The One You Love and Hate

by Maurice Levitch, AIA

Living in the same community for most of my life, I have seen some things change and many others remain the same. Being the son of an architect and builder (I choose SOA over that other popular acronym), I have had many opportunities to follow my dad around. At the building or zoning departments there was always a certain amount of tension and excitement.

Our relationships with the agencies regulating our projects have always been interesting. If you have worked in the same communities over the years you get to know those who can assist you efficiently and those who can make the process a living hell. I always knew when to step out of line for a moment when I feared I would be called to the permit counter by one particular agent, sending the next unsuspecting customer to a certain doom. One day I might be helping a client to prevent a project that would block their sunlight and view from being built, while the next day I might be trying to get another client’s second story addition approved.

While we try to be the favorite client at the building department, there is always something we want, and they have the power to give it to us – or not. Of course the formula changes from one city or one city employee to the next. Each community seems to cater to those clients whom they know and like the best and while you may be favored in one community, you may not be in another.

Seeing how a homeowner, novice, or non-local building professional is treated at your local building department is always a sobering experience. On one hand it makes me feel like the top dog, and on the other I feel sorry for them. Knowing I may be in their position elsewhere, I often try to help, if appropriate, hoping someone may do the same for me someday.

When you are the home or business owner trying to get a project approved and built, the building department can seem like your worst enemy. However, while it seems like they will do anything to prevent or delay your own project, they also have the power and obligation to prevent a disaster from being built next door to you. The building department is also there to help ensure any project is built to code (although they assume no liability if it is not).

Compared to other experiences in life and to other government agencies you may have the opportunity to deal with over the years, the building department has a major effect on your most important assets: your business and your home. It is also responsible in many ways for the overall health of your community.

In the old days the building inspectors and other staff were in front where you could see them. There was a buzz of activity, especially in the morning, with the building inspectors, contractors and homeowners arguing and pleading their cases. In those days you may have tried to build a project without a permit even though you could get one with a sketch on the back of an envelope. In one slide of my dad’s projects you can see the building permit (“posted in a conspicuous place”) so we kidded him that that was the one project for which he ever got a permit.

Embarrassed at the time, I am now proud of the fact that my dad would go to the building department in his overalls yelling and screaming to get what he wanted. Of course, he would send me up later to apologize and explain calmly what he needed. These days all I need to do if I don’t get what I want is threaten to send my dad up there. The officials laugh and ask me how he is doing and to say hello. I wonder if he was the inspiration for the prominently displayed sign at the counter warning customers to behave in a professional manner or face being removed from the building.

Disclaimer: Any events or people mentioned in this article are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual events or individuals is purely coincidental.

This article was originally published in the March 2007 issue of Builder/Architect magazine.