It’s Just Not As Simple As It Used To Be.

by Geoffrey Butler, AIA

We live in an ever more complex world now. We are more aware of the ramifications of our actions and are suffering many times for past actions of our predecessors.

In the past it was generally assumed that we lived in a world with limitless resources and whatever we, as individuals, might do would not significantly affect us, our community, the region, the world, and our kids’ future. Well, that was incorrect. The facts are that even minor things we do, when multiplied by the constantly growing population, does have major impact.

How we deal with that is creating its own set of problems. What we have seen here is that we have been creating governmental entities that are charged with protecting our resources, our health and our neighbors. This includes local building Regulation Authorities, Planning and Zoning, Health Departments, Public Works Departments, as well as State and Federal agencies. Each are charged with specific areas of responsibility and they establish rules and regulations which must be followed and the processes required for compliance can be complex and costly.

What this means for us is that what used to be a simple building process is now complex, time consuming and many times costly. As architects, it is our responsibility to assist our clients with all of these processes as we change our built environment. Whether we are designing and constructing a new building or remodeling/renovating an existing facility. We have to deal with all of the rules regulations and processes. We are now faced with multiple agency approval processes and specialized consultants who have to address specific items. This includes Civil Engineers, Environmental Consultants, GeoTechnical Engineers, Lighting Consultants, and the list goes on.

One recent example relates to asbestos. It is well known that asbestos is very bad stuff. It was eliminated from the broad list of construction materials we used back in 1978. The inventory of materials that contained asbestos took another several years to be used up. Then, we had all of the asbestos that was incorporated into buildings prior to that to deal with. In the past, the construction industry had been lax in dealing with the demolition and removal of asbestos. Some was dealt with properly and some wasn’t. We now have EPA and Missouri DNR doing a much more aggressive job in making sure that we identify asbestos in buildings that are being renovated or demolished. This requires our Department of Building Services and our Health Departments be more aggressive in this effort and they are demanding special investigations and reports prior to the start of any work (or issuance of any permits). These reports are very expensive and time consuming. Sometimes reports are requested on small remodeling projects that were recently built (no chance of asbestos being incorporated into them).

So, what does this mean for us? It means that we will see more and more time consuming processes and more costs when we build or remodel. It is not that this is bad, but it does mean that we all need to understand that building, by and large, is going to take longer to permit and cost more for the permitting. Our plans and specifications will have to include more information addressing these regulations and codes. In the past, the plans were called “construction documents” and intended to tell the general contractor what to build. Now they have become “contract documents” which include all the same things we wanted to tell the contractor about what to build but now it includes all the code compliance documentation and backup documentation relating to the governmental regulations and processes. This takes us more time and incurs more fees for our services. The special consultants required to comply with the rules and regulations are an added layer of costs. The Permitting fees are more costly as the agencies have to share to enforce the rules and regulations they created. Small projects become disproportionately expensive when these fees are added to the normal architectural and engineering fees and the actual cost of the work.

The bottom line on all of this is that all we can do is to make sure that the these agencies are responsible and reasonable in identifying things that they need to regulate and then hope that they put reasonable and practical processes and related fees in place. Our clients need to understand that, for the most part, all of these rules and regulations are in place to protect them as well as the general public. At the end of the day we need to leave something for our kids and their grandkids that is safe, well done and lasting. If it takes more effort and costs a bit more now, it might be worth it.