Back in April, Mission Local published a pair of special reports about potentially disastrous practices by the city’s Department of Building Inspection.
On April 21, we published a report revealing that, during the city’s thousands of mandatory seismic retrofits, unknown numbers of gas pipes were improperly encased in concrete, inducing the potential for “catastrophic” failures, in the words of the city’s own chief plumbing inspector. Despite this, building inspectors who pressed this issue were purportedly transferred into other positions, and a dictum from then-Chief Building Inspector Patrick O’Riordan instructed field inspectors discovering gas lines encased in concrete to “not stop the work.”
On April 22, we published a report about how the region’s structural engineering association spent years warning the Department of Building Inspection of potentially widespread poor engineering and construction practices, and questionable Department of Building Inspection oversight, on the 4,000-odd completed mandatory retrofit projects. The engineers, by and large, were blown off.
On Monday, June 7, four city supervisors will host a 1:30 p.m. hearing delving into these matters. We’d like to tell you the city’s building department and others have spent the ensuing months in deep introspection. We’d like to tell you that Monday will be a new day, and this department is now ready to remedy actions that took place during a dark period for Department of Building Inspection upper management.
And that may yet come to pass. But preliminary indications so far lead us to predict the department et al. will obfuscate, rebuff our reports and minimize our findings.
“Mission Local has published two stories raising concerns about the City’s soft story program and gas lines running through grade beams beneath homes,” read a Department of Building Inspection communique to a concerned city supervisor.
“I want to reassure you that this program had substantial oversight, followed code and was in line with industry practices. The soft story program permits have been issued appropriately and safely.”
So, Monday will figure to be an interesting day. This city’s mandatory soft-story retrofit program was initiated in 2013. Until late 2016, when the issue of gas lines being encased in new concrete foundations was broached by inspectors, “we passed anything,” says a veteran inspector. Says another, “We never got proper training on it. Generally, we’d say ‘wrap that thing in some tape.’”
So, that’s an interesting way to “follow code.” There are responsible ways to “sleeve” pipes as they traverse through concrete and foundations, but that’s not what’s at issue here. San Francisco building inspectors have spotted gas lines wrapped in duct tape, electrical tape, building paper, or nothing at all, being encased in concrete.
Douglas Hansen is a former senior inspector and plan checker for plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems in Santa Clara, and also the senior author of the Code Check series of building code manuals. He points out that practices such as those observed in San Francisco have been barred by the Universal Plumbing Code since the Truman Administration.
“You are creating a point at which the old piping is going to have a lot of stress on it. And if that piping is rusted and corroded, which it probably is, you are going to have a potential leak,” he says.
“This is ridiculous, to pour concrete over an old gas pipe. This just should not happen.”
It shouldn’t. But, in this city, engineers submitting plans on retrofits are not required to show or even mention gas lines. While diligent and responsible engineers might do this, and diligent and responsible engineers would visit the site and offer contractors detailed instructions on how to deal with gas lines potentially running through foundations, the problem here isn’t with diligent and responsible architects, engineers, or contractors.
“Some professionals either aren’t that competent or, even if they potentially could be competent, they found the market to do cheaper work,” explains Lonnie Haughton, a contractor and an expert in building codes who has written novella-length histories of San Francisco’s building department and its building codes. “If there’s a market for some half-assed engineer, there will be half-assed engineers. That’s how America works.”
While this city’s mandatory retrofitting program has undoubtedly made thousands of buildings stronger, it was also a huge business boom for those involved. A Department of Building Inspection official jokes that seismic contractors proliferated like food trucks. And the regional structural engineers’ association for years complained that the Department of Building Inspection did not set minimum requirements for retrofit plans — requirements that could, perhaps, mandate engineers designing those plans visit the site. Or, while they’re at it, locate the gas service.
“As developers of the program, I don’t think we thought through enough at the beginning [on] the nature of quality control,” structural engineer David Bonowitz told us in April. “I regret we didn’t anticipate a program like this would draw more bad actors.”
So, that gets to “oversight.” As does engineer Thor Matteson noting that, on a city retrofit he designed, the project was given a passing rebar inspection by a DBI building inspector for its foundation, even though the rebar itself was sitting piled in the driveway. Along similar lines, a building inspector told us about his supervisor asking him to come schmooze at a holiday party with developers whose projects he’d be inspecting. When the inspector demurred, saying he had rebar inspections to do on seismic retrofit projects, the supervisor leaned into his cubicle and said, in a stage whisper: “rebar, shmeebar.”
Finally, a building inspector recounted a retrofit job at 147 Wood St. When he arrived, he found work deviating from plans, the rebar for a new foundation sitting in a mud puddle on the bottom of a trench, and a gas line running through it. While the workmen offered to wrap the gas pipe in electrical tape, the inspector said this was a bigger problem, and needed to be fixed.
When he drove by one day later, he says he saw a concrete truck there, pouring. And that was that.
There are some players in the San Francisco construction world “that you have to mollycoddle,” sums up a veteran building inspector. These are the guys with ties to the people in the “corner office.”
“Substantial oversight” can only get you so far. It turns out the term “in line with industry practices” can be rather sinister.
It remains to be seen what PG&E will say at Monday’s hearing. While the company is not held in high regard in this city — one elected official casually referred to them as “motherfuckers” before asking to revise that to “terrible” — the utility giant’s role in this particular matter is circumscribed.
That’s because every party — builders, the building department and others — did everything it could to keep PG&E out of the mandatory retrofitting process. And that was due to concerns that the utility giant’s legendary slowness would gum up the process. If PG&E had been involved on the front end of retrofitting projects, both time and safety concerns could have been alleviated. But that’s not the route the city chose to go.
Regardless, the company likely has no desire to poke its finger in the Department of Building Inspection’s eye: It needs to get its permits processed, just like everyone else. And PG&E, says a source close to the company, has always been deferential to San Franciscans who “overbuild” a foundation or deck over a gas line — certainly more than it is with residents of, say, Berkeley or Marin. More exemptions are provided in San Francisco due to “political fear.”
And that makes some sense when elected officials think PG&E is “terrible” and voters are inclined to reward them for giving PG&E a hard time.
It also remains to be seen what engineers and professionals will say at Monday’s hearing. Some engineers have minimized the findings of our stories, based on the fact that they responsibly accounted for gas intakes on retrofit projects and sleeved them. That’s reassuring, but the problem here doesn’t center on what we know about competent and responsible actors, but, rather, what we don’t know about incompetent and irresponsible actors.
While, following our story, some engineers have minimized the potential for severed pipes and fires in the wake of a seismic event, other engineers — and, perhaps more importantly, plumbing and piping professionals — have taken the opposite tack, especially regarding aging pipes. Settlement issues can lead to pipes leaking or breaking even without an earthquake. And, when the pipes run “under slab” — that is, under a building — the risk is even more dire. In such instances, gas can build up and a hot water heater, a dryer, an automobile ignition or, of course, a clandestine garage cigarette can spark an explosion.
Finally, the plumbing code clearly states that a gas pipe running through a foundation “shall be encased in a protective sleeve or protected by an approved device or method.”
If an engineer has designed a proper sleeving, then the worries are minimal. If there is some other “approved” method, a paper trail and a permit should exist. And if it doesn’t, that’s a problem.
All of which leads to the following next step, proposed by engineer Charles Perry: Identify all the seismically retrofitted buildings; require the engineer of record to sign an affidavit that the gas pipes were properly sleeved where they passed through foundations; and if no documentation exists to demonstrate the gas pipes were handled properly, excavations should ensue.
“Identify the problem. Propose a solution. Do not cast blame. Do not take credit,” suggests Perry. “You will be amazed what you can accomplish when those who created the problem are allowed to be perceived as the heroes who solved the problem.”
Indeed. But first, you must admit there’s a problem. Monday, again, will figure to be an interesting day.
Monday’s hearing is at 1:30 p.m. and viewable on cable channel 26, 78 or 99 (depending on provider). You can watch online at www.sfgovtv.org
For public comment, call 1 (415) 655-0001 / Meeting ID: 187 714 5745
Press *3 to get in line to speak. (This should be done AFTER Item 2 is called)