Who Inspects The Work That Makes Buildings Fall Down? The Engineers Do. But Who Inspects Engineers Like John Elder?
The engineer's letter to Dr. John W. Hawkins predicted catastrophe. The building next door to Hawkins' was about to fall down, Mike Dominelli wrote last Sept. 26. And when that happened, it could fall on the dentist's own Federal Hill rowhouse.
Three days later, 106 E. Montgomery St. caved in.
Hawkins got off easy, with only minor damage. The home on the other side, 108 E. Montgomery, was left uninhabitable, according to its owner, Donald Eickhoff.
"So he buckles my areaway" between the houses, Eickhoff says of Tom Bird, the owner of 106. "He gives me a call and says, `Don't worry, I'll take care of everything.' Month and a half goes by, nothing happens. I'm tied to him on the second and third floor, and he's twisting my building. There's big cracks appearing."
When the back and side walls on 106 finally fell, bricks rained on Eickhoff's house. "It shifted the wall in living room and the room in back of the kitchen," he says, but Bird "still had people in there digging."
The debacle angered other neighbors as well. Living in one of the city's priciest neighborhoods, their block looked like a war zone. In the months following, city officials prodded Bird to make repairs and shore up his neighbors' buildings, while neighbors hired their own experts to assess the damages.
These days, "it seems much better," Hawkins says. Bird "finally got a good contractor," and the chances of Hawkins' house falling down have diminished. Eickhoff says the city threatened to condemn his house; although 108 was never condemned, Eickhoff says he's stuck with a $2,500-per-month mortgage on a place he can't renovate.
Dozens of buildings fall each year in Baltimore, most of them in neglected neighborhoods where low-income people live--often long-abandoned, nearly a fifth of them city-owned, these buildings are just one more hazard for the city's poor.
But the poor are not the only Baltimoreans threatened by building collapse. The real estate boom on Baltimore's waterfront has brought the same hazard to people who live in rowhouses worth half a million dollars or more. In the past three years, more than a dozen buildings have collapsed in Federal Hill, Fells Point, and Canton. Most of them crumbled to the ground after their owners tried to dig out the basement to make more living space.
The process is called underpinning. But in those cases, it was actually undermining.
In Federal Hill, where sandy soil, very small, old rowhouses, and sky-high real estate values combine to make basement expansions irresistible to developers and homeowners, houses topple often enough that local novelist Laura Lippman opened a recent short story with a shrugging reference to the phenomenon.
Seen by many as a normal part of Baltimore life, building collapses seldom make the news. But other, similar cities see far fewer collapses than Baltimore.
To find out why that is, City Paper reviewed three years of city-directed emergency demolitions and carefully examined permitting and demolition records of more than 20 recent collapses. Two patterns emerged: First, the city has neglected its own decrepit buildings and fallen far behind in its demolition list, leaving thousands of Baltimoreans vulnerable to injury and property damage from sudden building collapses nearby ("Collapse," July 26). Second, the city's building permitting process is overburdened, and loose, allowing a small group of insiders to routinely oversee multiple building collapses in well-off neighborhoods, endangering thousands more properties.
Although neighborhood activists, residents, and professionals working in the city's waterfront areas mentioned several engineers, contractors, and developers as being responsible for shoddy work, unpermitted demolitions, oversized additions, and other apparent violations of building codes, one name seems to overlap and overshadow the others: John Decamp Elder.
At some point during almost any given weekday, John Elder can be found at the city permit office on the ground floor of 417 E. Fayette St. downtown. He arrives most often with an armload of rolled-up plans, and moves easily among the clerks and cashiers there, explaining this or that detail to them and his clients. On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-July he sits at station four, chiding his client for having only one broken fax machine. "I have three fax machines," Elder says. "I like to do things right."
Elder is a large man with a pocked face, but his voice is gently modulated; on this day, he wears chinos and a navy crew shirt monogrammed in gold: JOHN D. ELDER AND ASSOCIATES ENGINEERING. He lives in the Rosedale section of Baltimore County, northeast of the city, and says he has been an engineer for more than 20 years.
"I've probably done more basements than most people," he says, estimating that he's done the engineering drawings and obtained the permits for 50 to 100 underpinnings. Asked about the number of collapses among the houses he's worked on, he says about "four or five."
Although a fixture in the permitting office and on a first-name basis with many who work there, Elder's work reputation is poor among some professionals.
"I've seen his drawings--they are intentionally vague," says Julie Tice, an architect who works around Federal Hill. "On roof decks, it seems he has one set of drawings with a rectangular shape and he fills the dimensions."
Tice says she believes that Elder seldom does site visits either before or after producing plans, whether for decks or basements. "I'd be surprised if there wasn't a class-action suit headed his way," she says.
When asked generally about Baltimore collapses, longtime Fallston-based contractor George J. Waldhauser offers Elder's name without prompting. "John Elder is a little bit heavy, a little bit lazy," Waldhauser says. "He's what they call a rubber-stamp engineer."
"Rubber-stamp engineer," "stamp for hire," and "plan stamper" are terms given for engineers who do not do the engineering work--visiting the job site ahead of time and customizing the plans to the site, inspecting the work as it goes--but merely stamp plans so that building officials will issue permits. Being a stamp for hire is a violation of the engineering code of professional ethics and of state regulations, but it is hard to prove. The Maryland State Board for Professional Engineers has never disciplined any engineer for being a rubber stamp, according to Pam Edwards, the board's assistant executive director. According to the board's web site, John Elder is an engineer in good standing, and has not been sanctioned.
Waldhauser says engineers like Elder are especially dangerous in Baltimore City because, in contrast to other jurisdictions (including Baltimore County), the city's Office of Permits and Building Inspections does not inspect structural work that is overseen by licensed engineers. Waldhauser says he knows this because he had built a rooftop deck job engineered by Elder that Elder refused to inspect.
Waldhauser says that he was attaching the deck's frame to the existing masonry, and that required drilling a hole of a specified depth and setting a metal bracket in the hole with epoxy. Elder, as the engineer, was supposed to certify that Waldhauser drilled the hole deep enough and in the right place. "I called him and made sure he came out," Waldhauser recalls. "He gets there and yells up, `Is the hole drilled? Fine, then, it's fine.' He wouldn't come up the ladder." (Elder confirms Waldhauser's story but says ladders like that are too dangerous for his 57-year-old body. He says he checked the work later, after the stairs were installed.)
An oversight like that-although arguably a violation of an engineer's professional code of ethics-is probably not dangerous when the contractor is, like Waldhauser, experienced, licensed, bonded, and a stickler for the rule book. But when the contractor is none of those, bad things can happen.
A review of selected building permit records found Elder's name and drawings on 11 projects on the city's waterfront that drew complaints from neighbors for unpermitted work, shoddy work, or work that spilled over the property line-but little enforcement by building officials. Four of those 11 cases were underpinning projects that resulted in collapses.
The typical Federal Hill rowhouse sits not on a cast concrete foundation like a modern house, or even on a slab of cement, but on sand that was tamped by hand 150 or more years ago. The basement walls typically extend only two feet or so below ground, "so already it's not right," says John Cole, from the perspective of modern building codes.
Cole, Baltimore City's superintendent of building inspections, peels off a yellow sticky note and draws a thin pyramid with a flattened crown, with two lines extending up from the crown. "The lines of force go this way," he explains.
He is drawing a cross section of a typical Federal Hill foundation wall. The thin pyramid is a column of sand; the lines are two courses of bricks, eight inches thick, that divide and support the rowhouses. Within that sand pyramid are the lines of force from the weight of the brick wall, pressing down on the earth.
As long as the ground is undisturbed, the weight of all those bricks--and even the rooftop decks now installed above them--will disperse along those narrow force lines and the house will stand. But if someone scoops out the crawlspace under the house and cuts into the line of force (and here Cole draws a curve into one side of his pyramid), "then the wall kicks out," he says, now drawing a jagged sideways V through his curve. He crumples up the sticky note.
Excavating such a basement properly, then, means going slow, disturbing as little soil as possible. The typical underpinning plan looks something like a checkerboard, with four-foot-square sections of crawlspace mapped out, a number inside each box to indicate the order of operations, Cole explains. A work crew must dig by hand and remove no more than two squares at a time--on opposite sides of the house. After those first two coffee table-sized holes are dug, concrete is poured in them and the new sections of foundation wall are built up to the now-dangling bricks that make up the original walls. After that concrete sets for a few days and can support the weight above it, the workers dig the next section. A variation on the plan calls for the excavation to stop more than a foot from the original wall, a concrete "curb retainer" then cast in place to contain the dirt upon which the wall rests. Either way, underpinning is a dicey operation requiring strict oversight of the work crew to prevent them from going too far.
George Waldhauser says he's done several basement underpinnings this way. "We did one on Lombard, we had no problem," he says. "We had to bring the dirt out through a coal chute." Waldhauser says the job took two months to finish, and that a lot of developers, contractors, and homeowners are not so patient. "Now," he says, "what if you can do an $18,000 to $24,000 job . . . in a weekend?"
Instead of slowly and carefully following a checkerboard pattern, some contractors rip the back wall off the house and move in with a backhoe or a front loader, according to Waldhauser, Cole, and others. The machines cannot dig in small sections, so as they near the foundation the pyramid is breached, and sometimes the whole building drops six or eight inches. Mortar joints crack, floor joists buckle, windows pop out--and John Cole gets a phone call.
Cole is a calm, mild-mannered sort who uses a Vietnam-era M-79 grenade as a paperweight and has decorated his office door with a sign that says COMPLAINT DEPARTMENT PLEASE PRESS BUTTON FOR SERVICE--with a mousetrap serving as the button. Professionals in the building trades and a former co-worker say he is hard-working, fair, and incorruptible.
He also appears to be overwhelmed.
A 27-year city veteran who has been in his current job since 1999, Cole oversees a team of 14 inspectors handling general building code, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical inspections. Cole's platoon of inspectors also enforces the strictures laid down by the city Planning Commission, the city Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation, and even the Maryland Critical Area Act, which denotes how much pavement can cover the ground in the Chesapeake Bay's watershed.
In 1999, when Cole took over the building inspections office, Baltimore issued about 21,000 building permits. This year it will issue 38,000. "Our staff pretty much remains the same," he says.
Besides those inspecting the work done under the permits, Cole's office has two other inspectors who do nothing but chase complaints about unpermitted work, most of it called in through the city's 311 system. Cole reckons that maybe a third of Baltimore's construction jobs are unpermitted. "If I was given another 311 inspector," he says, "I could keep him busy, too."
Cole says each inspector averages 12 inspections per day during six hours in the field. Minus driving time and perhaps a short break for lunch, the inspectors do "maybe one [inspection] per 22 minutes," he says. "Some of them are windows. And some of them are high-rises."
None of them, however, are basement underpinnings.
"We now require engineers to make the inspections," Cole says. "We make [the engineer who drew the plans] sign a certificate and do a final inspection." That reform of the previously looser and more chaotic system began in February 2004 and resulted from a huge increase in basement digs--from maybe two in the first 20 years of his career to, now, hundreds every year. "We didn't know underpinning was going to be such a popular sport," Cole says. "There were very few basement digs until about 2002-'03."
According to Cole, requiring engineers to inspect their own work makes sense in two ways. First, because of the complexity and time required to excavate a basement in small sections, "we might have to go out there seven or eight times," he says--something his inspectors don't have time for. Second, the inspectors are not engineers, nor is Cole himself, so it wouldn't make sense to have the inspectors second-guessing the engineer's work anyway.
Engineers can be trusted because of their professional code of ethics, Cole says. "You're going to jeopardize that for $500?" he says, referring to the cost of a drawing.
Although Cole signs every underpinning permit and attends every house collapse, he says he has not noticed any pattern of collapses associated with any particular contractor, owner, or engineer. "I'm removed from the names," he says.
But it turns out, Elder's reputation for collapses was noticed by city housing officials, according to Michael Braverman, the deputy commissioner for code enforcement. "His name has come up. We did have some concern," Braverman says in an interview on July 20. In February 2006, officials blocked Elder's ability to pull building permits, and summoned him to a meeting in which city code officials told him to be more careful--and got his signature on a promise to do so.
In a letter to Dorreya R. Elmenshawy, who is Cole's boss and the director of Permits and Code Enforcement, Construction and Building Inspection, Elder pledged to advise every underpinning client about the dangers of the work, make sure their contractors call him for inspections, inspect weekly even if no one calls, and withdraw from the project if he finds "any form of non-compliance." Elder's withdrawal as engineer would cancel the permit.
Braverman says he knows of no other engineer forced into a similar agreement with the city. But he also says he had no knowledge of Elder's criminal record.
Gregory Szczepaniak knows the name John Elder very well. The engineer stamped and sealed a drawing dated Nov. 26, 2003, for a project officially labeled "Underpinning at 201 East Gittings St." The drawing was part of a contract that Szczepaniak (his lawyer pronounces it "ses-PEN-i-ak") had with contractor William E. Connolly.
Szczepaniak had the small house appraised in April of 2003 at $245,000. Connolly estimated a complete renovation, including a gut rehab, adding a rooftop deck, and digging and finishing a new basement and foundation, at $88,920. In his estimate, Connolly reassured his client that he was in professional hands: "Contractor will also consult with John Elder, known as `Engineer', on all maters [sic] involving permits, building code, etc."
Elder's excavation plan in hand, Connolly hired a subcontractor, Sheckells and Sons Construction Company Inc. of Baltimore, to dig out the basement. On Dec. 4, 2003 the company started digging, according to a lawsuit filed by Szczepaniak. Four days later, the house dropped into the hole, levering up the sidewalks around it and ripping the back wall off a neighboring structure.
On Dec. 9, Cole pronounced the sagging house a danger to public safety. He called in HABCo, the Housing Authority's in-house demolition crew, to take the building down. They billed Szczepaniak $6,426 for demolition of his house.
Szczepaniak's lawyer, David F. Luby, declines to answer questions about the case or to make Szczepaniak available for an interview. Lawyers for two other defendants in the suit, Connolly and Sheckells and Sons, also decline to comment.
In his suit, originally filed in March of 2005, Szczepaniak claimed that Connolly was "negligent in failing to apprise Sheckells of the appropriate method of excavating the basement (as directed by the engineer, Elder), in hiring an excavator without sufficient training or experience, in failing to supervise the excavation and otherwise negligent." Szczepaniak also claimed Sheckells neglected to follow Elder's professional plan and tried to dig out too much too fast. His suit demanded $300,000 from each of the contractors and $200,000 from State Farm, his insurance company. He retained Elder as an expert witness to press his case against the defendants.
But then something unusual happened. Sheckells and Sons found its own expert engineer, willing to testify that Elder's plans "may have been inadequate and/or led to the condemnation or damage to the subject property," according to the company's answer to the lawsuit.
In his answer to the complaint Connolly claimed that "all necessary parties have not been named in this lawsuit." Lawyers for the other parties agreed and sued Elder in amended complaint. Nearly a year after filing his suit, Szczepaniak was suing his own engineer and expert witness.
"In drafting plans which were internally inconsistent and inapplicable to the plaintiff's property, and in authorizing the excavation that actually proceeded, Elder failed to adhere to the accepted standard of care applicable to licensed professional engineers and caused or contributed to the collapse of the building," according to the complaint, which was served Dec. 14, 2005.
Sheckells, State Farm, and Connolly then sued Elder, too, blaming the engineer for the collapse.
Elder answered the complaint himself, without a lawyer, on Jan. 24. He claimed that the statute of limitations barred suit against him, as he had not been served until two years and 10 days after the event. And he claimed that Szczepaniak was solely negligent, noting that Connolly was, in fact, unlicensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. Elder said neither Connolly nor Sheckells ever contacted him for advice about the excavation and that, had his plans been followed, "the work would have been successfully completed, without the alleged `imminent harm or threat of severe personal injury or death,' so as to render this defendant liable to the plaintiff."
In an interview at the city's permit office on July 12, Elder elaborates, saying that Connolly had underbid the job. Sheckells "does neat work," Elder says, "but he just overexcavated" because he was pressed for time. Elder insists that he was not at fault. "I had no obligation to do any inspections," he says. "At that time, the engineer would do the plans and the city would do the inspection."
Tom Bird says John Elder never inspected his basement excavation, as required by the city's new permitting procedure. "This gentleman gave me the permits for the place and never came out to inspect at all," says Bird, whose house at 106 E. Montgomery St. collapsed last fall, damaging houses on both sides of it. "He just takes the check, and that's it."
Bird's project at 106 E. Montgomery was much like Szczepaniak's house on East Gittings. Elder handled the plans and permit, and Bird hired an unlicensed contractor (who he says he cannot locate now). The excavation was rushed.
On the day the house fell, Elder "was scared . . . he knew he was in trouble," Bird recounts. "He kept saying, `It's not my fault, not my fault.'"
Bird says a city inspector told him that Elder had been the engineer on other collapses as well on Hanover Street. Elder acknowledges he had one on Fait Avenue as well.
Elder was also hired by the owners of 3409 Harmony Court, which collapsed in February, and 1600 Clarkson St., which collapsed late last November, resulting in the condemnation of not only that house but also the house next door, 1602, forcing the owner of the latter house, Karen Nasuta, to find other quarters. The city has charged the owner of 1600 Clarkson, Mark Koch, with criminal violations of the city housing code and summoned him for trial July 20. Nasuta declined to comment, saying she was considering her legal options.
Bird says Elder surprised him in civil court in early July, testifying as an expert witness on behalf of the contractor who Bird originally hired for his basement excavation. Bird had refused to pay the contractor because of nonperformance, he says. But Elder told the judge that the contractor had done a third of the work when Bird fired him. Elder's status as a licensed engineer held great weight with the court, Bird says, and his testimony led to an $8,000 judgment against Bird.
Bird, who says he is appealing that case, didn't know that in 2001 Elder was sentenced to prison for racially harassing his Baltimore County neighbors, or that, shortly before he drew up the plans for Bird's underpinning, Elder had been convicted of drug possession. But, Bird says, "That wouldn't surprise me. I think he's a dirt bag."
Elder says he first worked for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City for about 10 years beginning in the late 1970s or early 1980s, mostly as a demolition specialist. If that is so, then the Housing Authority hired Elder very soon after his release from federal prison after his conviction on charges relating to an interstate sailboat theft.
According to court records, on New Year's Eve 1974 Elder was arrested in Baltimore and was later convicted on three counts: "Receiving and Concealing Interstate Stolen Property (Sailboat); Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property; and Aiding and Abetting." On Oct. 10, 1975, Elder was sentenced to five years on each count, to be served concurrently.
"I can't talk about this stuff," Elder said when asked about it at the city permits office. "You're going to cause me endless problems."
Nonetheless, Elder went on to say that the boat in question was a 35-footer that he bought knowing it was stolen. He says "lots of people" got busted over that, and that the "DEA got some of them" on drug charges, but "I'm no wise guy."
But even before his federal prison stint, Elder had amassed a substantial criminal record, according to court documents.
Elder's first drug bust came two months shy of his 20th birthday, on Aug. 4, 1968, in Burlington County, N.J. He was arrested three more times over the next five years in Maryland--twice he was charged with petty larceny and once with forgery of checks. One of the larceny charges earned him a sentence of six months unsupervised probation.
In June 1979, Elder was arrested for contempt of court, and in 1988 he drew a 60-day suspended sentence plus a year's probation for slashing someone's tires. By then Elder was working for the city Housing Department, assessing derelict rowhouses for demolition to be paid for with federal money. The program was called Building Blocks, Elder says. He had also moved to his current home in Rosedale, a townhouse on King Arthur Circle, which is owned by his longtime companion, Michaeleen Malone. Malone's young adopted son, Timothy, joined them about that time, and Malone founded the Timothy Co., a construction firm.
The Timothy Co. kept Elder in contact with city officials, and in the spring of 1996 the Housing Authority of Baltimore City hired Elder as a $40,000-per-year project manager, charged with the task of culling the city's overstock of dangerous, crumbling abandoned buildings. His criminal record was overlooked.
Elder was a key liaison to the demolition contractors in Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III's demolition and revitalization initiative, a $400 million effort to replace dangerous, outdated public housing with better, less-concentrated projects. In fact, Elder oversaw the implosion in 1996 of the mighty Lexington Terrace high rises as Mayor Kurt Schmoke and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros applauded.
But while Elder managed legal demolitions for the city, court records revealed he destroyed the property of his neighbors in the Kings Court subdivision.
"My husband is African-American and I am white--that was what most of the problem was about," says Joyce Washington, who at the time lived two doors down from the Elder-Malone family.
The dispute began after Washington's son and Malone's son left a skateboard under one of the Elder family's cars. The toy damaged the car, and Elder demanded $1,700 for the damage, Washington says. "When I wouldn't pay the whole thing, he just started torturing me," she says. "He would pop my tires--I drove a Camaro Z-28, so every time he did that it would cost me $228." Elder--and a boy he enlisted to help--soon moved on to Washington's boyfriend's Geo Storm. They threw a chemical on both cars that ruined the paint, and when the couple started parking their cars elsewhere and walking home Elder would telephone them, Washington contends, and chant, "Hide hide hide, seek seek seek, destroy destroy destroy!"
Elder's job was a source of menace to Washington, she says. "I was told by police that he had a weapon and that he was an implosion specialist," Washington says. "I was afraid of being blown up."
At Christmas, when Washington set a Nativity scene in her front yard, Elder "painted Joseph's face black, so they would be an interracial couple," she says.
Reginald Washington, the boyfriend Washington eventually married, was arrested for assault after he verbally confronted Elder's accomplice in the harassment campaign. "My husband had applied for police academy at the time," Joyce Washington says, and the pending charges cost him his chance to become a police officer for two years, she says, although he is a police officer now.
After many court delays Elder, who blames the boy who was convicted as his accomplice for the whole ordeal, was convicted on three counts of malicious destruction and three counts of racially motivated harassment, and sentenced to nine months in the county jail. He appealed, and Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. doubled Elder's sentence to 18 months in state prison. He was sentenced May 1, 2001.
Shortly after his release from prison in February 2002, Elder enrolled in alcohol treatment. According to court documents, a counselor rated Elder an "excellent" prognosis for recovery, claiming that he stuck with his AA meetings long after he was required to and that he "has no drug history other than alcohol."
But the Elder household was far from drug-free, according to police. After making 75 calls for service on the premises between July 2002 and July 2003, Baltimore County police searched the house on July 24, 2003, seizing drug paraphernalia, Oxycontin, and, according to the charging documents, $41,000 in cash from Elder's basement bedroom. Elder, longtime girlfriend Michaeleen Malone, and her adopted son Timothy Malone were all arrested. On July 29, 2004, Elder was convicted on a single count of drug possession and fined $500, plus $250 in court costs.
Elder insists that his criminal history "has nothing to do" with his life as an engineer and pleads with a reporter to omit it from this story. And, indeed, clients, colleagues, and even opposing lawyers apparently knew nothing of Elder's criminal record.
State law requires engineers and those applying for an engineer's license or a renewal to divulge and explain any felony or misdemeanor convictions "directly related to the fitness and qualifications of an applicant or licensee to practice engineering." The application specifically requires a recounting of drug convictions, including probation before judgment, since 1991.
Elder says he doesn't recall if he informed the board about his convictions.
Bob Mead, executive director of the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers, says a conviction of any serious crime is generally a death knell for an engineer's license. State licensure "boards will usually take a strict view of it and make you sue to get it back," Mead says. "But they have to know about it, and if they haven't been told about it--and that usually means a formal complaint--then they don't."
Pam Edwards of the State Board for Professional Engineers says there is no provision for an automatic license revocation in Maryland, and no immediate penalty for an engineer who does not report his criminal convictions to the board. "Sometimes we get building officials sending in complaints," she says, but those are usually for expired seals. Edwards stresses the "due process" that the board must afford any engineer facing "alleged" criminal convictions.
Elder's current license expires Dec. 3, 2007, according to the online listing.
Donald Eickhoff, whose rowhouse at 108 E. Montgomery St. remains damaged and untouchable due to the debacle next door at 106, thinks "the city has a liability. They're supposed to be looking at this job. They're supposed to be inspecting all the footers. I looked at [city inspector William] Conkling, I said, `You guys are overwhelmed. You need to maybe go in and have the engineers pull a bond out--so if they do something like this, it's a $10,000 fine that they have to pay to the city.' I'm sure if the engineer takes enough hits . . . then they won't have the ability to work."
John Cole, the city building inspections superintendent, says he's lately been spending several days in court each year testifying about collapses. But he does not blame the engineers. Not even John Elder. In most cases, "the engineer drew it a certain way and the contractor did it a different way in the field," Cole says. Unofficially, he blames the homeowners, most of whom were trying to get work done on the cheap.
Cole says the recent spate of collapses has moved him to ask for new regulations to take homeowners out of the underpinning game. "Right now you can get an underpinning permit as [a home]owner," Cole says. "We want there to be a requirement for a licensed contractor and a bond." The new rules are pending with the city's legal office and may require a bill in the state legislature, he adds.
Michael Braverman says the city is actually planning two bills. The first, drafted May 31, will require city inspectors to inspect every underpinning job, as well as for interior demolitions. "It's clear that, for underpinning, it makes sense to shift to an affirmative model," Braverman says. The new law would allow the city to revoke all the permits of a "design professional" like Elder if there is a violation on one of the permits. It also would allow the building official to ban the design professional for up to five years.
Speaking on July 20, Braverman says he is sure that Cole's crew can handle the extra work, and he says it is not remarkable that Cole himself did not know that this was in the works a month ago. Braverman says underpinnings and collapses have been at the top of his agenda since he took the job last year.
As for the bond requirement, "that's going to be a second path," Braverman says. That bill has not yet been drafted, but he says he hopes to implement stricter inspection by the time this story is published. He also hopes to hire two more buildings inspectors during the next few months.
Perhaps coincidentally, Elder thinks reform of the system begins with the contractors--just like Cole does. "I think the city ought to require certificates of insurance," he says, "so that the contractor knows he's on the line, and so there's no incentive to cut corners."
Elder himself, however, says he has no insurance. "I never even thought to get it," he says. "I'm pretty conservative. If a two-by-eight works I try to use a two-by-ten."
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