Anchorage's Climate and Remoteness Pose Challenges, But Building Safety Is More Than Up to the Task
He only paid 2 cents an acre for it, but U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward was still mocked for agreeing to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867. The transaction was referred to as “Seward’s folly” and “Seward’s icebox,” and some newspaper editorials said the money had been wasted on a “polar bear garden.” One hundred fifty years later, there would be no argument that the United States got itself quite a bargain for what eventually would become the nation’s 49th state.
Located in south-central Alaska, Anchorage covers nearly 2,000 square miles and has a population of about 300,000 people — more than 40 percent of the state’s residents. It began as a railroad construction port for the Alaska Engineering Commission in 1914, and the city has relied heavily on oil since it was discovered by ARCO in Prudhoe Bay in 1968.
In 1964, Anchorage was devastated by the second-largest earthquake in recorded history, a magnitude-9.2 temblor that lasted nearly five minutes, killed 115 people, and caused $311 million in damage. Much of the next decade was spent rebuilding.
The Development Services department is responsible for enforcing land-use regulations and helping get construction projects completed safely and according to code. Within Development Services, the Building Safety department includes the various inspectors and plan reviewers who work with contractors and homeowners every step of the way to make sure the building process is as efficient as possible.
Gary Hile, the Chief Plumbing Inspector, has been with the department since 1992. He is one of the department’s six plumbing and mechanical inspectors, along with five electrical inspectors, six structural inspectors, three elevator inspectors, and two code abatement inspectors — structural inspectors who work mostly on jobs without permits, licensing, and dangerous buildings.
A former president of IAPMO’s Board of Directors, Hile first got involved with IAPMO after attending an annual Education and Business Conference in 1993. After serving on several committees, he joined the Board of Directors in 2002, ultimately becoming president in 2012.
Hile credited his IAPMO membership with providing him access to networking with other inspectors in different jurisdictions. Inspectors tend to see the same kinds of code problems, and he said he appreciates the opportunity to see how they handle them. He said it also helps him in terms of implementing the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC®), which governs the state of Alaska.
“It also has made me a much more technical person and I’ve gained a lot more knowledge of the code that I’m able to share with my fellow inspectors and staff, contractors, etc.,” he said. “So I think just the networking and the amount of knowledge that you’re exposed to is reason enough to get involved with IAPMO. There are some really smart people in the organization that know a lot more than I do, and I’m trying to feed off that, learn and absorb, and try to take that and use it in the day to day.”
During an interview earlier this year in his first-floor office, Hile said the number of plumbing and mechanical inspections in a typical day varies depending on the time of the year. Early in the year five or six per day is typical, with that number doubling or even tripling later in the year when the weather is warmer.
“The bowl of Anchorage is pretty vast, so with five inspectors they have fairly large areas we have to cover,” Hile said. “We try to work as efficiently as possible by establishing a route; we try to accommodate the customers as well by allowing them to request an a.m. or p.m. inspection. We don’t make appointments, per se, we just try to establish a route that’s the most efficient.”
The Municipality of Anchorage was formed in 1975 when the city merged with the Greater Anchorage Area Borough, which includes such communities as Girdwood and Eagle River. The area also includes Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson Army Base, which have been combined and are now referred to as Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or J-BER.
Residential construction projects within the municipality, but not the city proper, are required to obtain land use permits instead of building permits, Hile said, so there is still documentation. “Typically, though, their homes will be inspected by a third-party inspector, and that’s what they do up in Eagle River and north of us, which is still part of the municipality,” Hile said. “They’re required to follow all the same rules, all our local amendments; a lot of people aren’t aware of that, but they’re not subject to inspections by our department.”
The weather is the most obvious challenge that builders in Anchorage face, but it is by no means the only one. In addition to the below-zero temperatures and abundance of snow, Hile said there has been a trend of increasing freeze-thaw cycles, where it will be near zero one day and around 40 degrees the next.
“That just makes a mess,” he said. “I mean, the roads are like a hot mop ice rink, and then obviously we’re in a very active seismic zone, much like California, so we’ve got all these seismic requirements. And then additionally we have wind areas, 100- to 120-mile-an-hour winds. So you put all that together, that’s about as challenging as you can get. So we have a lot of local amendments that are climatic in nature because of our weather. We try to keep them that way, too; we try not to write code, although it happens. It’s just normal, but we try to focus on just making changes due to the weather conditions that we live in.”
One such example Hile cited was venting gas-fired appliances. “A lot of times they’ll come out the side of the house and up the building; they have to put that in an insulated chase, equal to R19,” he said. “Otherwise there’s the potential for cold stacking, which would not allow it to vent properly.”
Making sure water doesn’t freeze is another priority. Hile said all mains and water lines serving homes must be at least 10 feet below grade so they get below the frost level and do not break, though he acknowledged that still does occur.
“Most of it’s just making sure it’s in an envelope, that the cold transfer or the wind or anything won’t affect it, because the wind blowing across it, if you’re not sealed up properly, could cause a problem,” he said. “We have extremely tight construction here; probably more than a lot of places, your typical places, because it’s cold. And there are different programs, energy ratings, that the builders can get depending on how tight they are. You can almost get them too tight though, to where they’re not breathing, I think.”
Perhaps more than anywhere else in the United States, the season dictates the building and inspection schedule. The building season typically runs from April to October, so there is a sense of urgency to complete as much work as possible during that time. However, the work does not end once there is snow on the ground; most of it just moves inside.
“We usually get our first snow in October,” Hile said. “It doesn’t always stick though. It just depends from year to year, but what happens is the temperatures drive down so much that it creates a problem when pouring concrete, so they have to start heating the foundations and buildings. They have to tent them, and then they bring out these big gas-fired heaters called Sure Flames — 400,000 Btu or the bigger ones, a million Btu —just to have a big tent, and that’s costly, because they’re not really insulated or anything; it’s just a big visqueen tent and they’re constantly heating it, and it really drives the cost of construction up.”
In addition to the interior work that is performed during the snowy season, plumbing and mechanical inspectors keep busy year round with permits and inspections for the replacement of water heaters, furnaces, boilers, unit heaters, and installation of fireplaces.
The department works to keep up with technology, as inspectors now rely on electronic tablets while out in the field.
“It’s pretty nice because when we go out there we have an option; we can either print a copy or, for the most part, we just email a copy of the inspection right from the job site,” Hile said. “And that helps out a lot because the contractor used to have to go to the job site and read what we wrote up, so it’s much more efficient for them. It goes right to their phone.”
Hile led Official on a tour of the department, and Chief of Inspections Hans Gisler elaborated on one of the main challenges builders and inspectors in Alaska face. Gisler said that in addition to the weather, Alaska’s remoteness is among the main problems the construction industry faces, particularly when it comes to new products that may not have been certified yet. However, he said that is becoming less of an issue now that there are UL and ETL representatives up there.
“Before that you actually had to schedule it, call it, and it cost a fortune just to have little equipment UL listed,” he said. “In Anchorage it’s not as bad, but the further you go away from here it gets more complicated.”
Alaska’s latitude means that during the winter months there are only about six hours of daylight, and during the summer it’s light almost all day.
“It’s just dark,” Hile said of the winter months. “You’ve got your flashlights. It’s dark when you go out and it’s dark when you come home. The sun’s not coming up until 10 o’clock or so, and goes down about 3. And of course in the summer it’s the opposite, you can play golf at midnight, in the midnight sun. It never really gets dark in June, it just gets kind of dusk looking. You can almost watch the sun go down and come right back up. When I was younger, I used to do that. People are mowing their lawns at 10 o’clock at night.”
Electronic tablets are not the only way in which the department is embracing technology. During the second half of 2016, electronic plan review became an option for customers. Engineering Services Manager Ross Noffsinger said fewer than 30 projects have gone through it so far, but he’s optimistic it will become more popular.
The e-plan review process begins with customers filling out the commercial application the old-fashioned way, but then the department enters the application into specialized tracking software. If the customer chooses e-plan review, an invitation will be sent to continue the process entirely online. “Basically they would apply for their permit the old way, by filling out the commercial application, and then we input that into our Infor Public Sector permit tracking software, and if they choose to go electronic plan review, that will automatically send them an invite to upload their drawings. And then they upload the drawings and we prescreen them obviously to make sure they’re uploaded correctly, and once they are uploaded correctly then they’re routed to the relevant plan review disciplines for review.”
Noffsinger said there’s a fairly good learning curve for using e-plan review on the public side, but ultimately it should speed up the process because the comments are usually written directly on the drawing.
“We should be more successful in getting the comment resolved the first time and eliminate that review iteration where you’re going back and forth with the engineer because they didn’t really understand the comment and they responded to it anyway, and got it wrong,” he said. “In the end, it’ll save. I think where it really saves is eliminating review iterations. It doesn’t really save the plan reviewer and doing that initial review, but if we could save one re-review, that’s a big time saver for everybody.”
The tour moved upstairs to the office of Kent Kohlhase, who has served as Acting Building Official since April 2016. Hile pointed out that there is no review of plumbing, mechanical, or electrical systems for residential construction, only for commercial projects.
There is also an exemption for third-party review of the structural elements for residential construction. The Anchorage Assembly passed the exemption, which gives homebuilders the option of going through plan review or using an independent third-party credentialed person, such as a designer or an engineer.
Kohlhase said the exemption is a challenge for the department as a whole, and was made, in large part, to provide some efficiencies for the building industry. However, the department’s structural inspectors face a number of issues in the field as a result.
“When we review plans we have a staff of five or six reviewers, including three or four structural reviewers, and they’re very consistent,” he said. “They have consistency meetings, they talk about issues amongst themselves; the third-party plan review community is fairly broad and they don’t interact probably to the degree that we do so we see a lot of inconsistency in plans. We see some very good plans, we see plans with a lot of issues and concerns. And our inspectors are really tasked with having to catch those things in the field. They are really doing structural plan review in the field sometimes, and it becomes contentious at times.”
Expedited/Express Plan Review
For those for whom time is of the essence, for an extra fee the department offers an expedited plan review process for residential and commercial projects for the first cycle and express plan review for subsequent cycles. Kohlhase said the expedited process moves the plan to the top of the next available reviewer’s list — rather than the bottom — and typically saves two to three weeks for commercial projects.
“When folks are behind schedule, fighting the weather, or looking to get in the ground early in the spring if it’s a big project they want to finish in one year,” he said, “our building season is short so a few weeks can really help folks out.”
For the express plan review, any applicable reviewers sit down with the designer and discuss concerns rather than engaging in a back-and-forth process that can take several weeks. The department actually borrowed this idea from the Clark County Building Department, whose area includes the Las Vegas Strip.
“It can really save time for somebody, especially if they’re on the second or third review and the comments are kind of being winnowed down to the harder ones to resolve,” Kohlhase said.
The department also accepts deferred submittals for portions of the design, such as shear or curtain walls, so that contractors can get their projects started as soon as possible.
Hile said the department will frequently issue a “footing- and foundation-only approval” so they can start digging and get the foundation in while the remaining part of the project is still in review.
“Some people forget that hasn’t been approved and go beyond the scope of what they’re supposed to do,” he said, “but it is a way for us to try to help them get moving on the projects and do any underground plumbing, so that’s important to do to get the slab poured. They’re supposed to wait until the rest of the review is complete before they move forward, but, again, a lot of times they neglect to —”
“Once they have a permit they tend to just keep moving,” Kohlhase added, explaining that during his year-plus as Acting Building Official inspectors have seen a number of plans that don’t have beam sizes on them, or column sizes, and connections might not be detailed. “Our inspectors, they’re a really skilled group of folks who, most of them worked in private industry. They’ve got a strong background, and they’ve caught discontinuous load paths where there needed to be moment connections that weren’t even designed into the drawings,” he said. “They’ve caught shear walls that are missing, they’ve caught undersized footings, things like that. So it ranges from omissions from the plans all the way to fairly serious design errors. It doesn’t happen very often, but they do come up.”
“Things that would typically be caught during plan review, most likely, if they were submitted through our department. So it’s put more work on us in the long run,” Hile said.
“It really has,” Kohlhase agreed.
“Because you have to be a little more careful and detailed in your inspections,” Hile said.
“And, there’s certainly contention during plan review if there’s disagreement,” Kohlhase said, “but there’s probably even more contention when an inspector in the field doesn’t sign off on an element of work because they’ve seen an error in the plans, because that means everybody has to stop, the designer has to come in, the homebuilder has to come in, sometimes the plan reviewer comes in as well, and there’s a meeting that isn’t always the most cordial because everything’s ground to a halt and time is money.
“I think from an overall consistency standpoint, we think it’s probably better to have all plan reviews done in house.”
At this point Jack Frost, Acting Director of Development Services, entered Kohlhase’s office. When asked about which challenges the department faces, he pointed to manpower. From 2008 to 2009, more than 30 positions were cut, and the department ultimately lost about 40 employees to get to its current number of 64.
“It was a four-phased cut,” he said. “We started in 2008; I want to say we had to cut $2.6 million in salaries.” “So they cut to that level and since then the economy, up until now, has been climbing,” Kohlhase said. “In the past couple years we’ve been extremely busy, so we’ve had inspectors with — how many inspections a day, Gary?”
“Upward of 15, 16,” Hile said. “That’s on the high end.”
“So that’s an eight-hour day, with prep time in the morning, to look at the inspections, kind of figure out their plan of attack, and then to get out in the field and do them,” Kohlhase said. “So that’s a big challenge.”
With the department still recovering from the drastic staffing cuts due to the recession in 2008, the number of inspections being performed is steadily — but slowly — increasing.
The bulk of the construction work is of the commercial type, and Hile points to the economy and low oil prices as the main reasons why.
“People aren’t spending the money because the economy is slow right now,” he said. “They’re not out looking to spend a half-million dollars for a house. That’s what happened last time, in ’08-’09 we saw an increase in people remodeling; taking what they have and trying to make it better. But like I say, most of this ties to the economy and the price of oil and people are just being cautious.”