Tag Archives: PLAN CHECKER


April 14, 2017

Art of red tape (source unknown)

(Continuing on my rant from a previous post.)

In the not-so-far past, city approvals for a project were provided by a small handful of departments. Today, even for the tiniest of projects, approvals are necessary from over a dozen different agencies like Bureau of Sanitation, Green Building, Community Plan Injunction Compliance, and WTF Department.

With the ever-changing and self-contradictory city requirements, even the most experienced architect has trouble getting his client’s project approved for construction. Additionally, if the city employees don’t know what they themselves are doing, how can any architect? Maybe intentionally created to torment, getting a permit is an inexplicable mishmash of unfathomable cruelty and perversion.

Torture scene from A Clockwork Orange, 1971
Torture scene from A Clockwork Orange, 1971

My project consisted of adding a mere 750 square feet to an existing small house from 1957. I will only hash out two crazy situations of the twenty that I confronted during the nine months of the city process. Note that in this time frame, a contractor could actually construct my entire addition.

City height diagrams and restrictions
City height diagrams and restrictions


The city Plan Checker determined that my design was above the height limit. But he stated with a straight face, “If I made the design taller, he would approve the project.”

You did not read this wrong.

The city code had an obscure loophole. If a certain roof shape was added on top of my design, then it would be allowed to be taller than the limit. Though none of this made sense, I proceeded with a revised taller version, and was now found to have an approved design.

Sketches for the house renovation and addition
Sketches for the house renovation and addition


Due to my project’s new square footage, the city required one additional parking space.

The city recommended that this new parking space be located at the bottom of the hill. A peculiar suggestion: Such a parking spot would be 100 feet lower than the existing house, and the distance between the spot and the house would be a half a mile walk.

Even worse, to add such a parking space would require a 15-foot tall retaining wall to hold back the hill. And such a wall was not allowed by the city. Not only that, but the cost for this wall and the associated hillside work would be $300,000.00!

A most expensive eyesore: the neighbor’s city-required retaining wall, (photo by Anthony Poon)
A most expensive eyesore: the neighbor’s city-required retaining wall, (photo by Anthony Poon)

Plan B. The city’s Planning Department stated that the new spot could be added at the front of the house. A great idea. But the city’s Bureau of Engineering would not allow a new driveway to get to this spot. This made my new parking space unreachable, thereby making Plan B a stupid idea.

Victim and government, from Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
Victim and government, from Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

EPILOGUE: The joy of being an architect can easily be compromised by employees of a city—sometimes just doing their jobs, sometimes looking to not say “yes,” since it is safer to say “no.”

One might believe that these tales are exaggerated by blending a heavy dose of artistic flair to the small amount of truth. One might assume that such stories only occur once in a while. But here is the frightening fact: Such events happen most of the time. And it gets worse every year.


March 12, 2016

(background photo by Lcg from Pixabay)

In architecture, city agencies exist to protect the public. These agencies ensure that my design complies with the requirements of life safety—from a restaurant exit door being wide enough, to a library that doesn’t fall down. These agencies also check that my design conforms with the zoning guidelines of a community—from the height of a house, to the number of parking spaces for a new football stadium.

As reassuring as the city approval process sounds, it is not. Contradictions, political agendas, personal interpretations, ever-changing rules, and self-serving officials—such challenges are hoisted on the approval process.

The psychological torture and financial burdens placed on architects and their clients are tragic, mind boggling and operatic.

“Relativity” by M.C. Escher, 1953
Relativity, by M.C. Escher, 1953

A decade ago, I designed a fitness center, a simple renovation of an existing building. A creative facelift. Easy, right?

Upon meeting the city Plan Checker, for the first of a dozen dubious meetings, he pointed out that the existing restrooms were not ADA-compliant—meaning not accessible for handicapped users. So proud of himself, he highlighted his find like a cat that caught a bird in flight. This zealous Plan Checker, the individual assigned to review my design, was very wrong in his find.

I calmly replied that these restrooms are existing. Not only were they previously city approved as ADA-compliant, these restrooms weren’t even part of my project.

Project paperwork at Poon Design
Project paperwork at Poon Design

Though the inane Plan Checker held the approval records in his hands, right there in front of me, he for whatever reason did not believe the restrooms were compliant. Though the compliance wasn’t even part of my job, he demanded I show him the drawings from the original architect. WTF, right?

Weeks later, though no easy task and with no choice, I returned to the absurd Plan Checker with the requested 10-year old drawings.

To my disbelief, the absurd Plan Checker believed this information before him with city approval seals and signatures was not accurate. “Maybe even forged,” he exclaimed. He required that I personally measure the restrooms, and return with the calculations for his examination.

More weeks later, I returned with my technical drawings exhibiting dimensions of everything from door widths, stall partition thicknesses, toilet heights, to locations of light fixtures and grab bars. My painstaking measurements proved that the restrooms were indeed (and already) in accordance with ADA requirements.

Torture scene from Brazil, 1985
Torture scene from Brazil, 1985

To my dread and surprise (but not so much of a surprise, since this was obviously just a power game by the repugnant Plan Checker), he did not endorse the work. He announced that the only way the restrooms were going to be ADA-correct in his mind was that the rooms be demolished, then reconstructed per code! Reconstructed as they already were!

Beaten into mush, was he looking for a bribe? I had no such money, nor did my non-profit client. In defiance, I chose to not demolish the restrooms, not waste the energy, time, resources and materials.

When the arrogant Plan Checker came to the job site to verify that I did as he demanded, I presented the old restrooms as “newly constructed restrooms,” that were up to ADA code, of course.

I lied, though it wasn’t much of a lie. It was more of a wink-wink. It was a game after all.

As the surreal Plan Checker peered into the “new” (old) restrooms, he kind-of-sort-of knew that they were not really new. But what the heck, he thought. He congratulated me on making the restrooms ADA-compliant.

Power Yoga, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design (photo by Elon Schoenholz)
Power Yoga, Los Angeles, California, by Poon Design  (photo by Elon Schoenholz)

This single approval of which there were 45 other such items, exhausted six months of time, fifteen meetings with this foul Plan Checker, and 1,000 hours of work. Again, it was just a game. One of persistence and cruelty.

This epic true tale was a long time ago. One would think that things have gotten better, but in fact, they have gotten much worse. Much, much worse. That’s a story for another day.

© Poon Design Inc.