A Rockville parking garage that collapsed during construction in August was being built under a Montgomery County honor system that exempted it from the usual periodic checkups by county building inspectors.
The year-old program, designed to save time and money for builders and the local government, was suspended nearly two months before the collapse.The fire marshal's office said numerous shortcomings were discovered in other buildings constructed under the program and were corrected without serious incident.
The garage is now nearing completion, and state and county officials are conducting investigations to determine what caused the collapse.
The mysterious collapse injured one worker and demolished several cars last Aug. 23, but construction was permitted to continue under the honor system, as were a number of other projects that began before the program was suspended July 1.
Builders who participated in the program were required to have their architects or engineers certify that construction complied with the county building code and that they would accept responsibility for any violations.
Fred Erickson, deputy director of the office that enforces the code, said the fire marshal's concern prompted suspension of the program, but added that some county officials concluded the certification program amounted to "sort of slougning off the county's responsibility."
More than 30 commercial buildings, including church halls, stores and small office buildings were erected or altered under the program. County records show construction permits were granted for 10 townhouse projects or four to eight units each. Most of the residential buildings are being put up by Kettler Brothers in Montgomery Village but have not been completed, a company official said.
Construction of the concrete-slab parking garage and the adjacent Washington Science Center office building at 6100 Executive Blvd., estimated to cost about $3 million, appears to be the largest project under the certification program.
The project is being built by Wilco Construction, and the architects are Ward & Hall Associates of Springfield, Va.
Although similar certification programs have been adopted elsewhere in the country in an effort to speed inspection and cut the workload of government inspectors, they have been controversial, Erickson said. In Montgomery County, he added, the program was not widely used, in part because architects and engineers were reluctant to accept liability.
The problem with such programs is that "they assume the individual who signs the affidavit is totally familiar with the codes and regulations and capable of interpreting them," said James F. Dalton, the county fire marshal. "That's what the government is responsible for," he said.
Dalton's office reported finding incomplete firewalls and insufficient exits in certified buildings that it inspected for safety before granting occupancy permits.
Those problems were corrected, Dalton said, but he pointed out the fire inspectors don't see a building until it is finished, whereas county building inspectors normally would check it at various stages of construction and presumably could spot code violations that aren't visible later.
"It's tough to say, "Tear it down and rebuild it,' or "tear down part of it,'" the fire marshal added. "You usually find a way to live with it."
Although Dalton's office checks for compliance with fire-safety regulation and not specifically for building code violations, there is considerable overlap in the two programs.
At two of the commercial structures built or modified under the program, spokesmen said they were satisfied with the results so far.
At the Harlequin Dinner Theater, where the lobby was remodeled and seating was added under the certification program, Kenneth Gentry, the business manager, said, "We haven't had any problems" with the work done there.
Ronald Klein, pastor of the Berea Bible Church, said that the church built a hall near Clarksburg under the program and, "We're very satisfied that our building is very well built." Klein said county inspectors checked the construction in addition to the church's engineer, even though the building was erected under the certification program.
Charles T. Greene, director of industrial safety in the District, which has a more limited certification system, said the programs are popular with local governments operating on tight budgets.
They save money because of the cost of inspection staffs, but great consideration has to be given as to whether you're gaining anything if you produce buildings that are not safe," Greene said. "As a general concept, I don't buy it."
The District government permits certification of building plans, as did Mongomery County, but the city requires on-site inspection of work under way.