Perspectives from a Building Inspector


Published in the ECHO Journal, August 2008

HOA Construction Issues

In thirty years as a general contractor, a project manager and a construction manager, I have had my share of encounters with building officials in many cities around the Bay Area and beyond. I wish I could say that the encounters were always pleasant, but unfortunately they were not. Sometimes they were full of arguments and, in the end, the clients were always the ones adversely affected and ended up paying the price, subsequently placing me a position to deal with an unhappy client.

Having dealt with construction defects for some time, I have discovered the wisdom behind many of the building departments’ regulations and my clients’ frequently perceived “hardships.” Today, as construction mangers, we are diligent in the creation of construction documents as complete as possible. These documents are used as the first line of inspection to see that everything is built to code or better. Yes, even better, because using code as your guides is not always enough. Ultimately, this is my opinion and perspective as the interviewer and an active construction manger.

Over the years, I have met many excellent building inspectors but one person particularly stands out, Laurence M. Kornfield, the chief building inspector in the Technical Services Division of the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection. At a social function I asked him for an interview so that his experience could be shared with ECHO Journal readers.

Here are excerpts from that interview with Mr. Kornfield.

Hermann Novak (HN): Having spent so many years in our industry, how do you see a building today, using a comparison from when you first started in construction? In other words, when you look at a building, what does it mean to you? How does it make you feel and what does it trigger inside you?

Laurence Kornfield (LK): Interesting question. I was in Kobe, Japan in 1994 for the great earthquake of Kobe, and I had an opportunity to witness the strength of the buildings’ infrastructure perform during this earthquake. High rises would wiggle back and forth and then translate into a rotational motion and then settle down. Another building, with a clay tile roof, shook and then slid into the street. I walked around the city afterwards, wondering what the expectations of these buildings were for the people of Kobe. In months to follow, people were infuriated because they had been led to believe by the government to expect solid standard dependable building construction from the design of their buildings that was not provided. The buildings were not expected to collapse during an earthquake. The people assumed the buildings had been designed and inspected with safe fire protection. The people were undoubtedly upset and apparently had been misled about the safe design of their buildings.

HN: Having spent many years in the industry, I’m sure what you see in the industry must range from the pathetic to the excellent.

LK: Yes, there have been many big changes in building inspection since 1986. Things have changed a lot because there are twice as many building codes and even more technical regulations. We have more engineers and architects because we have higher requirements for technical knowledge, but job experience still plays a major role in making everything happen. You need to understand how to work with people, but technical knowledge is still valuable.

HN: So, what I hear you saying is that traditional craftsmanship is still essential. However, technical knowledge such as reading blueprints accurately, knowing the latest chemical reaction of caulkings, new construction materials and flashings etc. is also a very essential component. Is this correct?

LK: Yes. About 10-15 years ago when I took the ICC[1] and ICBO[2] certification exams, I suggested that all my fellow inspectors take the international exam to become certified building inspectors. Several of them took the exam and no one passed because they didn’t know the minute technical aspects of chemical components, such as the detail you just mentioned. They were surprised and I was surprised. California passed a law that requires all inspectors and plant checkers to be certified by a state or national accreditation agency; now all of our inspectors are certified inspectors or plant examiners. But I fully understand the level of details you are referring to such as product composition and how it should be used. That’s a huge change in the last 20 years.

HN: Do you see the necessity for technical knowledge in the construction industry becoming even more extensive?

LK: The requirements are increasing daily. The amount of information is endless, and things are being regulated that we never dreamed existed. People are in careers to do things that were never even imagined in our childhood days. It’s hard to even conceive the jobs that people will be doing in 20, 50, or 100 years from now.

HN: Will construction require more education?

LK: Absolutely and in some ways it’s out of respect for the people with whom I work who have a concept of what makes a good building. We also have to be aware of what people bring sociologically and psychologically from their heritages. The technical aspect is important but understanding people and their needs and what makes then comfortable are also crucial.

HN: Interesting you say that. An effective construction manager will truthfully inform a client that construction problems will surface but will also emphasize that effective people management skills can go a long way in reducing problems. Do you see that as a correct statement?

LK: The people who do well with construction projects and achieve comfortable solutions are people who built a team of people with whom they enjoy working and have confidence in that team. Team work is critical to a successful end result. It’s not always just about the cheapest, fastest, sleaziest way to get a job done. Homeowners have an impossibly hard time trying to build a team. For one thing it takes time. A team is something that you develop. Most homeowners have a hard time giving up authority because they have invested so much in their homes. They can’t leave it to others to solve it for them.

HN: I want to be careful in what I’m going to say: Do you see homeowners being a part of the problem when bad and defective construction occurs? And having asked this, may I also ask how can homeowners get better work done? From your point of view what do they need to do and how can they change their behavior?

LK: Every couple of years we do a videotape on “How Do You Get A Successful Construction Project Done?” First and foremost is to have realistic expectations. Most homeowners know what they want the finish project to look like, but they don’t know the details of product durability, cost of future repairs, and maintenance that may be necessary. We need to advise homeowners of the reasonable expectations of the product performance.  Basically, most homeowners are more interested in the way it looks and not how it’s built, maintained or how durable it is. So what would really be helpful to homeowners is having a professional such as an architect help them identify reasonable expectations, costs and maintenance.

HN: Do you like construction managers, often referred to by clients as the threaded middle layer?

LK: Yes, I think they are almost essential. People tend to say it is a middle layer and that they add confusion. Then, on the other hand, you have the homeowner saying, “Do I need to get a permit?” I respond by telling the homeowner, “I have a 2200 page building code and you also need the planning code and a public works code.” The homeowner doesn’t want to become an expert in this. I tell them to get back to what they do best—financial management, dentistry, or whatever it is. Don’t try to become a construction expert. The same is true in the construction world; very few contractors can be expected to be advocates for the person for whom they are working. In the best world, the contractor is the one who gets the job done to the homeowner’s satisfaction and makes the homeowner happy. One big problem with residential construction is the homeowner thinks that the contractors have expertise with all sorts of problems. Or the homeowner relies on friends, family and unlicensed professionals; only heaven can help when this happens. So you really do need the construction management layer or some other professional such as a design person, construction manager or engineer.

HN: And there are very few who are great contractors and also great designers. I have only met several in my thirty plus years in the construction business.

LK: That’s right and that is more than I have met. They don’t have a lot of detail. Their job is to rely on someone else to tell them what to do. They are technicians. The lines between professional and technical work seem to blur. But basically a professional person is someone who has a lot of technical knowledge with a breath of understanding so they can make a judgment call. Building inspectors are technicians. For years, we gave them a lot of discretion to work with the building owners in the field to solve problems.

HN: The professional persons you are referring to are the project and construction managers, architects, engineers, contractors and building inspectors.

LK: Yes

HN: Thank you for your good comments


I hope that you have gained knowledge from one of the Bay Area’s important city officials by listening to his point of view based on his extensive work experience in the construction industry and the rapidly rising requirements for extensive product knowledge, system and technical knowledge required in the construction industry today.

After all it is you, the volunteer Director, who represents the HOA community and has to make the decision on how your ongoing maintenance and the major construction needs of your complex will be planned, executed and maintained.

[1] The International Code Council, a membership association dedicated to building safety and fire prevention, develops the codes used to construct residential and commercial buildings, including homes and schools. Most U.S. cities, counties and states that adopt codes choose the International Codes developed by the International Code Council.

[2] The International Conference of Building Officials publishes the family of Uniform Codes, each correlated with the Uniform Building Code to provide jurisdictions with a complete set of building-related regulations for adoption. Thirteen Uniform Codes cover all aspects of safe and efficient building construction, maintenance, and decommissioning of public and private buildings.

Hermann Novak is the President of Bayridge Group Inc. a Construction Management firm in the Bay Area. He has over 25 years of experience in the architectural, engineering and construction world. He is a licensed general contractor, a certified mediator and a director on the board of the American Institute of Ethics.