don’t be lazy, tell them why


As usual I am writing as a reaction to the events that occur in my day-to-day life as an architect.

Call this a rant, but I’d like to think my reactions can educate as I share information. This profession seems to be far too enigmatic or mysterious for those who would want or need the services of an architect or a design professional. Let’s not keep people in the dark to how things work.

Before we begin, let’s set aside a few thoughts because I know they’re true and they can muddy the waters of today’s argument.

People don’t always listen to directions
People don’t like the rules, so they choose not to follow the rules
People don’t believe all of the rules apply to them
People hear what they want to hear

Now, with that understanding, let’s proceed.

It is common for us architects (or at least me as an architect) to get phone calls from frantic building owners or agitated prospective tenants that were led into the local building department (by choice or after a friendly letter threatening to shut down their operations) but not knowing why they have to go through a process for what seems like a simple thing to them. With assumptions stated previously, today I will focus on our side or the side of the building officials and making the process of code approval clear to building owners and tenants.


So in the case of my frantic phone caller, I conclude one of two things has happened. Either the local official does not understand or was willing to explain the nuances of the local building code or it never occurred to the person calling me that their occupancy of a building triggered any municipal regulation intervention (i.e. codes). Either way when they engage with their local municipality, I find it extremely important that they are given clear information on why they must comply and how they can comply with the building code.

By the way, I wrote about the other perspective back in 2013 when building owners do not want or are deliberately trying to avoid hiring a design professional.

Here’s an example of what I’m discussing today. A prospective tenant called me last week and relayed to me that the local officials told them they needed a ‘drawing’ with a seal on it before they could occupy their space – more specifically “take down the existing drywall in the space.”

If I was that tenant I would have no clue what any of that means. Frustration is one of three major sources of anger by the way.

I have gotten similar calls where someone stated “I need a drawing, I need a drawing, THEY told me I need a drawing.” However, this person does not know WHY they supposedly need a drawing, nor why is a drawing of their building necessary. What is so magical about a drawing?

0920 Floor Plan CD

My request to all municipal officials is this say nothing or say everything. Don’t be lazy. Explain things in non-industry jargon.

Say nothing: This can be effective if you simply say you need to hire an architect to evaluate your situation and guide you through this process before you come back and ask for a building permit. You’ve liberated yourself from trying to explain things to someone who might not understand or might not be listening (or might not care). You relieve yourself from what could be a long and painful discussion. Merely give them a direction and it’s up to them to go that way. They know they need an architect to assess their situation.

Say everything: If that is not an option, then say everything. You don’t need to take the place of being a design professional and I can appreciate that you don’t have all day to explain things. But the middle ground is dangerous. Applicants, building owners and tenants will take your word verbatim (or in some cases they will not hear you clearly), but they will assume that what you say is exactly what they must follow as opposed to the minimum amount in this process. All too often I hear “they said that all I need to do is…” Then I tell them that the code requires more. There’s that frustration thing again…and red faces with steam coming out of ears and…

When someone tells somebody they need a drawing with a seal on it, what does that mean? A drawing of what?


First of all, a drawing or a piece of paper or some graphic depiction of existing conditions is NOT what they’re looking for or at least it is the least of what they’re looking for in the submission. What they ARE looking for are documents (drawings), primarily graphic in nature, that demonstrate that your tenant space or your building or construction will be in compliance with the current building codes and regulations of that municipality when the project is complete.

Prior to making any drawings, the architect will need to assess your situation and determine what alterations or upgrades are required (or triggered) for your space for your use. The drawings or documents indicate the required changes that are derived from an evaluation or assessment. Consider it like a diagnosis, comparing the existing conditions against the building code. So a drawing that merely shows the building as it currently stands is not enough.


These construction drawings will include notes and details that reference applicable parts of the code or stipulate a construction minimum that must occur based on an earlier evaluation. Therefore, the term drawing is a gross oversimplification of what one needs. Used alone, it is quite confusing.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has called my office looking for that magic drawing as if it was some type of key to get to where they want. This is why I believe people often interpret this situation as a demand to spend money on something they really don’t want or don’t think they need, all in order to satisfy the government.

This is not healthy nor is it good for our profession.

I’d like to think that if an architect were given the chance to explain to such tenant or landlord or building owner the how and why of the situation, frustration would be reduced and we’d get another chance to demonstrate our value. We would also have a chance to demonstrate that we offer so much more – and that’s another post. For others, they won’t buy into it and that’s just too bad.

To the building officials who are explaining things well, thank you. But if you do work in the building department or are in a position of dealing with people who are needing to work through this process, my suggestion or request is say nothing or tell them everything. The rest is up to us architects to do our jobs to guide people on the path in a manner that is economic, efficient and hopefully enjoyable.

We all learned in Kindergarten that everyone must follow the rules…or you don’t get your snack.


photo of glasses photo credit: via photopin cc

don’t be lazy, tell them why

10 thoughts on “don’t be lazy, tell them why

  1. As you started with, this works in a perfect world, which as we know is not the world we live in. When I worked for Dept of Homeland Security doing building code review, I was constantly amazed at the lack of quality in drawings submitted by “architects” and the rarity of drawings and interactions with Architects. This is not to say that the “architects” weren’t licensed…they just blatantly refused to follow code or be of any help to their clients.

    There is also the option of clients who call the code office because they either 1) walk all over their “architect” (which said “architect” allows) or 2) have not been explained the permitting process by their “architect”. In those instances, I asked them to follow up with their “architect” because they were the point of contact in permitting.

    ALSO…there is the issue of those doing building code review not being required to have any formal training in the building field or being paid any respectable amount. I happened upon this job during the recession, and was grateful for the experience and paycheck (although meager). I was over-qualified and under-paid. Everyone knew I would leave the first chance I was given…and I did. It’s a government job, which brings the standard issues of bureaucracy and finances. When you’re paid a starting salary of $100 above poverty level and work among people who either don’t care or have had the care beaten out of them, it doesn’t matter how good the benefits are.

    Many facets of this process are broken and in need of repair. The best we can do is to keep trying to repair them and be Architects (with a capital A) to our clients.

    1. Bleak but you’ve covered the reality. My post was a reaction to a single call but a larger issue. In fact today I had to correct a banker in the jargon he was using when describing “plans.” we had a miscommunication because we were not using correct terms. I think we ended okay but I may have made him mad in the process of trying to correct him. Always good at the end of the phone call. In fact he actually thanked me.

  2. I had a call from a code official wanting an egress plan for a one room retail space clearly shown with exits front and rear. He had jumped from page one(Partition plan) to three (Elevations) and saw fixtures. He hadn’t bothered to look at the fixture plan on page 2!!!!!!

    Yesterday I had something rejected for the second time because the new reviewer wanted a facility classified the way I had classified it the first time which was rejected……………

    Competence seems to be totally lost with the recession!

    1. That’s a great story, but very frustrating I’m sure. I’ve had similar experiences.

      Lack of knowledge or inconsistency is very frustrating. Perhaps that is why they often do not give clear direction to applicants. However, when they’re just lazy about the whole process as if the applicant is bothering them or inconveniencing them, I find that offensive.

      As in any part of the construction industry, there are great people out there doing a great job. There are bad architects out there too.

  3. I have had the fortune of having good code officials to work with the county (the city is another matter). We have been able to work together, rather than adversarialy for the most part and get the client to where they need to be. Though i am dealing with one client now that just wants to do things piece meal, because of what the city code official told them. I keep telling him they are going to require more, but he insists that they only need X (first a code analysis and second a site plan).

  4. What amazes me is how many times a potential client will come to my office after meeting with a code official who has told them they need a “drawing” to then leave and go to a surveyor or civil engineer to get the magic drawing they need. That surveyor or civil engineer typically doesn’t have the knowledge to perform the service that is needed. Instead they depend upon the comments from the plan reviewer to tell them what they need to correct so they get their drawing “fixed” the next time it’s sent in for review. If my firm worked like that we would be criticized as being nonprofessional.

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