By Timothy Allinson, P.E.,
Murray Co., Long Beach, Calif.
Here in So Cal, as in most large cities, we have several important government agencies and private organizations that are pivotal to the operation of the design and construction industry. In our case, most jobs in the City of Los Angeles fall under the auspices of the LADBS (Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety). Exceptions include hospital work, which falls under OSHPD (Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development); public education, which falls under DSA (Division of the State Architect) and public housing, which falls under HCD (Housing and Community Development). There are some other boutique agencies as well, but those mentioned are the main entities.
Two of the more important private organizations that have influence in what we do are the CPMCA (California Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Association) and P.I.P.E. (Piping Industry Progress and Education Trust). Both of these organizations provide training for the union tradesmen and facilitate communication between union labor and management.
If you are a consulting engineer, these latter two organizations might be of little interest to you, even if you work in Southern California. But for a design-build mechanical contractor, the trade associations take on great importance (and I’m not the only one who thinks so).
Recently, I represented my company at a meeting initiated by P.I.P.E. that was held at the LADBS offices. CPMCA was in attendance, as were representatives from most of the larger design-build plumbing contractors in the greater Los Angeles area. The meeting was a “state of the industry” general affair, as well as an opportunity to spend a little “face time” with each other, ask questions, table issues and so on.
After an introduction by P.I.P.E., followed by self-introductions, we heard first from the LADBS, their general manager, chief mechanical engineer, plan checkers and inspectors. It is always interesting to hear from the AHJ about their issues and concerns.
I believe Los Angeles is fairly unique in the thorough nature of their plan review process (called Plan Check). The plan checkers thoroughly review submitted engineering documents, particularly riser diagrams. They literally check every single pipe size on all the riser diagrams in painstaking detail. This is vastly different from New York City, my former stomping ground and an interesting basis of contrast.
Sometimes a project requires that the design engineer sit shoulder to shoulder with the plan checker, reviewing all the riser diagrams, providing clarity or correction where required. On one large project, this process culminated in a month of Tuesday and Thursday afternoons of quality time with the city’s mechanical engineer before I received approval.
After plan check is complete and the permit is issued, the inspector reviews the field installation against the approved plan check set; the two must agree or a red tag will be issued. If any changes are made to the documents between the plan check approval and the field installation, the revised drawings must be resubmitted to the city or a red tag will be issued in the field.
This tight control process is very different than the process in New York City. Unless it has changed since I last worked there a dozen years ago, submitted drawings receive only a cursory review by the city, which looks for glaring code violations. Drawing submittals were predominantly intended to document the number of plumbing fixtures in order to determine the permit fee on the project. The field inspection process was even more lenient due to the creation of the self-certification process, a process necessitated by corruption discovered at the field inspection level.
Back in the mid 1990s the FBI performed a sting operation: They provided NYC cars to the plumbing inspectors, who were unaware that their cars were outfitted with video recording devices. For a period of two years, the FBI gathered evidence that proved that 19 of the 20 plumbing inspectors were accepting and/or extorting bribes. The amazing part of this story is that only a year or two prior, the elevator inspectors had been busted for the very same thing, so what made the plumbing inspectors assume that they wouldn’t get caught is hard to imagine.
After this corruption was discovered, the city instituted the self-certification process. For self-certification, a licensed plumbing contractor would alert the city that their project was ready for inspection. On the scheduled inspection date, there was a 5 percent chance that the city inspector would show up. If not, the installation was self-certified on the good faith of the contractor. This process reflected a shift in perspective that occurred in New York, the belief that the contractors were more trustworthy than the inspectors.
Why a major city like Los Angeles has not had this problem with inspection corruption is hard to say. Certainly, the LADBS inspectors are intelligent and credible, and they are surely paid commensurate with their abilities and integrity. As a side note, I heard on the news this morning that employees with the DPW (Department of Public Works) are the highest paid city employees, with an average income of $95,000 annually. Plus, they receive a lifetime pension. Surely the salaries of the LADBS staff can’t be far behind, so it stands to reason that they would not put their careers in jeopardy with the temptation of graft.
This bicoastal comparison has caused me to digress from my initial subject of industry collaboration and the LADBS meeting. To continue, the general manager presented some graphs that showed how the construction industry in Los Angeles has been on the rebound for two years. It bottomed out two years ago when all the metrics, including number of permit applications, revenue from permits and plan check fees and number of employees all hit a dramatic low after a two-year slide. For the past two years all of these metrics have been on the upswing, and the city is in the process of hiring 70 new employees for the LADBS. That’s good news for our industry.
It was interesting to hear as well from the plan checkers and inspectors. One of the prime complaints of the plan checkers was about the submission of drawings in 3D Revit format. Revit drawings are not annotated in a manner familiar to the plan checkers, and since design engineers have started submitting 3D Revit perspectives rather than traditional 2D riser diagrams, plan checkers have been struggling to make sense of the drawing submissions.
On the inspection side, the two main complaints were fixtures installed without the required IAPMO approval stamp visible anywhere to the inspector, and that often, in the field, it is apparent that the approved plan check drawings are not provided to the detailers in preparing their shop drawings, since handwritten comments on the approved set don’t make it to the final shop drawings.
There was also a brief discussion about modular toilet rooms, since they have just begun to appear in Los Angeles; a Marriott Hotel is the first such case. The city, P.I.P.E. and CPMCA all have concerns about union issues and loss of state revenue associated with the pods, but all three entities are cooperating to every extent possible, since it seems clear to all that modular construction is growing within our industry, and it is unfair to hamper that growth.
You may have similar industry collaboration occurring within your jurisdiction. I encourage you to get involved; it is an eye-opening experience that builds strong relationships. Interestingly, there were no consulting engineers present at this particular meeting, just design-build contractors. This was surely because the meeting was initiated by P.I.P.E., rather than by an engineering society such as ASPE. You should encourage your local ASPE chapter to instigate similar meetings in your area.
Timothy Allinson is a senior professional engineer with Murray Co., Mechanical Contractors, in Long Beach, Calif. He holds a bsme from Tufts University and an mba from New York University. He is a professional engineer licensed in both mechanical and fire protection engineering in various states, and is a leed accredited professional. Allinson is a past-president of aspe, both the New York and Orange County Chapters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.