If it weren’t for Curt Willis and his staff, the new 23-story SkyHouse apartment building on Blount Street wouldn’t be moving toward completion and opening.
Wake County Public Schools wouldn’t be able to open one of its new schools in Raleigh.
And private home builders would basically be out of business, unable to allow buyers to move in.
Willis, the Deputy Inspections Director of the Raleigh inspections department and his staff of 35, are responsible for making sure every building and major construction project in the city limits is carried out safely and completed up to code.
Once that’s accomplished, they issue certificates of occupancy to allow buildings to open for use – free of code violations that could cause danger and even death.
Work slowed dramatically when the recession hit in 2008, Willis said. In 2005, the department completed more than 125,000 inspections in a year. In 2008, the department only needed to complete 61,800 inspections.
“All I know is we had a lot of work all the time,” said Willis, a 31-year veteran of Raleigh’s inspections department. “Suddenly in 2008, the phone stopped ringing.”
A state association says construction in the state’s metropolitan areas is bouncing back more rapidly than in other regions.
And the phones are finally ringing again – faster than Willis and his staff of 35 inspectors can keep up with.
By July 1, Willis estimates the department will have completed about 115,000 inspections, the first six-figure number since 2007. Those kinds of numbers also mean Willis needs more inspectors. He’s asked the city to include funding in the new budget. for 11 permanent inspector positions to keep the department working efficiently and quickly.
Last year, the department had a $5.1 million operating budget. Two positions that the inspections department added last year cost $130,000, but there’s no firm estimate yet for adding the 11 new positions the department wants.
Raleigh inspectors typically complete between 400 and 500 inspections every day. Buildings are inspected multiple times throughout the course of construction. Depending on the complexity of the project, an inspection can take a few minutes or a eight-hour work day.
Inspections don’t accurately track how many buildings are constructed and then occupied, but the numbers do offer a glimpse into how much construction is happening in Raleigh.
Typically, large apartments can take hours to inspect. And lately, Raleigh has been seeing more of those.
“Apartment buildings have gotten bigger,” Chief Electrical Inspector Jay Daunoy said. “You can’t just spend an hour there, it gets really involved.”
To help with complex and time-consuming inspections, Raleigh’s inspections department offers inspections after business day and on weekends by appointment.
Sometimes, that means the work never ends. The department has done inspections at all hours of the night and morning, Willis said. He’s sent inspectors out at 11 p.m. and to another appointment at 2 a.m.
Still work to do
The rest of the state isn’t seeing the same kind of demand for inspections and most areas are slower to bounce back from the recession, said Dan Dockery, president of the North Carolina Building Inspectors Associaton. Dockery is also chief building official with the Winston-Salem and Forsyth County Inspections Department.
“You don’t see it coming back everywhere, but I’d love to see it steady like it was in the early 2000s,” Dockery said. “It’ll be a while to get there.”
Pockets around the state, especially the Triangle and Charlotte, have started to return to their pre-recession activity levels. It doesn’t just signal a healthier economy, it also means many people who were laid off might be able to get their jobs back.
Finding danger spots
In Raleigh, 12 inspectors were transferred to other departments when inspections began to decrease, Willis said. He managed to retain the employees in other city departments.
Other areas weren’t as lucky and cut significantly more, Dockery said. It’s important to get departments back up to speed: Without inspectors, homes and businesses can be dangerous.
“When an inspector does his job, nothing happens,” Dockery said.
But if an inspector doesn’t do his or her job, electrical wiring may be shoddy, foundations can be crooked and buildings can be prone to damage during severe weather.
It’s a lot of pressure, Willis said, but it’s equally rewarding whether he’s overseeing 60,000 inspections a year or more than 100,000.
“You’re making a difference,” he said. “You’re seeing Raleigh grow up.”