Scottsdale architect says Development Services Department needs tighter controls

The Scottsdale Development Services Department is at 7447 E. Indian School Road. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Fittro)

One registered architect is crying foul over the city of Scottsdale’s approach to the way it evaluates, approves and issues building permits.

Scottsdale resident Steve Judge contends the Development Services Department knowingly approves residential construction projects that aren’t necessarily designed by a registered architect.

Mr. Judge says state regulations require all construction projects seeking a building permit be designed by a registered architect. He claims the city approves permits for projects that aren’t designed by architects.

“I have been aware of this issue for a long time,” Mr. Judge said in an Aug. 22 phone interview. “Either directly being involved in it myself or from another architect — I have personally seen it done at the city of Scottsdale.”

City officials, however, say the process currently in place to approve building permits is legal and permissible through exemptions provided by the Arizona Legislature, which is emboldened in Arizona Revised Statutes 32-144.

Mr. Judge questions the over-the-counter review offered by Scottsdale Development Services, 7447 E. Indian School Road, where applicants can apply for a cursory review of any residential renovation project under 3,000 square feet and that does not exceed an occupancy of 20 persons, among other considerations.

Michael Clack, Scottsdale Development Services director, says the over-the-counter review in use by his department was designed with the state exemption in mind.

“One of the fist thing we go to is the exemptions and limitations found within state statute,” he said in an Aug. 22 phone interview.  “There are two specific instances where the state does not require a registered architect prepare a drawing.”

While Scottsdale officials contend the municipality is working within the letter of the law, the president of the Arizona Institute of Architects points out concerns raised by Mr. Judge are legitimate and frequent throughout Arizona.

“Architects are responsible for designing structures that protect the public health, safety, and welfare,” said AIA President Caroline Lobo in an Aug. 24 statement.

“Local jurisdictions enact building codes. Architects coordinate and implement these adopted codes so as to protect the health and life safety of the general public. The tools for this implementation are permitted drawings. The local jurisdiction will issue a building permit based upon approval of these drawings. The architect ultimately assumes the liability in the rare event something goes wrong.”

Building permit review and issuance is big business in Scottsdale with annual remits totaling more than $10 million. The numbers are:

  • In fiscal year 2014-15 the city of Scottsdale issued 8,905 building permits, which equates to about $7 million in fees.
  • In fiscal year 2015-16 the city of Scottsdale issued 8,574 building permits, which equates to about $6.3 million in fees.
  • In fiscal year 2014-15 the city of Scottsdale collected $4.3 million in planning review services.
  • In fiscal year 2015-16 the city of Scottsdale collected $4.2 million in planning review services.

A personal vendetta?

Mr. Judge is a registered architect with the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. He says he’s become a victim of selective scrutiny since calling into question perceived shortcomings at the Development Services Department.

Steve Judge

Steve Judge

“I am getting scrutinized by the city, but a non-registrant is in and out of there with no problems,” he said of a recent experience.

“A registrant, whether it is an architect or engineer cannot review or seal construction documents they did not create. To allow an approval on that is aiding and abetting in the state of Arizona.”

Mr. Judge says more scrutiny should be given to the creation of all plans submitted at Scottsdale Development Services.

“What they should be doing right at the counter is making sure a registered architect is there,” he said. “The person who is preparing these documents should be there. As an architect we maintain our registration year after year.”

Mr. Judge, who has been a practicing architect in Scottsdale for 19 years, says if you need a building permit then you likely need a professional architect.

Furthermore, the issue Mr. Judge has raised is addressed in state statute, specially ARS 32-128 C.3, which in terms of a judicial board review, states:

“The board may take disciplinary action against the holder of a certificate or registration under this chapter who is charged with the commission of any of the following acts:

‘Aiding or Abetting an unregistered or uncertified person to evade this chapter or knowingly combining or conspiring with an unregistered or uncertified person, or allowing one’s registration or certification to be used by an unregistered or uncertified person or acting as agent, partner, associate or otherwise of an unregistered or uncertified person, with intent to evade this chapter.’”

In addition, rules of professional conduct states a registered architect shall not sign, stamp, or seal any professional documents not prepared by the registrant or a bona fide employee of the registrant.

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane was contacted by Mr. Judge earlier this year and his complaint was then forwarded to City Attorney Bruce Washburn. Mr. Washburn declined to pursue the matter.

“As we have previously discussed, the city has reviewed its policies for processing building permit applications and has determined that those policies are in compliance with all relevant statutory and regulatory requirements,” Mr. Washburn said in his Feb. 3 written response to Mr. Judge’s formal complaint to the city.

“Therefore a directive to come into compliance is not needed. If you are aware of a specific instance where you believe the city was not in compliance, if you will provide information on that occurrence the city can review the matter and see if any corrections to its policies or their implementation are needed.”

Mr. Judge says the city has done nothing but give him lip service.

“They tried to shut me down by throwing this back in my face,” he said. Mr. Judge does continue to regularly get building permit plans approved by the Development Services Department.

“I have been in the industry for over 30 years as a licensed architect since 1998. This is not unique to me. It is not an easy process to become an architect, so when you have someone who hasn’t graduated from college (submitted plans) it is extremely frustrating.”

To register or not to register?

Mr. Clack, Scottsdale Development Services director, says the city of Scottsdale is following the law, but as a degree holder in architecture, he says he sympathizes with Mr. Judge’s concerns.

Michael Clack

Michael Clack

“In general, the thing that governs the building permit process is outlined in the international building and residential codes,” Mr. Clack said of construction guidelines adopted globally.

“That just spells out the requirement for building; it is then up to the jurisdictions and plan-review process.”

Mr. Clack says the issue of registered vs. non-registered architects is one worthy of conversation.

“I have a degree in architecture; I don’t have my license but I am well aware of the issue,” he said.

“I think this is something we all need to be aware of — we are not going to catch everyone and there have been times that I have caught people misusing a registrant’s seal. We really do try and make sure the people who are doing the work are qualified with the limitations provided by state statute.”

Mr. Clack further clarifies plans submitted by registrants, or by non-registrants as allowed by state law are reviewed with the same standard of care.

“If they meet the minimum requirements of the building code and other applicable ordinances we are able to issue permits,” he explained. “If we find noncompliance we point that out and plans must be corrected in order to receive permits.”

The road to full accreditation of an architect is long and arduous, according to Ms. Lobo, AIA 2016 president.

Caroline Lobo

Caroline Lobo

“Path to licensure for an architect involves: An accredited five-year degree in architecture — or equivalent training related to the practice of architecture and acceptable by the board of technical registration — a minimum of 4,680 hours of internship experience and the passage of seven registration exams that test proficiencies with structures, mechanical, plumbing, electrical systems, site planning and construction procedures.”

Registered architects are one of the oldest licensed professions in Arizona.

“Architects are licensed by the Arizona Board of Technical Registration,” she said. “The board is a nationally recognized licensing board that is one of the oldest in the nation, going back to the 1920s.”

Even residential remodels are complex, Ms. Lobo contends.

“Architecture and the responsibilities of a professional architect go beyond space organization, color selection and/or aesthetics,” she said of the intricacies of the profession.

“There are myriad complex decisions to be made involving understanding a client’s vision, coordination with different disciplines, material selections, systems integration, site planning, code compliance for health and life safety, economic variables, contractual relations and impact of design on users and place. This requires intense education, in-depth experience, a keen analytical mind and a social responsibility for even the simplest of projects.”

Ms. Lobo points out residential design and commercial design are two different thresholds of compliance.

“It is important to draw the distinction between residential and commercial construction, there is a higher standard applied to commercial because there is risk to health and life safety of the general public versus an individual homeowner,” she said.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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