Legislation prompts building safety debate

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North Carolina architects are raising safety concerns about legislation that would reduce the number of smaller construction projects that require a plan review from a licensed architect. 

Senate Bill 329 passed the N.C. House in a largely party-line vote this week, garnering more debate during Wednesday’s session than a controversial bill to limit the governor’s emergency powers. It would change current law that allows construction plans worth less than $200,000 to bypass an architectural review, increasing that threshold to $300,000. 

Supporters of the measure – sponsored by Sen. Steve Jarvis, a Republican who owns a residential and commercial construction business in Lexington – say it would reduce construction costs. They also argue the dollar amount needs to increase as a result of inflation.

Sen. Steve Jarvis

“It costs a lot of money and it’s difficult to find an architect,” said Rep. Larry Yarborough, a Roxboro Republican who has worked as a commercial developer. “It’s regulations like that that stop small things from happening, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.”

North Carolina’s branch of the American Institute of Architects, or AIA, is opposed to the bill in its current form. Executive Vice President David Crawford said his group is concerned about the impact on what are termed “life safety systems” – everything from sprinklers to the way hallways are designed to ensure safe emergency exits. Architects typically review those closely before signing off on a builder’s design. 

Raising the threshold to $300,000 would mean, for example, that construction of a small restaurant in an existing building could be permitted without an architect’s review, Crawford said. He disputes the claim that the increase is needed to reflect inflation, because the legislature increased the number just last year from $90,000 to $200,000.

AIA worked on a proposed amendment to the bill with Rep. Brian Farkas, a Democrat from Greenville who works for an architecture firm. Under Farkas’ proposal, construction projects worth as much as $300,000 would be exempted from the review requirement only if they did not involve “life safety systems.”

“I do not believe we have enough protections in place on life safety issues,” Farkas said. But Republican Rep. Bobby Hanig said the change would “gut the bill” because nearly all projects involve something that’s on the list of “life safety systems” – even something as simple as an emergency exit sign.

Farkas’ amendment was defeated in a 47-62 vote. Most Republicans opposed the amendment with the exception of House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne. 

Rep. Abe Jones, D-Wake, urged his colleagues to vote against the bill, citing the recent collapse of a Florida condominium building and a bridge collapse in Kansas City. “Anything we could do to make certain those kinds of things don’t happen, we should do.”

The bill passed the Senate unanimously back in May, and Hanig said he hadn’t heard about any opposition until this week. Crawford said he’d previously voiced his concerns to Jarvis, but the bill was suddenly added to the House calendar this week after having been parked in the Rules Committee for two months. 

After Wednesday’s 67-38 vote in the House, SB 329 now goes back to the Senate for a final vote, which could happen as soon as next week. 

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