Trending the Future of Code Enforcement

A lot of people thought 4929 Forest unapproved building alterations were no big deal; not worth pursuing. No health hazard or safety issues were involved, and had builder Michael Prince come before village council (as he had twice already) asking permission in advance of changes (as required), they would have been granted.

Commissioner Waldack had reservations and made a motion that the walls be changed back to the original brick masonry. It died quietly for lack of a second, with no discussion about issuing 4929 Forest an occupancy permit with the condition Mike Prince not start another building until he finished changing back to the approved and spec’d masonry walls on this building.

Some changes and variances were granted the project in March 2007: allowing higher density (4 additional units) and smaller parking spaces. Some changes were not authorized; substituting brick for stone, changing the roof from a faux mansard, and changing wall construction in large areas from brick masonry, to “stucco”.

That stucco is actually a Senerflex® Adhered Mat Design feature, manufactured by BASF Wall Systems. It is Tyvek, a mesh with cement, styrofoam (rigid) panels cut and placed to create walls, cornices, detail features, and then sprayed with a primer and a finish coat of acrylic polymer mud and you’re done. Does it look good? It looks terrific.

The architect drawings show a cross section of the design. According to BASF’s sales brochure, Senerflex®Adhered Mat Design is “used when an unobstructed plane is required to allow the exit of incidental moisture from the structure’s walls. It is ideal for retrofit over walls that are not suited to adhesive attachment.” It comes with a seven year wear/seven year moisture warranty. Masonry typically will last forever with rare tuck pointing needs. Is it cheaper than brick? Yes. Initially.

There’s the rub; cheap now for the builder, more expensive later for the homeowners. Michael Prince has moved some of the life-cycle costs of his building downstream into the future, where the cost is not his.

Note: remember this life-cycle costing concept. It is important to the village moving forward. More later…

Back to the trending issue at hand: does this start a trend, or change direction of a trend in our village?Is this a trend for how we want buildings built in downtown Downers Grove?

Acadia On The Green began life as a full four floor steel and masonry construction (like 4929 Forest BTW). It changed structure design when the National Building Code changed, and the top three floors were built out with wood, and a brick facade on the exterior walls. That was cheaper than a full steel and masonry building, the required design up until a couple years ago. And now this, changing 4929 Forest wall construction to save some construction costs, and to move things along faster.

That was a differently made up council, and they fared just as well as the current council, trying to figure out, as Commissioner Durkin so aptly fired off “How did this happen?”

The village council can bring to bear the long view of the Strategic Plan, and of the Total Community Discussion, to the process of legislating good codes, and of setting good policy. Good codes makes for clear direction; good policy makes for long term solutions. A wall guaranteed to last for seven years is not a long term solution.

Every builder in every town posts up a bond for their project; the bigger the project the bigger the bond. Village has the option of pulling any fines levied out of that posted bond, for things like not following the requirements. The builders all know this. The village staff have enforced it many times.

Updated: Staff has confirmed that when the permit was issued, no bonding fee was required by the village. What can rightly be considered a huge loophole in the planning and enforcement process, has since been closed by staff.

Take a look at a blow-up from the plans filed with the village. This is a trail of the changes made. You see four changes are made for permit purposes; this probably where he asked for permission and it was granted. The last (top) three changes don’t appear to be made to meet the requirements of a revised building permit; they were done later. These are probably the changes for which council forgiveness will be granted in January 2008.

The trend for enforcement of future projects? Builder Michael Prince knew those changes needed approval but took a pass. He told staff to take him to council and they’d get it straightened out. Council sure did; they let Michael Prince completely off the hook no matter which way you cut it; council even went on public record agreeing they were letting him off the hook, both at the January 8th workshop meeting and at the January 15th Council meeting where they approved it unanimously 6-0 (Schnell was absent).

The trend for clarity in enforcement of requirements? This doesn’t straighten anything out; this twists it up in new and innovative ways. Now, any builder who does what he pleases, now he can cry foul if he’s ever fined or brought to account for not following the rules. A precedent has been set. The requirements now have an asterisk by them*.

A trend for consistency with all builders and with neighboring municipalities? Some other builders I spoke with (none wanted to be on record) were miffed. They paid fines here and there over the years; it’s part and parcel of building. Hinsdale’s tough; village inspectors watch you like a hawk just waiting for you to do something not exactly in the approved plans. Naperville’s tough too: they just don’t care why you can’t quite do what you said; too bad, it’s fine time. Oh, and all those insubstantial changes? Change everything back to reflect the plan that was approved. Or else. Joliet is typical of many communities. Like Downers Grove they work very closely with the builder so everyone is dialed in before construction starts; from then on it has to be exactly as the approved plans show or they must get permission for changes. Want to keep building in Joliet? Follow the rules.

In one sense, building is a race against time to finish/sell a project before construction loans and costs eat you up. Materials get more expensive every month you delay, any corners that can be cut to save a buck, a nickel; all are weighed. If you’re good at it, you make some money, you do more. If you’re not, you rarely get to keep going. Even if you’re good with one project, it’s no guarantee the next won’t be your last.

You don’t always get it right and then the inspectors write you up and fine you, ding you, and you try and avoid more in the future by playing it by the rules. In return, you get to build in desirable areas where people pay a premium to move and live. Statistics kept by the Village Department of Community Development show a trend; a trend that enforcement and fines work. But council has sent the message loud and clear: no foul, no fines, nothing to see here, move on. The rules changed. What did they change to?

The possible new trend in rules? Say whatever it takes to get the project past the Plan Commission and get it approved by council, and then build it how you want, as long as it’s close. If it poses no health or safety problems and is in code, council will approve it; council said they would approve it. Said my friend Bob the Builder, “Over there, they’re tough and consistent. Over here, now somebody else got a break we didn’t. What about us? We’ve built here, and paid fines here, and try and follow rules here. When do we get our free pass? Do we get one from now on?”

Actions speak louder than words. Rather than say to builders that builder expectations for variances and exceptions should be severely lowered, council has, by it’s actions, trended towards publicly lowering the village expectations of builders. Builders will be happy to oblige and meet this new trend, these lowered expectations, and even test that new bottom, all in the quest to build a bit cheaper. Does council want that trend to continue? I have to say of course not. There’s just that problem that they have taken deliberated, and deliberate, steps to do just that.

This trending is not a trend towards sound, consistent public policy.

*Rules need not apply. See your local village council for details.

3 Responses to “Trending the Future of Code Enforcement”

  1. sidelineobserver Says:

    Back when you ran for council you did a fiscal analysis that showed buses cheaper than parking decks over the life of the deck. You should repost that one. It shows a similar disregard for common sense by a different council, led that time by Mayor Krajewski and Commissioner Durkin.

  2. Bob the Builder Says:

    I’d rather have tough and consistent than weak and variable any day. I have to know what to expect, and whether I’m on an even playing field.

  3. The Downtown TCF Bank Site Development Proposal « …in Downers Grove Says:

    […] residents have had enough of developers that get a project approved then do whatever they please; here’s to hoping these guys are the real deal. The proof is of course in the pudding, but a […]

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