Ask the Architect

Do we need steel beams?


Q. We’re starting an addition, getting estimates from several contractors. Some told us we wouldn’t have to wait for the permit to be approved (it has been six months since it was turned in). Some said that we could save money substituting steel beams with stronger wooden ones, called “lams.” They told us that, traditionally, this is done without a problem or discussion with our architect, just the building inspector, who accepts and approves the work, not the architect. Is this true, and will it save money? The job is going to cost much more than we thought, and anything will help.

A. Everything you asked about is a lie. Not waiting for the permit is a bad idea, fraught with homeowner liability if anything goes wrong, from an onsite worker injury, to a fire, to incorrect work that gets hidden before an inspection. Like the insurance commercial says, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve seen all of them. When it does, your contractor gets to sit back and watch you, the homeowner, absorb the loss.

Last week, for example, like most weeks, I stopped by a construction site and saw the wrong beams being installed. The owner was home, so I showed them. They seemed protective of the decision, accepting that the framers could continue. After all, the framer assured us he could keep going, substituting the right beam later. With hundreds of nails in that beam, it was never coming out. I had no choice but to stop the work.

The owner wondered why I was so adamant. I explained that in a high wind (which happened two days later) the framing could come apart. Not imagining that high winds occur often, the contractor called, making his case and telling me that, “traditionally,” this kind of beam is used “all the time.” Every construction job is different — custom, if you will — and I had to tell him the beam wasn’t the right one, and I couldn’t accept it.

He alluded to the fact that he knew the inspector, and he would have no problem with the beam — another poor assumption. The inspector has an obligation to confirm that the plans are being followed, not deviated from, and there seems to be some confusion by the public, in general, including construction workers, building owners, and the whole committee of people who add their opinion to the issue. The last word is not a building official, according to state law. The building official is there to protect the “health, safety and welfare” of the public, but not to structure buildings, engineer systems or find remedies to site conditions. The official, representing the “authority having jurisdiction,” is on the same side as the licensed professional, and is there to review, question, ask for clarification, and when satisfied that codes, laws, rules and regulations have been met, allows the project to proceed.

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.