All In The Emphasis

I find this article in the New York Times about the recent earthquake in Mexico City to be problematic. To be clear, I claim no special knowledge of the quake itself or of Mexico City, but the building process is the same everywhere.

To create a building of any significant size, we need a prospective owner, an architectural designer, a structural designer, a mechanical systems designer, a builder*, someone to review the construction, and a government agency to acknowledge that a building has been created. These roles can be divided up a lot of different ways and can be combined. There are A/E firms that do all of the design, there are design/build firms that do most of these roles, and there are specialized contractors that design their portion of the work. A single entity can do all of the jobs, with the Army Corps of Engineers being an obvious example of that kind of unity.

You can eliminate some of the roles, but the results may be unpleasant. There’s an entire blog devoted to the consequences of not having skilled architects involved, and it’s morbidly hysterically funny; the real-estate crash of 2007 was fueled in part by a lack of owners for the houses built on spec. The Times article suggests that the problems in Mexico City come from a lack of proper review. That may be true or not – I’m not in a position to say. But I know that one statement in the article is misleading: “Building inspections have essentially been outsourced to a network of private engineers who are hired and paid for by the developers, creating conflicts of interest that can undermine even the best standards.” Assuming that’s true in Mexico City, so what? “Building inspections,” meaning the physical review of construction to make sure it meets code standards and the design drawings, are conducted in New York by “Special Inspectors.” While some large design firms have inspectors in-house, the majority of inspections are performed by third-party companies hired by the building owners, which is exactly what the article is saying leads to corruption.

What would be safe from corruption? From my list above, there are four parties who could inspect construction: the designer, the builder, the government agency, or that mysterious “someone” else. The designer and the builder have potential conflicts of interest, if we assume they are paid by the project owner. The Times believes that third-party someones have potential conflicts of interest. Special Inspection was created** in the 1970s in part because of the number of inspectors needed to review construction across the city, and in part as an effort to prevent corruption. The first reason is obvious: by moving from Department of Buildings inspections to third-party inspections, the cost was shifted from the agency to the project owner. The second reason relates to a corruption scandal of that era.

In short, no group of people is perfectly honest and no group is inherently corrupt. In thirty years, I’ve seen no evidence that Department of Buildings employees are less honest than anyone else, nor evidence that designers are more honest. Certainly, the switch from Department inspectors to third-party inspectors did not eliminate the occasional bribery scandal. Any of the four potential inspecting parties can do a good job, in Mexico City as in New York.

* Or, of course, a number of specialized builders.

** Under it’s old name, Controlled Inspection.

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