Tuesday, August 23, 2005 | Editor’s note: A Voice investigation uncovered complaints of construction defects in many downtown high-rise condos and apartments. This four-day series sheds light on the practices of developers and city inspectors, examines the risks buyers are taking and offers them advice.

Voice Special Report

This is part two in a four-part series. Read part one.

Rich Lopez peers up through a jumble of wires, air conditioning ducts and electrical cables in a downtown condo under construction, trying to discern whether he can sign off on a contractor’s work. With a flick of his pen he holds the power to delay a project, sometimes for weeks, until he is satisfied that it complies with the California Building Code.

Lopez is one of two structural inspectors who are responsible for policing downtown San Diego’s burgeoning housing and commercial construction industry. He spends his days going from building to building in his green Chevy truck, taking measurements here, inspecting plans there. His signature is a valuable commodity in a town festooned by development.

But Lopez isn’t Superman. He’s human, and he admits that there are certain limits to what he can and can’t inspect. Moreover, there are facets of building that Lopez and other city inspectors are not required to inspect.

One of these is the potential for water intrusion, which attorneys say accounts for up to 80 percent of the construction defect cases they take to court. That figure was corroborated by architects and engineering experts.

With water intrusion such a huge issue facing homebuyers and developers alike, it might seem strange that city inspectors are not tasked with either testing a building’s waterproofing or ensuring that waterproofing materials are correctly installed or applied.

Joe Harris, the city’s building inspection supervisor, said that the job of city inspectors is merely to ensure that the products developers have detailed on their plans are the same as the actual products being used.

Just how good those products are, Harris said, and whether the contractors know how to properly apply them, is another matter.

Part four: Let the experts guide you through the process

According to Herbst, problems arise when the products are put up by workmen who are not familiar with them and either cut corners or make mistakes as they go along.

Harris said that despite problems that arise from poor workmanship, the role of city inspectors is one of oversight, not instruction – of checking whether a job has been done, not holding a contractor’s hand while they do it.

But contractors and developers could probably benefit from a bit of hand-holding, and the city requires it in some cases.

Proper installation of exterior insulation and finish systems, such as a multi-layered exterior wall system of polystyrene foam coated with a stucco-like material, is of paramount importance.

“The craftsmanship is integral to the product itself, for the product to be functional,” said Martin Montessoro, a senior inspector at the city.

Indeed, some manufacturers now insist that exterior insulation and finish systems be installed by workmen who have been trained and certified by them.

Four years ago, the city made installation of such systems one of the few manufacturing techniques that must be overseen by third parties. Mandating the use of so-called special inspectors – independent contractors that are deputized and trained by the city development services division – was seen as vital in ensuring that they were being properly installed.

But the city of San Diego has not yet required that developers use special inspectors to ensure a building is watertight. The state of Washington does.

Two weeks ago, Washington approved a law that deals specifically with construction defects resulting from water intrusion. It requires builders to bring in third-party oversight.

Seattle used to have much the same approach to this issue as San Diego, according to Alan Justad, community relations director for the Seattle Department of Planning and Development. It was the changing nature of construction, he said, that led the state to change the rules of the game.

“Building has gotten so compartmentalized,” he said, “that you don’t always have oversight from start to finish.”

The new bill, he said, was necessary because the city does not have the manpower to oversee the installation of waterproofing materials.

Harris said San Diego is not far behind Washington. He has been meeting with industry representatives recently to discuss waterproofing issues but said that any new measures will have to be worked out with a local industry that is still reeling from stringent revisions in fire codes in the wake of last year’s wildfires.

Any more oversight, he said, will likely be hard fought. But he said his team is working on it.

Meanwhile, San Diego’s developers will carry on, with the only incentive for ensuring the effective weatherproofing on their buildings being the threat of one day ending up in court.

Please contact Will Carless directly at

Tomorrow, Part Three: Don’t be fooled by the pretty brochure. Is what you buy what you get?

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