City's building review system out of kilter

By Paul B. Wallis

I followed this week's Anchorage Assembly debate and vote over Assemblyman Alan Trombley's ordinance to allow independent plan reviews for builders with some interest.

As of now, in the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA), if a contractor wants to have the design for his or her single-family or two-family residential structure reviewed by a third party (i.e., not the MOA plan review department), the contractor must engage a qualified professional engineer (PE), licensed in the state of Alaska.

To be clear, in the MOA's estimation, the minimum qualifications for the reviewer must now include the following:

• A degree from an institution of higher learning accredited by a nationally recognized body, such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

• Successful completion of a nationally recognized examination, demonstrating minimum mastery of the academic concepts specific to the candidate's given engineering degree; generally the eight-hour National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying' (NCEES) Fundamentals of Engineering /Engineer in Training (FE/EIT) examination.

• A minimum four years documented professional experience under the direction of a registered PE, with clearly demonstrated increase in responsibility for projects of increasing complexity.

• Successful completion of a nationally recognized examination, demonstrating minimum technical competency in the principles and practices specific to the candidate's given engineering discipline -- generally an eight-hour national council Principles and Practices of Engineering examination for civil engineers. For structural engineers, this extends to a 16-hour examination.

It was reported that the Anchorage building department heavily criticized the proposed ordinance as compromising the safety and welfare of the general public, ostensibly by taking the responsibility for plan review away from municipal reviewers and placing it in the hands of third-party professional engineers.

How surprising then that there is no requirement for MOA plan reviewers to have professional licenses or even meet the minimum requirements for them as stated above.

Now consider that in Anchorage the plan review of high-occupancy structures, such as retail stores (i.e., big box stores), commercial structures (multistory office buildings) or institutional facilities (public schools) may well be executed by a municipal employee who is not qualified to be a licensed engineer.

Whatever else you think about this new ordinance, it seems clear that it has at least resulted in one important follow-on question: Shouldn't the minimum engineering qualifications of those employed to safeguard the health and welfare of large groups of Alaskans be at least the same as those who will safeguard Alaska families one or two at a time?

It is long past time that the municipality make substantive investment in improving the credentials of those who we trust with this important responsibility, whether by raising their own bar and making licensing a condition of continued employment, or by raising the compensation of a municipal plan reviewer to attract qualified, licensed professional engineers.

After all, if single-family and two-family residential structures are considered by MOA to be significant enough to require a professional engineer for review, it seems to logically follow that structures of higher occupancy should require no less.

Paul Wallis is a graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a degree in civil engineering. He also is a licensed, practicing structural engineer in Alaska, and licensed as a professional and structural engineer in several states in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.