In a persistently anemic economy, some developers say city government is making the already cumbersome process of downtown development even harder.
“It’s so difficult that, even though I love to revitalize and build new things, I don’t know if I have the stomach to go through another ordeal with the building department,” says Leigh Burch, who developed the Sterchi Lofts, among others. He recently completed the Commerce Building, and says that project was “not twice as difficult. It was three or four times more difficult to build than the Lerner Building was, say, five years ago.”
Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, says while there’s always a natural tension that exists between builders and inspectors, of late she’s been hearing similar complaints with greater frequency. “Even the guys who have a good track record with development, of doing safe buildings and doing a good job, are having a tougher time,” Trent says. “And with this economy, gosh! You want to try to make it as easy as possible.”
So what explains the shift?
“I guess the biggest change is we’ve had a change in building codes in the last couple of years,” says Gary Norman, the city’s inspections director. On Dec. 1, 2007, the city switched from the Standard Building Code to the International Building Code in response to a state adoption.
Norman says the change has been “one of the hardest we’ll ever have to go through,” adding that the adjustment could result in some inconsistent enforcement. But, he adds, “I’m not going to say they’re more stringent,” explaining that with any new set of codes there will be areas where one system seems more rigid and others seem less so. For example, he says, the IBC requires more sprinkler systems but lower fire-proof ratings for walls.
Outside the new code, there’s the question of personnel. Trent says good relationships between developers and inspectors are important because they allow them to build trust and work toward common goals.
This has been sorely lacking, according to Burch. “Basically, they have been too rigid with maintaining the codes,” Burch says in an e-mail. “In the good ole days, [the building and fire] departments ‘worked with’ you a little bit; now it is a unilateral ‘do it exactly like it says in the book’...tear out these staircases because the rise or the run are off by 3/8”, etc., etc., Hard core, nit-picking, no sense of the economic strain put on us as developers...the economic hardship from making ridiculous changes.”
Norman does say there has been some turnover in his department and that “there are times when things are interpreted differently by an inspector. You know, everybody’s got some things that they think are more important, which can result in some inconsistencies in the enforcement.” But he says there are processes by which developers can appeal these decisions, and that “we’re making more effort to try to be consistent with the enforcement. And as far as the code adoption process goes, we don’t really have a lot of places to go.”
Trent says there’s a balance to be struck. “You have on one side developers, who are natural risk-takers. They want to make a profit and they love what they do,” Trent says. “On the other side, you’ve got people who are charged with keeping people from being killed and keeping people safe. And they have a personal liability at stake. So I think that’s a recipe for tension, and I think it’s probably good to have it.”
Turn and Face the Strain
While the adoption of a new code may partially explain the rise in tension between developers and building inspectors, the same cannot be said for tensions with the fire department.
That’s because when the building department made its switch two years ago, the fire department decided not to adopt the companion document to the IBC, the International Fire Code. Instead, it opted to use the newest edition of its long-standing code, the National Fire Protection Agency 101, or NFPA 101. Norman says he believes this is likely the primary source of frustration for developers.
Fire Inspector Sonny Partin says there were a couple of reasons for sticking with the status quo.
One is that adopting the new code would be hard. “The NFPA 101 is a code that we’re familiar with, that we have actually inspected buildings for the last 30 years to that code. And to change—we saw a real problem with that as far as existing buildings and new buildings and the mix that would come, between having existing buildings [that] would need to be reinspected to 101, new buildings being inspected to the International Fire Code,” Partin says. There would also be new training and new manuals to purchase, Partin says.
Buzz Goss, a developer now working on the Marble Alley project, says he understands this but that the responsibility should be internalized by the city bureaucracy rather than placed on developers. He says the fire department should move to adopt the IFC.
“I personally think that that’s probably the right solution in the long run, so that they streamline the process and work consistently with one another,” Goss says.
An example helps illustrate the current conflict that results from the two systems. As stated above, Norman says the IBC calls for more sprinkler installations but offsets this by allowing walls to be less fire resistant, to have lower “ratings.” So under the IBC, a wall between a commercial space and a residential one should have an “hour separation,” meaning the wall could withstand one hour of fire exposure. Meanwhile, the current fire department code requires a two-hour separation for the wall, so it would be incumbent upon the builder to know the difference and honor the higher standard. But both standards are not necessary.
Partin dismisses this as a significant problem. “It’s not that big of an issue. You just look at the most restrictive and design it to the most restrictive,” he says.
“As long as you have the [NFPA] book, you would know what it says. You would look at that occupancy and determine what needs to be done,” Partin says. He further argues that even if the fire department adopted the International Fire Code to complement the building code, “you still have two books that you have to make sure you look at.”
But the International Building Code and International Fire Code were written as companion documents, so there is far greater consistency between them than between the NFPA and International Building Code.
Another reason for not switching to the IFC, Partin says, is that, at the time, the state used the NFPA 101. “So we felt like that was the best option because we deal closely with them on a lot of projects,” Partin says.
But since then, the state has adopted both the NFPA and International Fire Code, giving fire departments the option to use either.
Still, Partin says the fire department has no plans to adopt the International Fire Code unless the state makes a move to do the same. “If that situation came up, we would evaluate at that time what’s best for the city, and where the county is, where the city is, because we want consistency. And we feel like that is a safer situation when you have consistency with municipalities that work so closely together,” Partin says. He says it looks likely the county and state are moving to adopt the IFC, and that when the time comes his department will “definitely consider it.”
“We see a good system that’s in place,” Partin says.
Inspecto Ergo Sum
There’s a difference in philosophy between these two codes, the International Fire Code and the NFPA. The IFC is designed to evacuate a building as quickly as possible, whereas the NFPA attempts to also preserve the integrity of the building for the firefighters who must then enter it to extinguish the blaze. This, along with other NFPA standards, contributes to a feeling that the NFPA is more of a firefighters’ code than the IFC.
“Is it superior? It’s different. We feel like it is, personally, just because its a code we’re familiar with and we feel does what it’s supposed to do and keeps people safe,” Partin says, adding that he doesn’t feel comfortable saying outright that the NFPA is superior without knowing more about the International Fire Code.
So on the one hand, Partin says the differences between the two codes are not so great as to warrant his department’s adoption of the IFC—although he says he hasn’t looked at it closely enough to know for certain. On the other hand, he says adopting the new code would require too much work for his department and inspectors.
But if the county and state are moving towards adopting the IFC, and when they do the city will comply, then the only difference is who deals with the headache in the interim.