Quality Manager ABCs for ABC (CC#95 Part 3: Getting into the weeds with the idea of Approved Building Consultants)

(City Conversation #95 Part 3 was first published 8-Jan-2023)
(For a list of City Conversations by Brian Palmquist on CityHallWatchplease visit this page.)

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January 8th 2022— Conversation #95, Part 1 outlined the current permitting maze in Vancouver and sets the stage for Part 2’s suggested solutions.  Part 3 responds to several reader questions and comments:

BC’s engineers already have a Quality Management System (QMS)—Vancouver’s charter lets it work with Architects + others engaged in building design + construction to create and implement a QMS in the public interest & at a fraction of the current time and costs

Perhaps it’s just post-Christmas doldrums, but more folks than usual read, commented on and questioned Part 2 of my Approved Building Consultant City Conversation. My son’s off snowboarding so I’ll have to try to answer the questions without his assistance—I’ve synopsized the questions in italics:

What would the ABC “quality management” system you alluded to in Part 2 have as its principles?

At each stage of a project, including planning, design, construction and occupancy, the ABCs would execute ABC assurance letters designed to protect the public interest. ABC work would be peer reviewed by other, independent ABCs (i.e., independent professionals, NOT from the same firm). That means the peer reviewers would verify that the work satisfied codes and regulations. Structural engineers already do this, generally for a modest fee paid by clients because they are reviewers, not designers, where most of the effort is. The other engineers as well as Architects could easily implement similar systems. All Architects and Engineers now come under what’s called the Professional Services Governance Act (PSGA), which is a government-run overseer that can monitor the effectiveness of the ABC quality management system. So the key principles are:

  • Professional assurance
  • Professional peer review
  • Government oversight

Who would pay the extra fees of ABCs and their peer reviewers?

Their clients. At the moment it takes on average two years in Vancouver for an approved rezoning project to get its first building permit. Saving most of two years of interest at current rates will cover multiples of ABC fees.

Who would actually do ABC work, especially peer review work? I understand there’s a shortage of workers and professionals just about everywhere.

A majority of my work in my 40+ year checkered career was specialized Certified Professional (CP) and Building Envelope Professional (BEP) work—it paid me much better than conventional architecture. ABC work could be similarly specialized and command better fees. History says there would be no shortage of uptake.

Can the ABC concept create a more level playing field at City Hall, with less apparent favouritism?

I’m actually not aware of any favouritism or influence at play—it may seem that way because of excessive wait times.

With the ABC approach, a project’s ABC will present their documents at city hall and expect to collect whatever permit they’ve applied for in a week or less. It’s pretty much impossible to un-level a playing field in less than a week.

Would the ABC approach help integrate the work of rezoning staff, development application staff, building and trade permit plan checkers and building inspectors?

Yes, because the ABC’s assurance that work complied with zoning and building regulations would dramatically reduce the number of municipal staff who would need to “touch” an application.

How does the ABC approach mesh with the existing Certified Professional (CP) and Building Envelope Professional (BEP) programmes, which are advertised as improving city staff time performance?

I expect that many CPs and BEPs would take the courses and write the exams to become ABCs. Their previous training would comprise a significant portion of what they would need to understand as ABCs.

What about the “green building” programmes—LEED, Passive House and various other sundry?

As I mentioned in Part 2, green building programmes do not require that their designated professionals be Architects or Engineers. I’m not being snooty about this—in BC only Architects and Engineers provide assurance letters that protect the public. Green building practitioners who are also Architects or Engineers (there are many) would have no issue. As with Building Designers, other green building workers would need to create an accepted quality management system if they wanted to undertake ABC services.

Could the ABC approach work elsewhere in BC?

Absolutely. All of BC is covered by the BC Building Code (BCBC), except Vancouver with its Vancouver Building Bylaw (VBBL)—but the VBBL is structured the same as the BCBC, just with some Vancouver-specific requirements around heritage preservation, building upgrades for older structures, etc.

The key common element to the BCBC and the VBBL for more complex buildings is the requirement for letters of assurance by all the involved professionals. These provide the public with better protection, as evidenced by the fact there have been no building collapses in BC since they were introduced more than 30 years ago. The BC government has the power to create an ABC letter of assurance.

As the ABC approach would also cover planning and design work, an ABC would have to demonstrate knowledge of the municipal zoning regulations they were proposing to work in. This should not be an issue—many jurisdictions already require Designers to verify their understanding of local regulations—could be covered off in the ABC assurance letter.

What about the smaller buildings—single family homes and small commercial structures?

The municipalities that recognize the CP program already have the ability to allow the use of the CP program on smaller buildings, at municipal discretion. The ABC approach could remain discretionary, better yet, optional on the part of owners and developers of smaller structures. I think having an ABC option at the applicant’s request, which would reduce municipal staff involvement might be a suitable impetus to slower city halls to “up their game.”

What about the designers of smaller buildings?

At the moment smaller buildings generally do not require registered professionals or assurance letters. Building Designers (who are by definition NOT registered professionals) and their clients have to accept whatever review processes each separate municipality requires of them.

In an ABC environment, the Building Designers would be encouraged to establish a quality management system substantively the same as the ABC system for registered professionals. Architect/ABCs working on smaller projects would already be covered. This is not rocket science.

What about the homeowner who simply wants a new garage or a deck?

These would be outside the ABC environment, so subject to municipal processes. However, in many jurisdictions these processes are already fairly simple. The ABC approach would free up municipal staff from larger projects that consume much of their time. So the lineup for non-ABC projects would be smaller and permitting would be faster.

Sometimes building inspectors change or add to construction requirements during a project, especially a smaller one—will the ABC approach help that?

Probably. If Building Designers create their own ABC program that complies with what we’ve been talking about, or if smaller project clients hire an Architect/ABC (many Architects specialize in smaller projects), it will be much more difficult for an inspector to challenge or change construction—they will be challenging the ABC rather than the homeowner or small contractor. 

How much more will all this ABC stuff cost the public?

Zero. As with the CP and BEP programmes, tuition and exam fees for folks wanting the ABC designation will be paid by them or their employers. Same for any renewal or update education.

Right now each municipality sets its own fees for its various, rezoning, development, building and occupancy permits. There would still be costs to populate the permit counters, review the documents submitted by ABCs for completeness, etc., but they would be a fraction of current costs. 

These are the promises of an ABC approach.


Today’s question: Does the concept of Approved Building Consultants make sense to you?

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By Brian Palmquist

Brian Palmquist is a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired for the moment, still teaching and writing, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” and working on a book about how we can accommodate a growing population while saving the Vancouver we love.

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