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Building officials met in Reno this week to amend building codes across the state. They hope to increase the energy efficiency of building codes. It's part of an ongoing process to regulate the building industry. But as KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports, keeping tabs on builders isn't so easy.
PLASKON: Gary Houk is a supervisor of Clark County building inspectors and checks the day's to do list.
HOUK: Today it is 3037 inspections.
PLASKON: What are all these people doing here?
HOUK: They are getting their work assignments. We have staff that comes in very early in the morning and we have high speed printers, hello Ron, and they are distributed at each of these tables by their supervisors.
PLASKON: One of the 90 or so inspectors is Christine Jamison.
JAIMISON: One two three four five, okay, 130 inspections, my gosh. I don't think I will be able to complete the work load. But it's that time of year, fala la la la.
PLASKON: This year Clark County conducted 625-thousand inspections, mostly residential on 4 billion dollars worth of property. According to the Census and Department of Commerce that puts the Las Vegas valley in the top 5 urban areas for the number of residential building permits issued. KB Home buys more of these permits than any other developer in Las Vegas. Christine Jamieson inspects them. Construction workers in white hard hats follow her every move.
SOUND: Kicking things
PLASKON: Jamieson is kicking the tires of this 26-hundred foot home during a critical inspection. The house looks like a skin-less body. Everything's exposed. She opens water valves.
SOUND: Squirting Water
PLASKON: Tells them the wood is too close to a stovepipe.
JAMISON: Minimum 1 inch clearance to combustibles. You don't have your clearance, this has got to be moved.
PLASKON: To the untrained eye this house is a collection of meaningless wood splinters, screws sawdust, nails, cement, wires and plumbing. But not to Jamison.
JAMISON: I will look at the run of the electrical and then look to see if it is near the gusset plate the I will say is it secured the way it should be, then I will say is it near the pinch point of the truss and as I will follow that then I will say oops I will run into the duct and then is the tape listed there is just so much to look at and as you look at one thing then you remember oh I have to look at that and when you do combination there is so much to look at in a house. It is hard. There are so many junctions going through my head.
PLASKON: The house doesn't pass inspection, and that's typical she says. But it's not a problem. She'll be back the next day. KB has hundreds of homes in production at this site, finishing one or two a day, each needing inspections. According to the Census bureau the average pace of building a home in the rest of the nation is 5 and a half months. Here, it takes only 3 to 4 months. Part of the reason is the materials says Jameson.
JAMISON: And when I moved out here I was amazed that all they do is pour a slab, frame it up, wrap it with paper stucco it and that is your house, because where I come from you need a tank to bust through. But our conditions are such that they can weather that. But I was amazed and I said that I have a 2year old and if he does one Karate chop he is going through those studs and out the wall.
PLASKON: There is no record of a 2-year-old's Karate Chop compromising the structural integrity of a Las Vegas home, but the quality of construction is coming under scrutiny.
SOUND: Channel 3 story
PLASKON: Last month KVBC-TV Channel 3 aired this story where Summerlin home owners accused City of Las Vegas building inspectors of not doing their job, letting builders slip by with faulty work. Despite the complaints, homeowners never did name the city in a construction defect lawsuit they had filed. Between 1997 and 2001 the number of severe construction defect complaints across the nation has increased from 1.7 million to now more than 2.1 million. Clark County courts started out with only 6 construction defect lawsuits in 1997. Now there's a backlog of more than 219. Jan Tuchman, Editor of Engineering News Record Magazine says construction defects have always existed and the increase is just a factor that accompanies any building boom, not the fault of inspectors. In order to meet increasing demands on inspectors however some cities including Houston are turning to computers to look at building plans Tuchman says.
TUCHMAN: Alerting the human inspector to look at this, look at this, just because of the volume of it because many, many cities have inspectors that are way over worked to keep up with the volume.
PLASKON: The city and other jurisdictions like Clark County's top Building official Ron Lynn say they are doing their job and meeting 90 percent of the daily demand.
LYNN: We are oversight, looking at those critical elements for the protection of life and limb, we don't look at the cabinet fit, we don't look at the color of the paint and weather they match or weather they do not match, all we are looking at is that that home does not burn down and does not fall down.
PLASKON: Lynn says at least twice a month he has to call construction company officials into his office to explain to them that it is counter productive to try to dupe inspectors. He says one common crime is contractors who fill block walls with crumpled up paper instead of concrete. Inspectors can't always catch bad builders he says.
LYNN: Certainly not. If someone wants to intentionally thwart the code, but often there are individuals out there that will simply won't tolerate that and inform us and then we can go out and pursue it.
PLASKON: A worker taking pride in the product they produce is key, because even if inspectors ensured perfect adherence to building code it wouldn't be enough says Nevada Supervisor of Compliance Investigations Kent Royal.
ROYAL: The roof can be up to code and it will still leak, how's that?
PLASKON: Regardless of building codes, roofs and other components can malfunction when builders don't follow the manufactures instructions. So, successful builders are forced to self-police according to KB Home which has dozens of it's own inspectors.
CALLOWAY: The QA guys rechecking everything.
PLASKON: John Calloway is a KB superintendent. Q & A guys are quality assurance employees checking to make sure products are used right. Unlike inspectors, the Q&A guys make sure tens of thousands of nails go in each wall the way they are supposed to.
SOUND: of putting in nails
PLASKON: Calloway looks up at a worker inspecting the eves of a house under construction.
CALLOWAY: This is another guy that we hire at KB homes to make sure that we are doing things that are up to our own specifications. He is doing what we call a water proof inspection, he is doing the foam and the wire before we do the stucco.
PLASKON: And KB even hires its own employees to ensure compliance with EPA rules. Calloway gives 19-year old Storm Water Environmental Protection Program enforcer directions.
CALLOWAY: I need a new SWEPP pit, the one that is full now, get that one pulled out. We can use these bails.
PLASKON: But even self-policing isn't always effective in this fast-paced building environment. Two months ago KB Home agreed to spend nearly 200-hundred thousand dollars on repairing wetlands because it hadn't acquired proper permits before filling in a wash.
SOUND: Drywall workers and music
PLASKON: A more common problem comes from builders' practice of hiring of individuals, or 'trades' like this crew installing dry wall says Clark County inspector Jamison.
JAMISON: Typically a builder will change trades to get the best price they can and if they get someone else to get it in to save money and just when you have everything tightened up and buttoned in they will change crews on you and you can tell immediately, everything is different, it is applied different.
PLASKON: Despite the fact that Clark County Building Officials say they are doing their job, this year the county increased its incentives to hire more inspectors in this dynamic building environment. Now it only takes only 4 years to reach the top pay scale instead of 8 years and the county says it will hire anyone who qualifies right now, even pay during training.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR