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The Role of the Inspector

Peter M. Vernon, ICC Master Code Professional — Hr Green, Inc.

In construction, we are continually faced with shrinking budgets, compressed schedules, and expanding scopes. These are the realities that Owners, Design Professionals, and Contractors have come to accept. So while all of this juggling to balance the differing requirements and return on investment is taking place, along comes the Inspector. 

Some common misconceptions of Inspectors are that they are going to add costs to the job, state that you’ve been doing it wrong for years, or that you can’t do it a certain way in a particular area in spite of what they are allowing in neighboring communities. While this may happen occasionally, an Inspector’s purpose is not to make things more difficult when performing their duties. When the Inspectors are doing their job, they are simply trying to ensure that safety requirements are met in accordance with the established codes and standards of their jurisdiction.

  • So, what does (or should) an Inspector do?

Let’s start by defining the role of the Inspector.  Authorities Having Jurisdiction (governmental agencies) adopt codes and standards to establish minimum levels of safety in the built environment “…the minimum requirements to provide a reasonable level of safety…to life and property from fire and other hazards attributed to the built environment…” (IBC 101.3). The code goes on to say that the Inspectors are deputies to the Building Official and that the Building Official is “authorized and DIRECTED to enforce the provisions” of the code (IBC 104.1). Therefore, the Inspectors are likewise mandated to enforce the codes.

Today, in most municipalities, as well as other governmental agencies, Building Officials and Inspectors are increasingly required to possess appropriate certification(s) from the International Code Council (ICC) in addition to years of experience in the various code disciplines.

  • What is an Inspector’s Role?

While the inspectors’ role is primarily defined as a code enforcer and regulator, it is a reasonable expectation that the responsible Inspector will also act as a facilitator to the approval process. It does not serve any purpose if project completion is unreasonably delayed. Neither does it serve any responsible purpose for an Inspector to ‘pencil-whip’ approvals.

  • Additions, Remodels and Renovation Projects

These are the most prevalent types of projects, and they tend to be the most problematic.

Existing buildings have certain standards that were applied at the time of construction. Those standards have generally been revised over the years and assuming no change of primary use, the original levels of protection cannot be reduced as a result of the new work. These requirements are part of the information that the responsible Inspector should be aware of before performing inspections. Quickly becoming familiar with the original site specific requirements is just one the challenges to being a responsible inspector. Typically it may take a few minutes longer to complete the inspection, however, the result can be a much smoother inspection and approval process.

  • Common questions asked are:
  1. Can the inspector make me upgrade everything that is pre-existing?
  2. Why can’t the Inspector just come in and look at the new work (also referred to as “inspecting with blinders on”)?

Aside from the fact that “inspecting with blinders on” would constitute malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance, (remember the Inspector is required to enforce the whole code, not just those parts which are convenient) this presents a potentially dangerous situation, rife with exposure to litigation for ALL the stakeholders.

  • When an apparently deficient existing construction condition is exposed, what does the Inspector do? 

The Inspector will investigate the items by asking:

Is the construction/installation compliant to the requirements of the time it was originally constructed?

  1. Yes – if it is intact, leave it and move on.
  2. No – Remediate by effecting repair, replacement, or removal.

If it happens that full repair/replacement can’t be completed due to schedule constraints or prohibitive first costs:

  1. Do conditions exist that could justify a deferred action or,
  2. Can a temporary repair or safing of the condition be accomplished in order to defer (for a reasonable period) expense and develop a plan to bring the condition into full compliance?

Even though it may be a pre-existing condition, once the condition is exposed, the Inspector is REQUIRED (IBC 101.3) to address the situation. The Responsible Inspector’s understanding of CODE INTENT, as well as CODE CONTENT, will go a long way in resolving these issues and, in assisting the development of a successful remediation plan (if required).

IBC Section 107.4 states “…Work shall be installed in accordance with the approved construction documents…”  In my experience, most design professionals submit documents during the first review cycle which for the most part, meet or exceed the adopted codes and standards. What IBC Section 107.4 means is that the approved documents are now the site-specific code for construction. For example, the Energy Code says in Zone 5A, the maximum U-factor (the measured rate of heat transfer) for Residential fenestrations (doors & windows) is 0.32. If the approved documents specify, say 0.29, then that is the maximum U-factor which can be installed and pass inspection. Where the approved documents are silent, the Inspector must then apply the adopted code(s). There are instances where installations are compliant to adopted code but do not match the approved documents. In these cases, the responsible Inspector should FAIL the installation UNLESS there is written approval received from the Design Professional and the Building Official. It has been my experience that this can often be accomplished while still on site without loss of schedule.

After serving in the industry 40+ years, I have never seen a ‘perfect’ set of documents. Especially in existing construction, you can’t know EVERYTHING you will encounter before the construction starts. Whether that’s unsuitable soils, water table issues, faulty wiring, missing or inadequate firestopping, budgets have limited contingencies available to address the unknown/unforeseen situations. No Owner, Designer, Contractor, or Inspector is perfect. We are all professionals and should be viewing these situations as issues to be resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible, as a TEAM, and not as an affront to our particular skills or expertise.

  • It’s About Service, Safety and Return on Investment

It’s about Owners achieving their goals and seeing the return on their investment. Whether it’s a private sector project where the returns are measured in dollars of revenue or number of customers served, or it’s a public sector project where returns are measured in residents being better protected by better equipped first responder facilities, or students succeeding in a safer learning environment, it’s the Inspector’s responsibility to assure the levels of protection in the built environment are there for public safety and welfare.

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