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Improving Construction Practices with Special Inspections

We are all familiar with Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. When it comes to construction projects, the corollary to Murphy’s Law might go something like this: if more than one thing can go wrong, the thing that does go wrong causes the most damage and is costliest to fix.

A Special Inspection program provides valuable quality assurance/quality control that benefits all parties related to the proper fabrication, installation, and placement of specific structural components and other construction materials (e.g. EIFS, fireproofing, and soils and foundations) that require special knowledge, expertise, and attention. Ancillary benefits include improved communication between design professionals and contractors, testing companies and the jurisdictional building official, while providing a safe structure for the public.

The purpose of Special Inspections, structural observation, special testing, and quality assurance requirements set forth in Chapter 17 of the 2006 International Building Code (IBC) is to reduce damage and losses to structures by improving the quality of construction practices and to protect public safety. The keys to successful Special Inspections are clear communication, good record keeping, a drive to keep the project moving forward, and most of all, qualified people.

The national recognition of Special Inspections continues to increase as more jurisdictions are enforcing the requirements of Chapter 17. As a result, many architects and engineers, and even building officials and code inspectors, are being exposed to Special Inspections for the first time. This unfamiliarity with the concept and requirements of Special Inspections often leads to many questions, such as ‘Where did this come from?’, ‘What exactly is this all about?’ and ‘Where do I get started?’

Background
In the early 1980s, U.S. House Subcommittee hearings examined causes and common problems associated with structural failures. The subcommittee concluded that the two most critical factors to structural failures were a lack of organization and communication between parties on construction projects, and insufficient inspection by the design professional of record during construction.

As a result, the subcommittee made two basic recommendations. These included 1) that codes and professional organizations ensure that provisions are in place to make the design professional of record oversight mandatory during construction of public facilities; and 2) that state and local code agencies require the design professional of record, or a designated representative, be on-site at the appropriate times.

Because the design professional of record is not always available, more specific Special Inspector programs were defined and initiated on a regional basis. The International Conference of Building Officials’ (ICBO) Uniform Building Code, Building Officials Code Administrators International (BOCA) National Building Code, and the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) Southern Building Code all had provisions for special inspection. After the merger of the three model codes into the International Building Code (IBC), IBC Chapter 17 provided a broader scope of special inspection with more clarification.

What are Special Inspections?
Chapter 17, Section 1702 of 2006 IBC defines Special Inspection as:

“Inspection as herein required of the materials, installation, fabrication, erection or placement of components and connections requiring special expertise to ensure compliance with approved construction documents and referenced standards.”

Section 1704 goes on to outline the type of work requiring special inspection in addition to inspections called for in IBC Section 109 by the building official and structural observations in Section 1709 by the design professional in responsible charge. It should be noted that inspections required by Section 1704 do not relieve the building official or the design professional of record of their inspection and observation responsibilities. Types of work for applicable construction where Special Inspections are required by Section 1704 include:

· Fabrication (Steel, Pre-Cast Concrete, Wood)

· Structural Steel

· Concrete

· Masonry

· Soils

· Pile and Pier Foundations

· Sprayed Fire-Resistive Materials

· EIFS (Exterior Insulation Finishing System)

· Special Cases

· Smoke Control

The design professional of responsible charge must prepare a Statement of Special Inspections for the project that lists the critical parts of the building construction that requires special inspection. The statement shall include the materials, systems, components and work to have Special Inspections, the type and extent of the inspections, and identification of whether the inspections are continuous or periodic. Additionally, the statement shall list any additional seismic or wind resistant-related testing or inspections.

What is Exempt?
Section 1704 of the 2006 IBC indicates that designed building components that do not involve the practice of professional engineering or architecture as defined by state statutes and regulations do not require Special Inspection. Additionally, Special Inspection is not required for work considered by the building official to be of a minor nature or structures with occupancies in Group R-3 and Group U that are accessory to a residential occupancy. Other exemptions, or modifications to the IBC-published exemptions, may be applicable by jurisdiction as code enforcement agencies see fit.

Who is involved in Special Inspections?
The parties involved in Special Inspection include the project owner, local building code official, design professional in responsible charge, one or more Special Inspectors, a testing laboratory and the project contractor. Each party contributes to the success of a project’s Special Inspection program and has very defined roles and responsibilities.

Building Code Official
Before a project begins, the local building code official establishes criteria for the authorization of Special Inspection agencies and inspection personnel by inspection type and the inspection reporting processes and procedures. The building official will consider the requirement for Special Inspection prior to issuing a permit and will review and approve the project Statement of Special Inspection and drawings for construction. During the project, the building code official monitors the required inspection activities and verifies that the required Special Inspection is completed.

Owner
The Owner retains and funds a qualified Special Inspection agency, which may be employed through the project designer acting as the owner’s agent. The code specifically states that the project contractor can not engage the Special Inspection agency. In addition, the Owner works with the design team to revise the general conditions and specifications of the contract documents to reflect changes if contractor-supplied testing conflicts with Special Inspection requirements.

Design Professional in Responsible Charge (DPIRC)
During design, the DPIRC identifies specific components and work types that require Special Inspection and clearly states the requirements in the project documents through the Statement of Special Inspections and the Scope or Schedule of Special Inspections for submittal to the building official. In some jurisdictions, the building official may also request that the independent agency(s) engaged by the Owner to perform Special Inspections be identified in the Statement. During the project, the DPIRC should review identified non-conformance items and/or changes to the design for approval or rejection, and prescribe corrective action for any outstanding non-conformance items prior to covering up those items or moving to the next stage of construction.

Special Inspector
The role of the Special Inspector is to observe and test the work assigned for conformance with the approved and permitted construction documents. The Special Inspector may also review material test reports prepared by others for conformance to the design documents and requirements. The responsibility of reporting the Special Inspection observations lies with the Special Inspector as he is required to provide copies of reports of observations and tests to the building official, owner, DPIRC, and contractor. As part of the reporting requirement, the Special Inspector must inform those same parties of non-conformances and discrepancies.

A seasoned, experienced Special Inspector helps a major project maintain its schedule. Minor deficiencies that can easily be corrected are typically resolved the same day, with a minimum of paperwork. More significant non-conformances can be resolved quickly when the Special Inspector can discuss technical issues directly with the design team. The Special Inspector makes sure that the right people inspect the right things, and that complete and accurate records are maintained and kept up-to-date.

Testing Laboratory
In most locales that have incorporated a Special Inspection program, the Special Inspection agency and the testing laboratory are the same. In addition to testing the work assigned for conformance with approved documents, the testing laboratory submits copies of testing reports to the Special Inspector, owner, design professional, and contractor. Laboratories should also bring discrepancies to the attention of same parties.

Contractor
Before any Special Inspections take place, the project’s contractor should understand and make the Schedule of Special Inspections available at the construction site, as well as schedule a Special Inspection Pre-construction Meeting(s) with the responsible parties of the design team, the project owner, the Special Inspection agency and the local building official. The contractor should also provide adequate notification to the Special Inspector and building official to complete the inspections, access to the approved contract documents at the project site, and safe access for all inspections and tests. Following the completion of a Special Inspection work type, the contractor is responsible for correcting deficiencies in a timely manner and retaining the Special Inspection report copies at the site for review by the building official.

Although Special Inspections are defined in the International Building Code, it should be made clear that the enforcement, processes, procedures, scope of Special Inspections and even exemptions may vary by state, city, or county as jurisdictions develop their own programs. Therefore, it is important to understand how Special Inspections are interpreted and enforced locally. The old television phrase ‘check your local listings’ may very well apply to Special Inspections in your jurisdiction.

A Case Study Special Inspections Program
Over the past 20 plus years, special inspection programs have been developed and implemented in some major cities, including Kansas City and Las Vegas . The programs enforced in these cities have changed through the years and are today very advanced and mature programs. Other jurisdictions and municipalities have only recently published enforceable Special Inspection programs or are in the early stages of enforcement or development. One such program is in Charlotte, and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

From the introduction of Chapter 17 in the International Building Code until 2006, the State of North Carolina Building Code Commission included language in the State Building Code that left the requirement and enforcement of Chapter 17 up to the discretion of the local building official. Due to staffing and resource concerns, Special Inspections were basically non-existent in the state until 2002 when it was discovered that several new schools in the Charlotte area were missing steel reinforcement in concrete masonry. The magnitude of the discovered construction deficiencies was very surprising and led to officials of Mecklenburg County Code Enforcement to evaluate the need for Special Inspections and the development of a well-defined program.

Knowing that the development and implementation of a Special Inspections program would take time, the local building official began enforcing Special Inspection requirements as part of the permit application process in January 2003. In the very early stages of the program, Mecklenburg County officials relied on the design professional to state the Special Inspection requirements in the project documents when they were submitted for plan review and approval.

Early in the process, Mecklenburg County officials evaluated existing Special Inspections programs, specifically those from Kansas City, Las Vegas and Richmond, VA. Additionally, Mecklenburg County reached out to the local design engineering, testing and inspection professional community for advice and input to solicit ideas on how a Special Inspections program should be set up, implemented and enforced. One area of particular interest to the County was ensuring that truly qualified and experienced individuals were inspecting the work in the field.

The Mecklenburg County building officials recognized that field observations and inspections of work is a vital part of a successful Special Inspections program, and felt strongly that enforcement of inspector qualifications was essential. They evaluated several different means and methods for the approval of Special Inspectors. Again, the County asked local testing and inspection firms for input. Certifications, training, and experience were researched with the end product being 19 classifications of Special Inspector work types, each with criteria for approval by the County.

Another area of interest to Mecklenburg County was integrating information technology and the Internet into the program. Although Mecklenburg County is one of the southeast’s largest code enforcement departments, the County was very aware of the need for resources to develop, implement and enforce a well-defined Special Inspections program. Resource concerns included storing and maintaining records of submitted project documentation, additional administrative personnel, and researching and approving applications for Special Inspectors. The solution to addressing these concerns was to develop an on-line document submittal database that would be accessible by the code officials and the project team.

The result is Meck-si.com, Mecklenburg County ’s Paperless Special Inspection Management System. Implemented in January 2006, Meck-si.com is an Internet-based system that provides users with the definitions, requirements, procedures, forms, approvals, and submittal procedures for a comprehensive Special Inspections management program.

Edward S. Prince, AIA, CSI, CCCA, Esq. of Mecklenburg County Code Enforcement said that Meck-si.com is the solution to paper-based special inspection management.

“The pros of Meck-si.com are that we have improved inspector efficiency, cost savings, and consistency of our program being administered in the same manner,” Mr. Prince said. “There is also an ease of use in Meck-si.com through electronic searches, rules-based workflow, better quality control and better access.”

The program developed by Mecklenburg County is patented and available for other code enforcement agencies that may not have the resources or man-power to implement such a program.

“Essentially, Meck-si.com is Special Inspections in a box,” added Mr. Prince.

Special Inspections is expected to continue evolving over the next several years as the International Code Council, state, and building code officials learn more about the processes and receive feedback from owners, design professionals, contractors and field inspectors. Special Inspections are here to stay – with better communication and more comprehensive inspections resulting in higher quality construction, perhaps we can reduce or even eliminate Murphy’s Law from building construction projects.