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  • Lorianna Kastrop

Project Creep: A Cautionary Tale

Unforeseen conditions can sometimes cause a construction project to grow from what was originally planned into a bigger project. When this happens, you, or your architect, may have to amend your building permit. Why? If a stop-work order is placed on the project, your home or business will be in limbo until you take care of all of the red tape.

This recently occurred at a mansion in Woodside, CA. The 3-story home on nearly 9 wooded acres was permitted to do a minor addition to add restrooms and expand the front entry. Instead, the entire first floor was demolished. See the article from the San Jose Mercury News by Bonnie Eslinger: Right now, construction is at a standstill while legal actions are being taken by the City of Woodside, as well as the owner.

What makes this news is that it occurred on one of the most valuable properties in the Bay Area, but the situation is not unusual. In the construction industry it is referred to as “project creep”. You start out with a limited scope of home improvement work. Let’s say you are replacing an old toilet, which would not require a building permit. When the plumber takes it out, there is mold and dry rot that must be removed. Now this will involve demolishing the drywall, and replacing flooring and tile, and perhaps some of the structural supports (studs) are compromised. One thing leads to another, and now the project requires a building permit, a licensed contractor, and a structural engineer.

Project creep can also occur on jobs that already have building permits; sometimes because of owner requests, and sometimes because of site conditions that are revealed once construction has started. When this happens, it is best for the team (architect, engineers, and general contractor) to meet with the owner and assess the situation. Pushing forward with the expanded scope of work that is not permitted can lead to trouble and much more expense. If an amendment to the building permit is required, the City or County Building Department should be notified.

In the comments posted online in response to the Woodside mansion newspaper article, a reader expressed the opinion that on private property the owner should be allowed to do what they wish. This is a feeling that many folks have expressed when they are forced to follow codes, get permits, and pay fees to do a construction project. But that attitude can lead to further expense, delay, and legal costs. Taken to the extreme, ignoring building codes can cause disasters, such as the 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which more than a thousand people were killed. In this situation, everyone agrees that the lack of building code enforcement and official corruption that allowed sub-standard construction is wrong.

A few years ago, I was called to jury duty in a civil trial. During the jury selection process it was revealed that the plaintiff was a young couple that had purchased a newly remodeled home in Redwood City. The home included a second floor deck and other improvements. It was sold “as is”, which is a common real estate practice, but there were no specific disclosures that the home had been remodeled without a building permit, without a licensed contractor, and without an architect or structural engineer. The couple were terrified that the second floor or the deck could collapse, injuring themselves or their children. They were suing to cancel the sale, get a full refund of their funds and expenses, and punitive damages against the sellers and their real estate agent and brokerage firm. The defense attorneys who questioned prospective jurors asked whether any of them had performed work on their home without a permit, implying that “everyone does it”. I felt that it was like asking whether anyone has ever broken the speed limit in a car. Perhaps most of us have, but that doesn’t mean that we think it is okay for people to drive recklessly, endangering themselves and others.

Planning and Building Departments are mainly in the business of public safety—the Building Code, local zoning and ordinances are all in place so that people can live near each other without fear that a building will be a hazard to its owners or others. Secondarily, the land is intended be put to sustainable use and the purpose intended by the community. On a mansion in a secluded area, one might argue that the owner isn’t affecting anyone else. But does that person’s money and privilege mean that they should be allowed to ignore laws that all the rest of us must follow? If his project went from a minor addition to a major remodel, shouldn’t he be held accountable to get the proper building permit?

Lorianna KastropVice President The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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