the Building Division, once we got over the initial "I don't understand your building", but I'm puzzled on two fronts.

The first is that the contractor doesn't right off the top of his head think "what, beyond 40 lbs/sq.ft. for the deck load, with additional capacities for hot tubs or special fixtures, need to be accounted for when figuring out if the existing piers will have a suitable lbs/sq.in. loading for the soil type at the construction type?". That suggests to me that something in our contractor licensing system is broken, and we've given up even the pretence of contractor-ship being about anything but limiting the practitioners.

The second is that the authorities in question, from the Petaluma folks to the Sonoma folks to the California building code and contractor's licensing authorities, don't clearly lay out the requirements. I mean, sure, you can dig through the code, but the reality is that the building department is looking for "does this look right?", and that simplified high level view of the code is all lore.

So rather than being confident that whatever he comes up with is sufficient, or even being told that he should run it by an engineer, our hapless contractor is going to draw up something that looks kinda like what was there with no idea as to whether the building department will say "okay". If the building department doesn't okay it, it'll get passed back, but even if they tell him to go find an engineer, nobody really has an objective view of what the deciding factors are.

If the city had maps of "this is what we think the soil is like in these parts of town, these are acceptable PSI footing/foundation loadings for these soils, we still reserve the rights to ask for engineering tests", then this contractor could say "40 lbs/sq.ft. plus 10 lbs/sq.ft. for materials, existing footings look like they've got this footprint", there are probably many hours of city staff time that could be averted, and the city would still have the ability to step in and require more when people weren't willing to just go 2x the acceptable limits 'cause it's cheaper to do that than pay for engineering (ie: big projects).

Instead we've got this nebulous world where nobody's sure what the other side wants, and it all becomes "well, I've done the familiar before". And we don't have the chance to advance the state of the art.

[ related topics: Interactive Drama Nature and environment Work, productivity and environment Art & Culture Civil Liberties California Culture Machinery Community Fabrication Maps and Mapping Model Building ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2011-11-30 21:08:31.527574+00 by: meuon [edit history]

Having spent a lot of time working with licensed union/non-union tradesmen, I'll swag that 75% only know what they know as lore, and only got licensed because they knew someone and could cram enough (temporarily) into their head to pass some ridiculously easy test. I almost got a contractors license for a project once. In studying the test (I never took it) is was almost all bookkeeping and just a smidgen of; Can you read a basic blueprint?

There's a 10% wannabe better and working for it crowd, and 15% of the some most amazing competent people on the planet.

It's why NFPA fire/life safety trainnig materials have to explicitly put in their training materials: Do not test the circuit with your tongue.

Marching morons and trained monkeys are a large percentage of the world.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-12-01 03:58:41.007523+00 by: markd

"I kind of thought a contractor would know this" - That would come as no surprise in my neck of the woods (western PA on the outskirts of Pittsburgh) where there are hundreds of little municipalities, each with their own requirements. In Gilpin Township our friends basically needed no permits or inspections, and back of an envelope sketches to do some serious home renovation.

Five miles away in Allegheney Township, turning our garage into a craft studio required architect's drawings (and it just so happened the township guy had a relative that could do the drawings. Nepotismal graft and corruption is rampant), filing of plans, a multi-stage approval workflow, and a property survey (!)

#Comment Re: made: 2011-12-01 12:30:35.905799+00 by: meuon

Mark, if the world knew how many things I've done without pulling a permit... And I've only had one issue with an inspector, ever. and that was because the new overhang over the sidewalk on the building on East Main street was "permaanent" over the cities sidewalk. An "Air Space" violation. And a quick trip to the mayors office got me an exception.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-12-01 16:35:01.153138+00 by: markd

Heh. This time we couldn't hide it because our house faces a major road, and we bricked up the garages in the process.