Working with the Authority Having Jurisdiction

Wouldn't it be great if we could just practice our profession without interruption—just do the engineering, supervise the work and turn the system over to the owner? But the law complicates things—and with good reason, of course. We apply for construction permits, inspections and certificates of occupancy for new construction and alterations.

By Robert C. Sheldon, P.E., Director of Building Systems Integration, The Austin Company, Cleveland, Ohio August 1, 2003

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just practice our profession without interruption—just do the engineering, supervise the work and turn the system over to the owner?

But the law complicates things—and with good reason, of course. We apply for construction permits, inspections and certificates of occupancy for new construction and alterations. And our work requires review, during the design and construction, by an “authority having jurisdiction” (AHJ).

Ideally, the permitting process would be invisible. But all too often, it’s like colliding with a brick wall.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with permitting and inspection—and with the AHJs—in a manner that makes the process less stressful, less time-consuming and more productive. There is actually much that the design professional can do to keep the project on a smooth path.

Know and understand the rules and codes adopted by the jurisdiction. Own a copy of the local building codes and understand both the administrative and technical portions. Knowledge is power. Know your responsibilities and the limited powers of the AHJ. Know who the AHJ is. Code knowledge will ensure successful project design and construction progress and protect your design and your client from unnecessary requirements.

Don’t drop in on the AHJ without an appointment. Appreciate that the AHJ has schedules, meetings and inspections at appointed times. Find out the regular phone and office hours of the AHJ, and plan your calls accordingly.

Don’t contact the AHJ without a reason. When you make an appointment with the AHJ, always state the reason why. Also, simple projects do not usually require meetings. Meetings are best reserved for unusually complex projects.

Respect the AHJ. The AHJ has worked hard to achieve his or her position. Many are certified in several areas of code enforcement or plan review, and some are registered architects and engineers. Your project needs the AHJ’s cooperation. Have a friendly, helpful, cooperative and curious attitude that will inspire the AHJ to become a helpful project team member.

Don’t ask the AHJ what they require. You can expect some flow of information between you and the AHJ, but generally speaking, it is your job to know the requirements. The AHJ is only required to review your plans, not teach you how to design.

Don’t submit incomplete, incompetent, sloppy, illegible or difficult to understand applications, plans, calculations or specifications. To do so gives a poor first impression, puts your competency in question and draws special plan scrutiny. If they can’t understand it, they can’t approve it. Obtain a peer review if you need help.

Involve clients in the permitting process. The client, who is usually the official applicant for permits, needs to understand the challenges and continuing responsibilities of all permits. If the project has any innovative, vague, questionable or debatable code compliance issues, explain them to your client to determine how different official interpretations may affect the project. Decide with your client which decisions will be unacceptable and what alternate solutions or appeals actions will be taken if the AHJ doesn’t find the submitted plans acceptable.

Recognize that the plan submittal, review and approval process takes time. Make sure your client understands this, and allow for it in your project schedule. Know when your plans will require an appeals process and plan for it. If you are looking for expediency, you will have to follow the letter of the codes or the subjective opinion of the AHJ, regardless of the cost. Know your legal options for dealing with unusual or last minute disputes.

Send information to the AHJ ahead of any appointment. Sending plans, code reviews, questions or explanations ahead of time gives the AHJ time to research questions and arrive at a more educated conclusion. How-ever, this is not necessary if a presentation meeting is scheduled.

Help the AHJ expedite the plan examination. When you have an unusual project, requiring innovative design or complicated code analysis, don’t hold back information from the AHJ that could be helpful to him. Lead the AHJ through your design and code analysis process so that he understands the project and doesn’t have to start from scratch trying to understand the plans. Explain where design options exist and where and when you need his input or decisions. Be able to suggest possible solutions to vague or unusual situations.

Gather all the AHJ’s together for project meetings. Where multiple agencies participate in the review process, make every effort to get all of the required AHJs together at the same time and place so that they all hear and learn the same thing. This ensures good communication and timely consensus. It saves review time and saves you from having to make multiple presentations.

Don’t talk about “bending the rules,” or “cutting some slack.” This is unethical and unprofessional. Follow the code or submit legitimate alternatives (performance-based vs. prescriptive design) as permitted by most codes.

Don’t try “trust me.” It won’t work. Build trust and respect with the AHJ through consistent, competent, cooperative, ethical and professional behavior.

Stick to the book so that personal opinions cannot enter into the process. Strive to make your plans as objective as possible. If things become subjective, personal or confrontational, it may cause the AHJ to exceed his or her authority. This is not a good thing to have happen, as it may not be correctable.

Don’t blame the AHJ for code requirements. The AHJ can only enforce the code. He has very little discretionary power. Only if the AHJ exceeds his authority do you have reason to blame him, and even then, you should have the option to follow an appeals process. If you don’t like the code, use the code-defined system to submit proposed code amendments.

Keep written records of all meetings and agreements. Distribute complete minutes, memos and correspondence to all concerned persons. Include all names, dates, decisions, schedules, assumptions, actions or other pertinent information. There is great power in the written word.

Be prepared for the unexpected. There is always the possibility that you will find yourself facing some very unusual ethical and professional challenges. How do you respond when an AHJ demands an action that is an obvious code violation, but your client agrees to comply because he cannot afford a project delay? What if there is no appeals process, or the review process will take a year, or if graft is demanded for an occupancy permit? Preparation and honesty are always the best policy. Carefully report illegal or unethical activity; do not tolerate it. Develop your professionalism so that you are able to respond, not react.

Work to build rapport with your building officials. Thank the AHJ for his help and cooperation, and don’t expect or request special attention or favors from him. Offer your special field of expertise to help the AHJ train his staff in technical matters. Join local contractor and building official organizations. There’s nothing wrong with competence or cooperation. Lead the effort.

Be professional in all matters. This doesn’t mean be haughty or arrogant. You can be friendly, personable, helpful and professional, without being an arrogant know-it-all engineer (as we are too often perceived to be by non-professionals). Your salesmanship or friendly persuasion skills can be as important as your engineering skills.

In the construction industry there are other “pseudo-AHJs” with whom we interface. These could be the client’s insurers, trade organizations, employees unions or government overseeing agencies, all of whom have guidelines to follow. Make sure that your plans comply with building codes first before attempting to follow the other guidelines or advice. Legal codes always take precedent over private or governmental guidelines, and the two may not be harmonious. Private guidelines can be helpful and serve as evidence of acceptable engineering practice where codes are incomplete.

You might think you’re the world’s best P.E., but it doesn’t mean much if you can’t get your plans permitted, constructed and approved. The point is that an action plan for permitting needs to be considered and developed right along with the design plans. Put yourself in the shoes of the AHJ early in the process so that you can envision the problems and arrive at solutions before there really is a problem.

Understanding Product Approval Marks

Product approval marks are licensed to qualified products by independent, accredited testing laboratories. Manufacturers submit their products to these laboratories, and products that successfully pass all required tests are entitled to bear the testing laboratory’s approval mark.

Much of the confusion regarding approval marks stems from misunderstanding of the difference between testing laboratories and standards developers. In some instances, the same organizations are involved. An industry standard may bear the name of the publishing company: for example, UL standard 507 for electric fans, or CSA standard Z21.47/2.3 for gas-fired central furnaces. This can lead to the mistaken belief that a product must be tested and certified by the company whose name appears on the standard. However, this is not the case. Any OSHA-accredited testing laboratory can be used to test and certify products against the applicable standards.

When an organization is involved in both standards publishing and product certification, these activities are performed independently and separately. Within CSA Group, for example, CSA America is responsible for publishing U.S. standards, while CSA International is a North American product testing and certification agency.

Product approval marks are a visible indicator that a product or component meets applicable standards for safety and performance. Some of the marks issued by accredited testing labs and commonly found on products certified to applicable U.S. national standards are CSA, UL, NSF, ETL and TUV. While some marks may appear on a range of products, others are issued for specific classes of products or products designed for a particular geographic region.

OSHA-accredited facilities are known as Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories. All NRTLs test products against the same sets of standards, regardless of who wrote or published them. And in addition to OSHA, other bodies accredit laboratories.

A competitive, open testing and certification marketplace helps manufacturers bring their products to market as quickly and economically as possible while also ensuring that they are subjected to the rigorous testing.

To take advantage of openness and competition, specifiers should write nonrestrictive specifications. A specification requiring products certified by a particular laboratory, just because that laboratory’s name is on the standard, unnecessarily limits the range of options. (For the complete story, visit