Roanoke building inspectors get high rating from insurance agency

The ring of brick-colored caulking slathered around the pipe where it emerged was exactly what Roanoke building inspector Frank Haley was hoping to see.

It meant the just-framed, hollow column that eventually will house that pipe in the former Shriners’ building on Campbell Avenue won’t become a flame-feeding chimney should there ever be a fire. The caulking expands with heat to seal off any flames below.

Haley’s sharp eyes — and the system of reporting, monitoring and review that backstops him — has just won Roanoke top grades from a national insurance rating group. It is a rating that should help hold down the cost of insurance for new buildings and renovations the city.

Last week, on one of what will be dozens of visits to the Campbell Avenue project before it is completed, Haley was checking on how contractor was making fire-blocks — the features that slow the spread of flames from room to room and floor to floor.

Some of that meant looking for the caulking. Some was checking to see columns and spaces under staircases had the framing in place so they could be closed off and covered with fire-retardant gypsum.

“I called Frank a couple of days ago, since it’s been a while since I did lofts, and I wanted to be sure about the fire-blocks,” said Scott Boswell, superintendent at Cityscape LLC, the general contractor.

The issue was that with lofts, floor framing is anchored to the framing of the building’s new firewalls. Boswell wanted to hear what Haley, a graduate of the Virginia Fire Marshal Academy’s fire inspector course, had to say about the best way to make sure fire can’t spread quickly from one to the other.

Now, Haley was back to see what Boswell and his crews did with his advice. He liked what he saw.

“What’s really good is to have that second pair of eyes,” Boswell said. “You’re here every day, it all looks familiar. And it gets monotonous, sealing in all the holes with caulking. I’ve got Frank’s eagle eye here, telling me if I missed anything.”

Haley eyed more than the caulking, too. On his visit, the third of the eight to 10 inspections Haley had on his list that day, Haley paused from time to time to check if Boswell had been installing anti-scalding valves on pipes leading to what will be bathrooms and kitchens.

He also eyeballed the way builders attached wires to framing studs, to make sure they were no more than a foot away from switch boxes and yanked a few wire bolts in the boxes to be sure they were solid. He took note of the crew’s progress installing steel nail guards on the studs, to ensure a builder hanging drywall, or a tenant hanging a picture, didn’t inadvertently hammer into live wires or trigger a gas explosion.

“I don’t come in, deny something, write the ticket and walk away,” Haley said. “I try to explain what the issue is, why it matters, how it can be fixed.”

With 25 years of experience in construction, and about 10 as a city inspector, he knows a lot about how to build things, and about the complicated challenges of timing and logistics builders face.

But neither he nor the city’s three other inspectors are pushovers, for all that they try to make a point of being responsive and helpful.

The city’s building inspection department just won a top grade from the ISO, a rating agency insurers rely on when setting premiums.

The upgrade, from a pretty good 3 to a rarely-issued 1 for commercial buildings and 2 for residential, means the risk-assessment experts at ISO say insurers can put a lot of trust in the way the city enforces the building code. That should translate to lower insurance bills for buildings completed in the next few years.

There are only four communities in the country that have a grade of 1 for commercial building code enforcement. None are in Virginia. Roanoke is one of eight Virginia communities that have a grade of 2 for residential building inspection and enforcement.

“I’ve never seen a ‘1.’ That’s awesome!” ISO field representative Peggy Parks emailed Roanoke Building Commissioner Jeff Shawver to let him know the result.

The ISO looked at how carefully building department staff review plans and at how field inspectors do their jobs, reviewing staffing levels and training as well as the work done. The rating of 1 means exemplary enforcement of a model building code.

“Ones and twos are quite rare and indicate a strong commitment by the city, the building department and its managers to protecting the community by ensuring that buildings are consistently being built to meet the requirements of the building code,” said Timothy Reinhold, senior vice president of research and chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.

It is up to insurance companies to decide how much credit, in dollars and cents, to give for a top ISO rating. But communities with up-to-date codes that are well enforced tend to have fewer fires and sustain less damage from windstorms and other natural hazards, said Robert Cobb, ISO’s director of community hazard mitigation.

Shawver said the grade came after a major push to set in-house performance standards for the department and to win accreditation for his department from the International Accrediting Service.

The department now regularly audits a sample of inspections, to make sure they’re done properly, and has set a standard that no more than 2 percent of inspections can have errors.

It posts inspection results daily, and its one-stop shop, coordination of meetings and inspections, and regular consultation with fire and zoning officials won praise from the accrediting agency.

“Many of us have been on the other side, dealing with a building inspector,” Shawver said. “We want to be responsive. What all of us want is for the buildings to be safe.”

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