Ask the Architect

Builders sometimes do what they want


Q. I’m trying to understand why my construction was rejected three times. The inspector said it doesn’t follow the plans, and certain things don’t match the building code. He wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, saying the architect needs to see it, tell us what it was and either write a letter or get the contractor to change it. Either way, we’re now delayed, and I want to know who’s responsible.

A. It starts with misunderstanding what is enforceable and who enforces. Plans are prepared well ahead of getting permit review, and long before contractors estimate or make a contract with the owner. Plans get more scrutiny than ever before, partially due to the expectation that, because most are prepared by computer, tons more information can magically be cut and pasted or that, somehow, 3-D views automatically appear, which is false. Planning also gets more scrutiny because many people have no intention of applying for permits, avoiding expense and saving time.
So building officials seem ready to look for more information to cover issues that might apply to the proposed work. For example, a survey showed a winding border “brick retaining wall” at a property edge, prompting hours of calls, pictures, letters and proof to show the flower bed edging was loosely laid bricks so weeds wouldn’t grow from the lawn to the flower bed.
After planning finally gets beyond the “prove it” phase, a permit may be issued and the contractor takes over. At the construction stage, plans have a slight chance of being followed to the letter, but quite often, builders do whatever they choose. Once in a while there’s the pleasant surprise of a conscientious individual who communicates before just altering the job to something not intended.
Where this leads is that most consumers believe, falsely, that builders probably know the laws and the necessary engineering, and the outcome will be seamless. Unfortunately, because nobody on a residential project holds the builders responsible for taking liberties with the plans, the permits, the law or critical engineering problems, they’re free to create significant problems for the owner. The dilemma is further reinforced by officials who don’t hold the builder responsible, so instead, they deflect the responsibility to the “design professional,” mainly because they can, not because the architect or engineer is involved in poor decisions that led to the problems.
I’ve seen the wrong beams installed, missing reinforcing, the building placed in the wrong spot, wrong roof angles creating building height violations that rerouted the project back through a nine-month zoning board revisit, windows substituted that no longer meet the emergency-escape requirements, using particle board instead of structural plywood — the list goes on and on. How anyone can ask for a letter to cover the mess and just make it go away by expecting the architect or engineer to just write a letter is ridiculous, but asked for all the time. You think you’re being protected by officials, but are you really? Good luck!

© 2021 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.