In my last article, I spoke about my reluctance to believe that building design and construction was the next fodder for the computer/robot industry. That being said, in recent years I have noticed a disturbing trend in the plan review process. Long gone are the famed “good ol days” that my dad spoke of where he could literally have lunch with the Springfield plan reviewer and get a permit after drawing out a few things on a napkin. (2 napkins if it was a big job).
With the litigious atmosphere that has been created in our industry, even the smallest ‘burg’ in the middle of rural nowhere knows that some sort of code needs to be enforced, at least in principle. These small towns struggle to keep the water running and to keep a meager police and fire station on the books so how can they ever afford a decent plan reviewer to use when a project of decent size comes to town. Enter the QX3000 robo reviewer. The robo reviewer is comprised of a human, age 30 to 40, who took an online plan review class. They have other remarkable qualifications such as: owning more than 6 cats, built a really large tree house when they were 11 years old – seriously it was like Donald Trump “huge”, dropped out of architecture or engineering school after one week and lastly, they watched a convenience store being constructed from the ground up (as they drove by every day on the way to their job at the Doodie Calls portable toilet company). Okay, so maybe I am a bit harsh and you can surely tell that some scarring has occurred.
The QX3000 generates no less than 4 pages of review comments like “Frost depth for this area is 30” below proposed grade” and your documents have the footings 36” deep. There is nothing wrong with what you have on the drawings but the reviewer is either too ignorant to know the intent of the code or they are just making sure that there is a lot of content in order to justify their fees. I have also had instances of plan reviewers “legislating from the bench”.
Case and Point: It was March, 2016, a dreary day – overcast, when I received a phone call. The man on the other end of the line was a one-time client for a project I could not remember. He explained that I had designed a 36’ x 72’ livestock pole barn for him a couple of months ago, (we do a lot of those – they take an hour or so to do and 98% of it is taken care of by the production people at my firm.) He said in an angry voice “I hired you to provide me with a set of documents that would meet code. The plan reviewer for our area rejected your drawings and stated that they were grossly inadequate.” After doing hundreds of structures like this over the years I was shocked. We produce a plan view that shows the layout of the columns, one crossection that shows the column embedment and how the trusses attach and lastly a framing plan with a load table and miscellaneous notes. These buildings do not have a concrete slab, windows or insulation and many do not even have walls. I had refined our drawings over the years to please just about every plan reviewer with a heartbeat so naturally I requested a copy of the review comments so that I could remedy the situation posthaste. The language of the multipage document is included below verbatim and the names have been removed to protect those with a marked propensity toward jackassery. (spoiler alert – the plan reviewer was an architect.)
Dear Mr. Miller
The submittal provided for this fire code plans review is substantially incomplete, and does not allow such a review to be completed at this time. Additional comments will very likely be required, once all the minimum required documents have been submitted. Please keep this in mind as you go through the comments below. [Section numbers in bold type referenced below are from the 2009 International Fire Code (IFC-09), unless noted otherwise):
- The Owner shall furnish a letter describing the type of operation and type/quantities of products which will be stored within the proposed building. The letter is to be on business stationery, dated and fresh-ink signed, with the project address and description of work provided in a subject line.
- The architectural work inferred in the incomplete plans submitted appears to be more than incidental to the overall project. Complete architectural plans prepared and sealed by an architect licensed in the State of Missouri must be submitted. This opinion is based on information this department has received from the Missouri Board for Architects, Professional Engineers, Professional Land Surveyors and Landscape Architects via their written responses to our specific questions, opinions rendered by the Board on construction documents from sample projects submitted by this department, and direct discussions we have had with the Board regarding their understanding of Chapter 327 RSMO
The Missouri Board’s telephone number is 573-751-0047 if you wish to contact them regarding their opinion in general about the practice of architecture and engineering or specific to this project. This department would not only welcome the Board’s opinion on this project, but would abide by any decision they might provide should you feel that we have taken inappropriate action and wish to present this project to them.
3. In the architectural sets, a code informational block is to be provided. It is to include a summarized listing of all of the fire protection and life safety features proposed for the building, such as:
a. The fire code basis-of-design enabled by ordinance and to be followed within the Fenton Fire Protection District’s jurisdiction [IFC-09 Section 105.4.4].
b. The building code basis-of-design enabled by ordinance and to be followed within the Fenton Fire Protection District’s jurisdiction [Section 102.4].
c. Number of Stories [Sections 102.4; 202].
d. Occupancy Classification. Note that if the structure or any portion of it is proposed for Storage, additional drawings and information may be required regarding the materials to be stored and the proposed areas, heights, and structures in which the identified materials are to be stored [Section 102.4; Chapters 9, 23; other sections and chapters as more drawings and data are provided];
e. Construction Type [Section 102.4];
f. Occupancy Load and supporting Calculations [Sections 1002.1; 1004; Table 1004.1.1].
Note directly on the plans the occupant load of each floor and/or space used in determining exit capacity requirements; such counts will be used for any required sign postings of maximum occupant loads in a space and/or room [Sections 1004.2].
g. A statement noting whether or not the structure is to be
suppressed/sprinklered [Sections 901.4.1; 902; 903.2].
4. Provide construction-ready architectural sets properly sealed that include site plans, floor and finish plans including any rack storage, exterior elevations, building sections, and details. Also provide life safety design in plans and other drawings as required to make clear a code-compliant – scaled, dimensioned, labeled – design and detailing of the means of egress. If there are to be stables, storage and/or other separated rooms or spaces, include their locations, dimensions, and entry/exit doors and/or openings [Sections 105.4.2; Chapters 10, 23].
5. Fire alarm and protection systems design submittal, included in the architectural sets [Sections 907; 907.1.1; 907.2]
6. In the architectural sets, provide the means for egress illumination emergency power and note that the emergency power illumination has duration of at least 60 minutes. The emergency power is to be noted in the drawings as a) storage batteries or; b) unit equipment or; c) an on-site generator [Sections 105.4.2; 604; 1006; 1006.3].
7. In the architectural sets, provide illuminated exit sign and emergency egress lights requirements and furnish plans [Sections 105.4.2; 1006; 1011].
8. A note effectively stating that, in conjunction with the Fire Inspector’s (Marshall’s) requirements, the portable fire extinguishers shall be provided in compliance with the requirements of the Code [Section 906.1].
The above comments are to be addressed in three (3) sets of addendum drawings, properly sealed, signed, and dated by the applicable Missouri registered design professional. The first sheet of each drawing set is to be fresh-ink sealed, signed, and dated, with subsequent sheets of each set bearing the mechanically reproducible seal of the Missouri registered design professional.
If you mail or send plans to the office, include the Reviewer’s Name and the Building Permit Application Number on the outside of the package or envelope. Please provide the fire plans review application number as a reference when making inquiries. Feel free to contact me by phone at ***-***-**** or by e-mail at *****@****.com if you have any questions
This letter is being e-mailed to expedite your receipt. The original letter has been mailed.
Holy Shnikies! Clearly we have a mix-up here. These buildings are Occupancy 1 – incidental occupancy where they put hay and livestock. Surely these comments were meant for another project and somehow my project was mixed-in with another…a simple 60 second phone call would surely iron all of this out! I called the number and got the Mayor’s office. They said the plan reviewer was an outside consultant and they gave me another number to call. See the transcript of phone call below:
Reviewer: Hello this is .
Me: Hello I am calling in reference to the ag building at that you recently reviewed for permit.
Reviewer: Yes, I am familiar with that project. What is your question?
Me: Well I’m afraid there has been some sort of mix-up. The comments I received appear to apply to another project.
Reviewer: I have those comments in front of me, why do think there is a mix-up?
Me: My project consists of a livestock shed and it would appear that your comments apply to a multistory, occupied structure.
Reviewer: No, these are the correct comments for the documents I received. I believe your classification of this project as Category 1 is incorrect. It should be Category II and a full architectural life safety review is needed.
Me: I’m sorry; the owner did not tell me that this building would be occupied. Can you tell me how he intends to use the building?
Reviewer: It will be a horse stable with up to 10 horses.
Me: And it has a living space or an office within the same building?
Reviewer: No, just the stables. I actually grew up in this area and I am familiar with this farm. From time-to-time they board prize winning race horses.
Me: I apologize for my ignorance but how does that qualify this building as Occupancy Category II and are you certain that this will house race horses and not just normal horses?
Reviewer: Well it is very likely that there will be high dollar horses there. In the insurance industry race horses are not considered to be livestock. They carry the same value as a human life and are not in the same category as say black angus cattle.
Me: (long pause) We have a small farm and personally we believe that ‘black angus lives matter’! (waited for a laugh that never arrived) You are an Architect, correct?
Reviewer: Yes. I am retired but I still maintain my license.
Me: I will give you one third of my entire fee if you will create the documents I need to get this processed.
Reviewer: Are you offering me a bribe!?
Me: No, I am trying to hire you. It is clear from your review letter that you will turn me in to the board if I answer or respond to any of these comments. Besides I am not sure how to specify exit signs that race horses can read or fire extinguishers that can be operated by hoofed animals.
Clearly this poor soul had worked their whole life as an architect and had been raked over the coals by one too many robo reviewers and this time VENGEANCE WOULD BE THEIRS! This is why there should be hotlines for architects and engineers to call. I am imagining a thirty minute infomercial with a sobbing Sally Strothers raising money for the trembling architects in dirty cages seen in the background and shivering engineers out in the cold.
I told the owner to respond to review comment 1 with a letter that stated that only “horses of average ability” would be kept in the building and I never heard a word from either one of them again. My greatest regret is not being able to tell the plan reviewer that my entire fee was $350.00 and so their share would be $117.00. That really brings me to the point of all this jibber jabber. The QX3000 plan reviewer, in addition to being completely ignorant of their true role in construction, has absolutely no idea how much money/profit they are costing the designer to address and research bogus comments. On top of that, when an owner sees this laundry list, we as designers lose credibility and it is completely unwarranted and unnecessary. So what is the solution – I have my thoughts but I would like to hear yours…please send your comments to email@example.com and I may pick a few to post next month. The topic next month is more technical with less ranting.
By Travis Miller