“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Juvenal wrote that 1,800 years ago — “Who will watch the watchmen?”
“Not only is the fox guarding the henhouse, the fox has opened up a KFC franchise.” My writing partner Benjamin Wachs and I wrote that sentence a mere 11 years ago, regarding San Francisco specifically. And, you know, both quotes feel painfully relevant right now.
On April 21, Mission Local published a report revealing that, during the city’s thousands of mandatory seismic retrofits, unknown numbers of gas pipes were improperly encased in new concrete grade beams, a component of a foundation, creating the potential for “catastrophic” failures, in the words of the city’s own chief plumbing inspector in 2017.
This situation was noted by building inspectors in the field and presented to Department of Building Inspection higher-ups five years ago — and inconsistent enforcement, nonsensical processes and potential looming consequences were discussed, in detail, by the department’s structural subcommittee four years ago.
No action was taken. Worse than that: The problem was buried, along with those pipes.
Then-chief building inspector Patrick O’Riordan penned a dictum to building inspectors in 2017, specifically ordering them “do not stop the work” in situations in which a gas line is encased in a new concrete foundation.
O’Riordan, now the interim director of the entire department, in 2017 also instructed building inspectors encountering such a problem to inform the plumbing department. But a source within the plumbing department says that building inspectors who actually followed this rule and did so “were transferred out. They were making noise, and that was not the appropriate thing to do.”
In recent months, following our stories and others in the media, the building department has pledged that it’ll “own” this situation. But its representatives have also minimized it, obfuscated it, and made bizarre and misleading statements during public forums.
So, we should be skeptical that the department alerted to a problem five years ago that chose to silence its internal critics and minimize things — and is still minimizing them — will get to the bottom of this. Especially when to do so would be an indictment of elements of the department’s present leadership.
In short, we’re assigning the watchmen to watch the watchmen. Watch how this goes.
During a June 7 Board of Supervisors hearing regarding the matter of gas lines encased in grade beams, Department of Building Inspection officials said some of the darndest things.
First, they have no idea how many mandatory retrofits may have a gas line encased in a new grade beam (and the department’s handy-dandy estimate that only one-third of the 4,000 completed projects required a new grade beam was based upon a “survey,” meaning this is hardly hard data that one can begin making extrapolations with).
But, more troublingly, they have no idea what the condition is of those pipes now buried beneath the concrete. The plumbing code would require them to be “sleeved” — essentially protected within a hard, larger pipe. But San Francisco building department officials claimed at this hearing that merely “wrapping” these pipes, which is exactly what it sounds like it is, is an “approved method.”
Now, this was a hell of a thing to say. First of all, as code expert and former Santa Clara supervising plumbing inspector Douglas Hansen stated at the hearing, this is dubiously sufficient. As he noted, wrapping a pipe is meant to protect against corrosion, but not against structural issues of the sort that could occur in an earthquake (or even just over the years, earthquake or not).
Consider this example: Wearing a knit cap may keep you warm. But it wouldn’t be advisable to put one on in lieu of a crash helmet and head off for a ride on your motorcycle. These are drastically different items meant to perform drastically different tasks.
But wait, there’s more: The Department of Building Inspection’s claims that wrapping a pipe is an “approved method” don’t equate. Such approvals aren’t derived from a wave of a magic wand or some manner of regal pronouncement. Rather, it’s codified in an administrative bulletin, DBI claims.
No such bulletin exists. It was remarkable that the building department would walk into the baited trap of using the term “approved method” in front of our city supervisors. Especially when the supe who chaired the June 7 hearing, Myrna Melgar, used to serve on the Building Inspection Commission and knows damn well about the necessity for an administrative bulletin. And that there isn’t one about wrapping gas pipes.
But wait, there’s more: Without an administrative bulletin defining just what the hell wrapping is and just what the hell you can do, just about anything goes. So building inspectors’ tales of pipes being wrapped in duct tape, electrical tape, building paper, or nothing at all loom large. You can wrap your pipes in Bazooka Joe comics and, as long as a building inspector doesn’t make noise, fair’s fair.
And, remember what happens to building inspectors who make noise.
Nine days after a chastening appearance in front of the Board of Supervisors, building department officials were left to explain this situation to their own Building Inspection Commission.
This, too, was a strange exhibition.
O’Riordan, for one, said that wrapping of gas pipes has been an “accepted practice” in his 24 years in the department, and probably long before.
San Francisco building inspectors — and, perhaps, building inspectors everywhere — have a standing joke about what happens when a contractor is informed he’s doing something wrong: He’ll reply, “I’ve been doing it this way for years.” So, it was odd to hear the head of the department essentially use this very line.
O’Riordan also referred to the wrapping of gas pipes as an “industry standard.” Very interesting — but it’s not in the codes the Department of Building Inspection ostensibly exists to enforce.
And the codes are clear regarding wrapping these pipes. If the Department of Building Inspection wanted to alter them and deem wrapping an “approved method,” it could have created an administrative bulletin. It didn’t. In lieu of that, anyone who wanted to wrap a gas pipe and/or run it through a foundation could have trotted out Administrative Bulletin 005, and requested approval for an alternate process that doesn’t meet code on a case-by-case basis.
This hasn’t been happening.
Separate and apart from so-called “industry standards,” them’s the rules. Them’s the codes. And there’s a reason we have building codes in this and every city, and not just troops of men wandering around and saying “this is how I used to do it.”
When San Francisco building inspectors noticed gas lines running through foundations, they took their concerns to management. They were instructed to “not stop the work.” And, multiple sources say, they were punished for pushing this issue.
That’s how it went here. But not everywhere: When Los Angeles building inspectors noted the very same problem in 2016 during mandatory seismic retrofits in that city, the issue was taken seriously.
This document is the entry point for 12,147 Los Angeles retrofits and, thus far, 8,801 approved permits. And, you’ll note, section 5i states: “Gas pipes not allowed in grade beam unless approval is obtained from Gas Company.” If such approval is granted, then applicants must fill out 5j: “Provide details for possible pipe intrusion.”
In San Francisco, we presently have no idea what’s buried in these new grade beam foundations. There isn’t a line on a checklist that explicitly asks whether there was a gas line running through it. All we know is that the inspector, who may have been doing 12 to 15 inspections in a day and may or may not have known or cared about the distinctions between sleeving or wrapping — and may or may not have been on the up and up — marked that everything was okay.
“The determination to add this to the correction sheet was based on feedback from our field inspection staff,” explains Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety spokesman Jeff Napier. “Existing gas lines from the utility at times were found to be in areas where new grade beams were being installed.” Barring the gas company’s approval, these lines must be moved.
“This would often result in construction delays since the utility was not allowing their gas lines to penetrate the concrete beams. Calling attention to this issue early on in the planning stage was done to try and avoid these construction delays.”
This is not a perfect document and Los Angeles’ building department is not a perfect entity. But a document like this would have solved so many problems in San Francisco.
This would’ve nipped in the bud the problem of gas lines in foundations. It would have given everyone a clear and unambiguous record of just what’s underneath the thousands of mandatory retrofits. And it would’ve quashed the monthslong delays incurred when PG&E gets involved in a project unexpectedly and in its latter stages instead of in a planned manner at its inception.
We would have, in short, avoided the fine mess we’re in.
And, more broadly than the issue of gas lines in concrete, structural engineers have, since 2016, complained of overall shoddy design on the city’s thousands of mandatory soft-story projects — by engineers who may not have even visited the site. They have also raised concerns over poor construction and lax or even nonexistent inspections by the city. But the engineers’ warnings were, for years, blown off by the Department of Building Inspection.
Now that this is a newspaper story, however, the building department appears more receptive. And that’s great. But five years have gone by since the engineers first raised this red flag, and thousands of projects have been completed in the interregnum.
We may yet rue this lengthy period of obstructionism and denial. As building officials in the Miami area could readily tell you, it’s better to avoid a calamity than have to piece together, post-facto, how it happened and what was missed.
“I’m not prone to shine Los Angeles’ shield and make it brighter, but this is an impressive document,” says Lonnie Haughton, a contractor and an expert in building codes who has written several lengthy histories of San Francisco’s building department and its building codes.
“The fact all this work was done here without some document like this, without any administrative bulletins, without any guidance, and without any clear focus is a black mark on the City and County of San Francisco.”
It didn’t have to be this way. But it was. And it may well continue to be, as long as we continue putting the watchmen in charge of watching the watchmen.