June 30, 2011 - From the June, 2011 issue

State Architect Chip Smith, AIA|LA Tangle Over Removing Barriers to Facilitating School Construction

Despite the need to jump-start public building projects, gridlock often describes the state's approval process at the Division of the State Architect. The result: funded projects fail to move forward in California. With the goal of a substantive discussion to move the needle forward on school construction projects, the following excerpts are from an AIA|LA conference call with Acting State Architect Howard "Chip" Smith.

Will Wright: What we'd like to happen is to have this be the initial dialogue and then follow up with a direct meeting, when and wherever possible.

Julie Eisenberg: I'm an architect in Santa Monica, and one of the frustrations has been breaking into school work. We're fairly progressive designers, and we've found that the standards for schools don't always coincide with what's in the best interests of education. The decentralizing of schools and their permitting would make it easier to include more progressive ideas in schools. We also know that we've done schools outside of the Division of the State Architect (DSA), and we can buy much more for those schools than we can when we do a DSA-reviewed school.

Chip Smith: We've heard this over many years. For background, school districts are entities of the state. There are specific laws, particularly in the government code, 53090 for instance, that articulate the relationship between a school district and a local jurisdiction when it comes to zoning, building ordinances, grading ordinances, and that kind of thing. School Districts are under the Field Act for their building construction, and that's what brings the Department of General Services and DSA to the table.

In terms of the current structure and relationship, there would have to be some significant realignment of laws and functions to transition to a local jurisdiction oversight of schools. Another area of complexity would be that there are school districts that would be served by multiple local jurisdictions. For example, Los Angeles Unified services 26 jurisdictions.

That isn't to say that there aren't improvements that could be made, such as training and outreach. The DSA's regulatory framework has become simpler over the last ten years. Our structural standards have crept closer and closer to the structural standards employed at the local jurisdiction level. The main differences, at this point in time, have to do with testing and inspection provisions, mostly in the structural area.

In terms of firelight safety, our school code requirements are the same as they would be for local jurisdiction buildings, to which the Fire Marshall's regulations would apply. Accessibility, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and all of those disciplines are identical. The regulatory framework for schools under DSA is significantly aligned with local jurisdictions. It's just the structural aspects, particularly with testing and inspection.

DSA doesn't really do outreach, other than to deal with the particulars of our program, but in terms of educating school districts on selecting an architect and that kind of thing, that's not something that we've dug into. Some simple training programs to educate architects on the Field Act process and the particular requirements that are different from, say, local jurisdiction practices, probably wouldn't be too complicated. That's something that perhaps AIA and the State Architect's Office should work on.

Eisenberg: You're saying that the system may be a bit broken, but it's not irretrievable. I really question whether it should stay as a centralized service. Given the cost climate we're in, what is the point?

Cliff Allen: Chip's concluding remarks are the more accurate portrayal. Given state law, all jurisdictions must either adopt Title 24, the state building code, or enact a code that exceeds the requirements of Title 24. L.A. and other cities can add clauses to them, but only if they are more restrictive. Therefore, the baseline here for all buildings, whether they be public, private, schools, hospitals, fire stations, etc., absent user programmatic requirements, are uniformly defined by Title 24. The only difference left between the Field Act and Title 24 is, as you know, testing and inspection.

At this point, I believe, there isn't a rationale to maintain plan-check services or certification services in DSA. I'd turn the question around to you and say, those kinds of services represent what I call the janitorial end of building, as opposed to the leadership role that DSA rightfully should take in terms of design, the direction of architecture in the state, advising the governor, etc. Because much of DSA's current energies are devoted to the business of plan-check, certification, etc., wouldn't this be an opportunity for DSA to back out of the more pedestrian, janitorial aspects and focus more on what AIA's own white papers focus on, which is a leadership role for the agency?

How do you feel about that larger, more important leadership role for the DSA, and maybe getting out of this other role? One historical note I would make is that state law does allow the DSA to delegate plan-check responsibility, not just to outside sources for its own purposes, but to local jurisdictions.

Smith: That is true. I also believe school districts have not been interested in pursuing that. I don't underestimate the complexities of shifting or transferring the DSA construction review approval program to the local jurisdictions. There are a lot of laws at play here. There is also the issue of state funding for school construction.

There is a close linkage between DSA and the funding arm of the state, the Office of Public School Construction, in terms of the oversight of funds that are dispersed to school districts. There are some definite, significant hurdles there. You could follow the money trail. There are only two creeks. One is the access program, and the other is the Field Act program.

These higher ideals for the state architects office are good, but I do wonder where the resources come from to make that happen. Right now, I only see two areas for resources-our plan review fees for school construction and our access plan review fees for school construction and state buildings. The second fund-the access fund-sponsors our accessibility code development.

We have a bit of an issue there as well in terms of properly funding the proper development and maintenance of accessibility standards in the state, aligning that, perhaps, with the federal standards, which we have yet to attain, although we do have a pretty decent work plan in place. Those are really big hurdles.

Allen: Could the AIA be of assistance to, if you will, lobby for separate funding beyond these two sources?

Widom: One of the problems that we're facing with LACCD in trying to build projects is the slowness in getting projects approved. At a time when putting work out into the public, into the labor market will really help our economy, we have to find ways to get this work out faster. It seems like there's some disarray. We're talking about billions of dollars worth of construction. How do we move this stuff through faster? It's taking a long time to get it through.

Smith: Since I came on in August, we've been operating in crisis mode. We put out the fires that we know are coming, as well as the ones that we see flare up, and that happens on a daily basis. The bigger fires have to do with key leadership positions, such as our Oakland regional office manager retiring last December and getting somebody in that office that can function and help that office work properly.

Right now, under the previous, and current, governor's executive orders, DSA has no ability to exercise contracting capacity or to engage consultants, and we have been under a continuous hiring freeze for the last 18 months. DSA has four regional offices that serve the state. Each office has an assigned territory, certain counties assigned to each office, and a headquarters office in Sacramento. We have a total of 330 positions that are authorized. At this point in time, we have 48 or 49 vacancies. It's growing weekly. At this point, our vacancy rate, and that includes key management positions, is starting to hit critical mass.

We have yet to receive an exemption to the hiring freeze, although we have compiled various packages over the last several months, and I believe the latest package is at the department right now. It would move to the agency, and ultimately to the Governor's Office and the Department of Finance. That has yet to happen. What you're experiencing are the effects of significant staff shortages and the inability for us to utilize consultants to make up the difference.

Allen: We've been working with LAUSD just as Chet's been over at LACCD for the last five years. And even then, it was still taking six months plus to plan-check a building of schools through DSA before the current, admittedly bad funding crisis. How do we move this off the dime, so to speak?

Widom: We know that, in fact, this is one agency that is self-funded. It's not coming out of the General Fund. And all the logic in the world says that we could really help everybody if we could start moving the projects through faster. So what do we need to do? What does AIA need to do? What does the industry need to do to get this thing pushed through at the governor's level? Because we know that he's the one whose put the freeze on.

Smith: I suppose you should talk to him.

Widom: To follow up on that, I believe that LAUSD put together a memorandum of understanding, which was almost approved, in which they are going to pay quite a few millions of dollars to expedite plan check out of the Southern California region or the L.A. office and also certification. They have something on the order of 2,000 projects that aren't certified, mostly for want of paperwork. Yet that was then put aside and has not gone anywhere, so they are stuck.

Smith: We have no resources to implement that pilot.

Widom: Well, they were going to pay for it.

Smith: It doesn't matter; we don't have the resources.

Widom: But Chip, it seems to me that the lobbying effort, which we've been doing for a while to try to break this logjam at the governor's level, is crucial. We seem to walk into walls every time we try it. Kurt, what's the latest in trying to move this trough?

Kurt Cooknick: I've met with the new state and consumer services agency secretary, and she is on the same page as us in terms of getting the DSA the resources that it needs to do the job. That includes lifting of the hiring freeze, eliminating the last furlough day that still remains, and allowing them the ability to contract out. The problem is the state budget.

Allen: Given the budget situation, DSA can't afford to provide services because it can't hire or contract. Given the fact that the DSA is allowed to delegate plan-check to local agencies, and, further, given the fact that some, especially large jurisdictions like LAUSD will jump at the chance, is another fallback strategy to simply for those large local jurisdictions that have agencies like the city of L.A., which has actually made an overture to take these services over because they've got the staff, is that on the table or is that being pushed to the side?

Smith: There is no statutory authority for DSA to outsource plan review to any jurisdiction that exists in California. The closest thing they can do is outsource plan-checks that will come back through the DSA.

One of the programs that former state architect Steve Castellanos was trying to implement through the DSA academy was the ability to authorize, after training in the DSA process, local building departments the ability to plan-check. It wouldn't mean they would be a stand-alone building department doing plan-check. The building department would be treated just the same as the structural plan review that the DSA currently outsources to private-sector structural engineers. It would come back through the DSA, not necessarily for a duplicate review, but for a cursory review for conformance. There may be some time savings and, perhaps, some cost savings associated with that, there is nothing in existing statue that would allow local jurisdictions to do the whole review.

Allen: Could I rephrase my question-a year or two ago a law was proposed to allow that. Is there any effort to push or to lobby for that same law to be put back on the books and passed? It's a great way, and it fits in line with Governor Brown's attempts to take a lot of services and push them down to the local level, with some reimbursement, in this case that would be the fees from the participating agencies, the LACCD and the LAUSD. Are there any lobbying efforts on behalf of the AIA to in fact reintroduce that legislation?

Smith: That was SB 1227, which came from the Schwarzenegger administration.


Allen: My question still stands, is there any efforts on behalf of the AIA to do that? Because it would appear to solve a real budgetary problem on the state level, it would solve a real workload problem. Not all jurisdictions would take advantage of that, because many smaller local jurisdictions would just assume have the DSA continue to plan-check. But certainly, those larger and more sophisticated agencies, like LACCD or LAUSD, would jump at the chance. I know LAUSD has told us that much.

Cooknick: That actually is not something that the advocacy advisory committee entertained. One of the things that we have to be cognizant of is that the local building departments, first thing after the bill is signed and chaptered, their would have to be an education component on the part of DSA training them for what they'll be looking for.

Allen: I would take some issue, because right now Title 24 is now in the formula. I think Chip said this at the outset: the only difference between Title 24 and the Field Act is simply the testing and inspection. The structural, life safety, etc. requirements are the same.

Cooknick: Well, Title 24 is caught up with Field Act, there is still the continuous on-site supervision.

Allen: Yes, but that's not a matter for plan-check, that's the matter for continuous onsite supervision during construction.

Cooknick: Yeah, but as witnessed in yesterday's newspaper, even local agency building inspectors are under fire for their veracity. We run into these hurdles.

Allen: It sounds like you're lobbying against this, is that right Kurt?

Cooknick: Don't misunderstand me at all. It's just the realities of, you know, what we're facing. A bill similar to 1227, the council probably could advance. But we're going to run into some difficulties with DSA having the funding to do the training and education. While that would be paid for by those jurisdictions in advance, there are the start-up costs like we saw with the Certified Access Specialist program.

Allen: I would submit to you that there are no training costs because you'd leave testing and inspectional and certification of testing and inspectors under DSA where it currently resides, it would simply delegate the plan-check, and plan-checkers in local jurisdictions who are checking under Title 24 are perfectly capable of doing that. They already do it for central facilities, police stations, etc., etc. They do it for private schools as well as much more significant buildings, high rises etc. To me that's a red herring. No offense, but I don't think there is a need for that kind of exhaustive training. Therefore, it is not a cost that would be incurred by DSA. This is one architect simply proposing that. You guys can take it where you like from there. I'm mindful of what Chet is saying. We've been talking about this for 10 or 15 years, and nothing seems to change.

Widom: We've exhausted maybe this particular area, maybe there's some other areas that somebody wants to bring up.

Cooknick: Before we leave that I don't want Cliff to feel like the he's, the stat has been dismissed. I'll take this up with Mark Christian tomorrow, and see what we can do to advance it through the Advocacy Advisory Committee and look at the realities of this effort, Ok?

Smith: One of my concerns is that OSHPD now has 26 vacancies that they are currently recruiting for. They are currently recruiting pretty heavily. They did receive authorization from the Governor's Office a few weeks ago. We could potentially see some DSA staff move to OSHPD to do hospital work. Their program is very similar. The DSA isn't in a position right now to absorb any more loss of staffing resources.

Eisenberg: I sympathize with you. It sounds like it has been a really difficult job over the last couple of years. Everyone feels the same way. What underlines all this stuff is what you already know about our frustration with a system that is not quite working right, which is no one's fault in particular. But is there some strategy that could reinvigorate the DSA? If all your revenue is from plan-check fees and similar, so that's your core role, how do we expand the idea of what architecture is at the state level and get to a higher expectation of what could be delivered to the public? I know that's a step away, but is there an intermediate step that we could look at, that you've thought about, or that may help that kind of change?

Smith: You have a very good question. I haven't honestly been able to think about that.

Eisenberg: That's what I was worried about. It's hard treading water.

Smith: In reality, the state architect' office is very vulnerable. Our primary revenue source is the Field Act. We have about a $55 million annual budget. About $49 million of that budget is Field Act, which is our structural safety program for schools. $6 million or so is our Access Program. In law, the Field Act authority and responsibility actually lies with the Department of General Services and the director of the department. That position delegates that authority to the state architect, but that is not necessarily required-definitely not in law. That would leave the DSA with only the Access program, which is a very small program. It's a $6 million budget, and the staffing would probably drop from 300 to 30.

That would be all that's left of DSA. That's the reality of the current legal framework. So, in terms of building the state architect up, I don't have anything to offer other than I agree with what your concern is. I'm actually concerned that DSA could actually become considerably smaller-in fact, it could become so small that people would obviously question the need for it to continue.

Eisenberg: Wow. What a scary thought.

Widom: The question really goes back to Kurt in terms of what kind of activities the AIA needs to do to assist in changing the governor's mind, or at least the administration's mind, in terms of being able to add staff and to outsource. That seems to be the key in terms of at least keeping flow of schools going through at some kind of rate that would be beneficial both to the schools and to the public.

Cooknick: I want to step back a little bit further, because right now the California Council is doing a search effort for the candidates who best fulfill what has been described as the qualifications desired of a state architect based on our conversation with the administration. As Chet mentioned, there is a concern about the future of the DSA. One of the things we're discussing with the administration and the Governor's Office is finding the ideal candidates for the governor. The governor is going to be personally interviewing the candidates for the position.

If we don't have a healthy DSA, a lot of these conversations are kind of moot points. I'm hopeful that most of you have read our white paper about a preferred future for the DSA. It's not just simply an agency that does plan-check of public schools. It's a much broader state agency. It's one that does a lot of policy for the state of California in the capital outlay programs of the state, the state's design and construction programs, and master planning in California, so that we don't end up with a patchwork quilt of state buildings and our valuable resources in the state.

This conversation goes much deeper than just plan-check: it's a healthy DSA so that we can have future conversations about plan-check. That's what's been a distraction all this time: there are those who would prefer to see the elimination of the DSA and the outsourcing of plan-check, ignoring the other things that the DSA used to do and the things that the DSA can do. I want you to be cognizant of that. That's something that's on our radar and that's of concern to us: if there is no DSA there is no point in having these other conversations.

Allen: In that case, should the AIA and its political action committee devise a concerted effort to lobby for additional funding, distinctly different funding, getting it away from a Field Act and accessibility-funding basis? That sounds like the key. If you're totally funded by the Field Act and Access, then that's all plan-check. You need some other source of funding to pursue these other endeavors. All parties agree should be the focus of the agency.

Cooknick: The DSA used to do some much more, but by virtue of delegations of, delegating away, by past state architects, their authority, they also delegated away the funding that went with those authorities. If you can imagine that you have a full-service firm and you've been giving away major portions of your firm, and the funding that went with those portions of your firm, and you've reduced yourself down to one small slice of portfolio service, that's in essence what's happened to the DSA. That was my conversation this morning with the new director. They don't know what they don't know. They've just come into office, and they had no idea what a delegation of authority was. As I started to explain that there are responsibilities in statute that belong to the state architect that have been delegated to the Department of General Services that we need to get back in the DSA so that it can restore itself back to its former self, that is to the end of how we need to get back that funding to get back there.

Allen: Does that require significant legislative changes, or can that be done through the governor's office?

Cooknick: Neither actually. The delegations have a delegated on-date, until rescinded. They simply need to be rescinded. They are going in both directions. As an example, correct me if I'm wrong Chip, but the Field Act is under the DGS but is delegated to the state architect. There are other things that are in statute to the state architect that are delegated in the other direction to DGS through real estate services division the Office of Policy Development and Management. Those are significant funds that have basically been hijacked from the DSA because they were cherry-picked away. They were plum programs that others wanted and took.

Allen: Were these cherry-picked by an action of the governor or the legislature?

Cooknick: You could say the governor, because they were allowed by the administration. The DGS Director serves under the Secretary of State and Consumer Services, who serves directly under the governor. It was allowed bad behavior.

Allen: In his consideration of the new state architect, the governor could also consider rescinding some of these directives to rebuild the agency?

Cooknick: If he is sincere, that is what would need to occur. He would tell the DGS, the secretary and the director, to rescind the delegations back to the DSA. That was part of the conversation that I had this morning with the new DGS director.

Allen: I hate to be so bold, but I speaking as one architect-and you can hear a lot of disgruntlement at this end of the line-the architectural community would come together much more solidly behind that kind of lobbying effort if we perceived a willingness to give from the other side of the equation. That is, releasing the hold on plan-check, which then would reduce funding potentially from that side of the equation, whilst increasing the role in the endeavors that have been given away to DGS. That's a fairly strong argument at the same time for the Governor's Office, because then it puts back in the local jurisdictions actions that he probably would like to see located there. I'd just ask you guys to think about it as a strategy.

Wright: The AIA/Los Angeles Chapter has been actively engaged in a couple of efforts. One is reaching out to LAUSD and their facilities management, with their new Superintendent, and letting them know that we're here as a resource. Through that active engagement, they often say, well one of the things that they could use AIA for as a resource would be in these efforts to help shape regulatory policy at the state level. To that degree, some of this needs to happen on that track, but with a stronger relationship with the State Architect, we can also get incremental. Regulatory change is an entirely different process, and you have to be in that game for 15, 20 years probably. Incremental change can happen just by all of us reaching out and better articulating our goals and our objectives

Eisenberg: I can't wait till the discussion changes (and it will be a couple of years yet) to how the educational environment helps education and what value that adds, so that we can make better places. Frankly, what is being built now is not the best that it can be, and it doesn't match where educational philosophy is going. That to me has a real long-term implication for quality in the schools. I'm really nervous that we are really behind in that. Not your fault; not my fault. If you're going to have a state-run school presence, you would at least think that you could set a standard of quality that would serve communities better. It's a real problem.


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