Stamford has been awash in development for a dozen years, but two events have set off alarm bells for members of the Board of Representatives.
In February, a 15-by-20-foot concrete slab fell from a patio into the parking garage at Allure, a newly built 22-story luxury high-rise. A preliminary investigation showed that the design called for steel reinforcing cables in the concrete but they were not installed.
In April, it was revealed that the 225-unit Lofts at Yale & Towne will be demolished because it is tilting and sinking. The converted lock factory is supported by century-old timbers that are failing because the water table has dropped, exposing the wood to oxygen, which rots it.
Since then, city representatives have raised questions about how buildings are inspected, given the limited number of inspectors in the building department.
Representatives have questioned whether an inspector should have discovered that the steel cables were missing from the concrete at Allure, and whether an inspector should have known that the water table below The Lofts could drop and cause the wood pilings to crumble.
This week during their Operations Committee meeting, representatives presented their questions to Stamford Chief Building Official Bharat Gami.
He told them the city has four building construction inspectors and two electrical inspectors, and that’s enough.
Representatives were skeptical.
The inspectors are supported by two staffers who coordinate inspections, plan reviews, major projects and records, Gami said. There are also three permit technicians and one administrative assistant/data analyst.
Representatives were unconvinced.
“At the rate the city is booming, with all the things being renovated and built, I don’t see how we have enough inspectors,” city Rep. Jeff Stella said.
The reason is rooted in the state building code, Gami said.
In Connecticut, municipal building inspectors handle one-, two- and three-family dwellings, but major projects like apartment high-rises are the purview of “special inspectors,” he said.
“The state building code identifies the types of construction that require a special inspector. It establishes a threshold – a building over a certain number of stories, or over a certain square footage – that automatically dictates a special inspector,” Gami said. “All of the concrete work, steel work, foundation work, elevators, for example, need special inspectors.”
According to the code, a special inspector must be qualified and employed by an approved agency to inspect a particular type of construction. Municipal building officials must sign off on agencies and special inspectors who work in their town.
The project owner or developer hires the agency that provides special inspectors, according to the code. Agencies are required to inspect and test materials before work is concealed; notify the contractor when there are discrepancies; verify that the contractor corrects discrepancies; and report inspection and test results to the municipal building official.
“Special inspectors are highly skilled professionals who go from site to site,” Gami said. “At the start of a project, the agency submits a statement (that) outlines all the inspections they will do during construction and the inspectors they will retain. We look at that, we ask questions about the project and about the qualifications of the inspectors. We manage it from the beginning.”
The case of the falling concrete slab makes it clear there can be problems.
To find out what went on at Allure, the city hired an outside engineering firm to review construction documents for Allure and seven other high-rises built by Building and Land Technology, which is constructing multiple high-rises in the South End as part of a massive development called Harbor Point.
In April the city reported that engineers had identified a problem in another Harbor Point building. As with Allure, it involved contractors failing to properly install concrete reinforcing cables, and an inspector failing to catch the error, engineers said. In that case, the problem was caught after the concrete was poured and a BLT engineer devised a fix for it, engineers said.
The final report on the BLT buildings could be complete by the end of the month, Stamford Director of Operations Matt Quinones said this week.
City Rep. Ashley Ley questioned a system in which the developer hires the special inspector, and the building department just gets a report. In some cities, the building department collects a fee from the developer and hires its own special inspector, Ley said.
“So there is more of an arm’s-length between (the special inspector) and the developer,” Ley said.
City Rep. Virgil de la Cruz agreed.
“Given that we have safety issues, what would it take to have special inspectors hired by the city instead of the developer?” de la Cruz asked.
Gami said there is just as much chance of a cozy relationship between an inspector and a developer as there is between an inspector and a building department.
“You can have building officials dictating to the inspector what he should inspect,” Gami said. “Building departments have been notorious with corruption and backdoor dealings.”
Representatives also wanted to know how the building department handles inspections of Stamford’s many illegal apartments, which residents say are congesting neighborhoods citywide.
The building department doesn’t handle that, Gami said. The Land Use Bureau does.
“We respond to complaints about work done without a permit or construction exceeding the plans,” he said. “Reports of units added to existing buildings are a matter for Land Use.”
The building department’s six inspectors each do six to eight inspections daily, which is about 180 to 240 inspections a week, Gami said.
During the pandemic, inspectors in Stamford and other cities began using Zoom or FaceTime, a practice that will continue, Gami said. Homeowners or contractors walk around with a cellphone or other device, showing the inspector the work that’s been done.
“If there are questions or complicated inspection items, we go to the site. We are very careful about which inspections we do remotely,” Gami said. “It’s good because we are able to give people a specific time, which means they don’t have to wait all day for an inspector to show up. It’s good for inspectors because they are not driving from one site to the other, giving them time to do more inspections or administrative tasks.”