Illustration by Molly Oleson

“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. 

A gas line, in yellow tape, with a new foundation being built around it.

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. 

Gas line foundation san francisco
A gas line within a new concrete foundation

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. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. LA has always set the standard for building inspection. In Building and Public works construction inspection there is quality control and quality assurance. Public employees always assume the role of quality assurance over quality control. Quality control is done by project engineers, special inspectors, architects, etc; and paid for by the project owner or contractor. This is why you are witnessing a failure in the system. In the 1970’s quality control was figured to be about 2% of the project cost. In the 90’s was about 1%. Now it’s probably between .5 to .75% of the project cost. If you think this is bad you should see what project consultants sell to a Public agency. That’s bad!

  2. Reporting like this is why I donate to Mission Local. Great stuff but, jeez, I wish you had something better to tell me.

  3. Thanks, Joe, and please stay on this. It’s so important.

    Living in a building bought five years ago by The City’s largest real estate speculator—a known slumlord—who’s done nothing but nonstop renovictions under the corrupt “oversight” of DBI, I feel deeply unsafe. To know this is going on throughout The City sends shivers down my spine. Given the risks to public health, safety, and lives, I wish the whole dysfunctional works would be forced to shut down and reconstituted in a more professional manner with an entirely new cast of characters. It’s an extreme move but, without putting an immediate stop to this, every day this continues adds to the number of approved but unsound projects and, thus, innocent people unwittingly placed at extreme risk. It’s illegal, but it’s also morally unconscionable.

  4. Great work, Joe! Keep it coming!

    Where can I find Lonnie Haughton’s lengthy histories of SF DBI and codes? I would love to read that.

  5. Thank you, Joe for your excellent journalism bringing this kind of taxpayer funded stupidity to light. The problem wasn’t made explicit in the article but I believe that the danger exists where the metal gas pipe passes between the soil and the concrete. It doesn’t have to be a grade beam either; it can be a retaining wall or a slab. The building will settle. Earth will settle downwards around the pipe, it will push upwards when it gets wet, or downwards when it dries out. It drags the pipe with it. The pipe is pinched against the concrete and it may be moving up and down hundreds of times over the course of a few years. Many of us have been able to tear through metal with our hands simply by crimping it up and down a few dozen times. The metal suffers fatigue.
    The pipe breaks, the gas leaks. The gas builds up in the ground, in a basement, in a crawl space and maybe reaches a pilot light or a lit match. The results can be catastrophic with loss of life.
    Furthermore, I don’t think anyone knows where this kind of work has been done and where all these potential explosions may occur.

  6. How about 159 Marietta??!! DBI issued a permit and then a CFC with full knowledge the property failed to go through the LEGALLY required structural plan review (Slope side protection Act) required due to the fact the property sits on landslide zone. Without a doubt he home now has insufficient structural modifications required otherwise. DBI and Supervisor Melgar have all been informed yet they ignore the fact that the home now represents a dangerous risk for the new buyers of the home and the neighbors all around and below the home. The best part is Jason Hui, Tom Hui’s son is the engineer of record! Do you think that anything to do with the builder/owner skating around the law???? Just to be clear…O’Riordan and Melgar ignore this fact. Does a home have to slide down the hill for them to listen?

  7. I’m glad you mentioned San Bruno. Don’t let those crooks in DBI blame PG&E for the next explosion in SF. Similarly, PG&E in San Bruno knew the gas lines were there when they were put into bare, rolling hills. Then the city of San Bruno wanted denser housing, and chose “magical thinking” to decide that as long as you can’t see gas pipes, they don’t exist. Wait a few years, San Francisco: those inspectors will be retired and gone. while PG&E is still around to blame by municipal government which wants to take over PG&E’s business territory in SF and can demonize the municipality’s opponents.

    1. Good points. Those few years you mention are just until the Hayward Fault gives way with a quake. The gas lines will be one issue, but think about the Millennium Tower. They “fixed” it by shoring it up on one side and attaching to columns that had already sheared. Remember the photos of those columns? Or the saying about a chain being as strong as its weakest link? Or videos of domino contests? Billions of dollars and thousands of lives later, and we will learn the lessons of Miami in spades.

  8. Pardon me for laughing while reading this. It’s not that the subject matter isn’t important, and extremely disturbing, but rather this gets dangerously close to Herb Caen territory in it’s candor and sarcasm. I say dangerously close, because for those having fingers pointed at them for their serious transgressions, it certainly cannot be desired to be in Herb Caen territory, or Mission Local’s and Mr. Eskenazi’s territories either. Oh how this city needs a complete overhaul. And about those heads being encased in concrete…will there be a future tour guide who will take visitors through town to view them? Can’t wait!

  9. “My writing partner Benjamin Wachs and I wrote that sentence a mere 11 years ago”

    Even more painfully relevant is the Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi
    article “The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.”.
    Written in 2009 when The City budget was “an astonishing $6.6 billion”.
    I have the link on my desktop but try to never open it.
    Gets the angry goin’.
    Not sure how Joe Eskenazi does not sink into complete cynicism from not only the effects of nothing changes but additionally – it keeps getting worse.
    Great work to keep pounding the beat.
    Thank you.

  10. As noted by Joe in a previous column, there are many buildings in the City that have not been properly inspected, as required, during construction. One such building is 2525 16th St., a 4-story, 150,000 sf property that was built in 1924 and is still permitted for light manufacturing use only, according to DBI’s online Permit Tracking records. That building was purchased for $67,000,000 in March, 2018, by Angus McCarthy, longtime President of the BIC. See:

    Since being acquired, several permits for upgrades have been applied for or issued, but only one has been completed. That was a 2018 permit for $300,000 of tenant improvement work on the 3rd floor, and, surprise, surprise, it was issued over-the-counter ☹. That permit, as shown in the online Tracking records, is for work in a building that was supposedly already approved for offices. However, there is no evidence of any such approved change of use from F-2, moderate hazard manufacturing, to B, offices. That kind of change of use would have required many more improvements than that included in the relatively simple, tenant improvement project. That’s because there are many more people occupying an office building than a light manufacturing building. And those requirements are especially true for a nearly 100-year-old building.

    Other permits for the building have been issued or are in the review process, some for as long as 3 years, including ones for fire sprinklers, heating and ventilation, structural work, an accessible entrance, etc., but no inspections have been done on any of them, according to Tracking records. The total value of those permits that have been applied for and issued but not completed, or are still under review, is more than $12,000,000. In addition, there is no evidence that a Certificate of Occupancy for office use has ever been issued. (There was a 2016 permit issued for a change of occupancy, but it was never inspected or completed.)

    Nevertheless, two very large, 3rd floor, office tenant spaces at that address are now listed for lease on the Property Shark commercial property listing website.
    There is also a For Lease sign on the side of the building.

    “How is this possible?”, you ask. Well, maybe Mr. McCarthy’s word is sufficient for DBI Inspectors and other employees ☹. That wouldn’t be a surprise. None of them would like to make it onto the Residential Builders’ Assoc. (RBA) blacklist. If that happened, there would no longer be any chance for promotions for them, even if they were on the list of favorites to begin with.

    Looking back, Mr. McCarthy was appointed to the BIC in 2012 by then mayor Ed Lee. That choice was because of the Charter requirement that one BIC member be a “residential builder”, and, at the time, he was a residential contractor and member of the RBA. That position has always gone to an RBA member since the Charter amendment of 1994. (It should be pointed out, too, that soon after McCarthy became President of the BIC in 2013, the Commission dismissed the previous Director and appointed Tom Hui to be DBI’s Director. Hui has now been forced into retirement for rampant corruption.)

    However, Mr. McCarthy should no longer be considered a “residential builder”. He is rather, now, a multi-millionaire developer, whose various agents have numerous interactions with DBI staff. And if that is not a conflict of interest for him, I’d like to know what is. His position as BIC President (or even as a Commissioner) makes the potential for special treatment at DBI a foregone conclusion. And, consequently, he should step down from the Commission asap. In particular, he should not be allowed to remain on the BIC during the selection of a new Director and Deputy Directors. And, at the very least, he should recuse himself from the entire selection process. Otherwise, he is likely to support the choice of candidates who will favor and excuse his own business dealings with the department, such as Mr. O’Riordan and Mr. Duffy.

    The only problem with his stepping down is that it’s probably inevitable that another RBA member would be appointed by the Mayor to replace him. And then, as almost always, that person would be voted President by the other Commissioners, who are, for the most part, political appointees. Joe O’Donaghue, former RBA leader and co-creator of DBI, would be rewarded once again, for duping the voters with his ’94 Charter Amendment. Therefore, and not for this reason alone, the Amendment has to be repealed and replaced, as well. There is no other way to fix DBI.

    Great reporting Joe!

  11. Joe, what’s the Building Inspection Commission doing about this? Besides holding a meeting *after* the Supes already did?

  12. Keep up the good work Joe . Only way to save lives is to keep the pressure. Your a fine journalist but also saving lives . I consider you an honorary member of La Raza. Keep up the good work.

  13. Wow…I remember when SF used to see itself above all things SoCal. Now you can only say LA knows what is real and what is not.
    Well guess what LA can keep Hollywood, SF has brought back the classic vaudeville act “The three stooges “ Moe (Tom Hui), Larry (Angus McCarthy), Curly (Patrick O’Riordan) . And what an amazing show it has been.

  14. Nothing was missed in Miami. They knew all about it at least 3 years ago. And its completely well-known now. What is the Building Commission doing? What are the Supes and Melgar doing? I won’t ask what the Mayor is doing because the answer is obvious. Do we have to bribe Nuru to get any mess cleaned up in this city?