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The collapse in late June of a 12-story oceanfront high-rise in Surfside, Fla., was more than a thousand miles away from Evanston’s lakefront. But the horror of the event – one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history – prompted some Evanston residents to wonder “could this happen here?” Despite the extreme rarity of such an event, it did put a spotlight on building and zoning regulations in Evanston.
A “flurry of residents” reported building concerns to the City after the Florida collapse, said Johanna Nyden, director of the City’s Community Development Department. With any such complaints, the City responds by sending property standard inspectors to the sites and then continues to monitor the situations as needed.
The Community Development Department takes very seriously its responsibilities for reviewing the design and construction of new buildings and assisting in the maintenance of existing buildings, Nyden said. Not only is the department responsible for how new buildings get built, it also plays a crucial role in preserving the existing building stock of older buildings for future generations.
Evanston residents should know several key things when it comes to building safety, she says.
Construction documents and compliance with codes
The building permit process is a thorough one. Contractors, builders or developers submit construction documents (drawings and specifications) to the City Building Department. The construction documents must be prepared by architects and engineers who are licensed to practice in the State of Illinois, and the documents must comply with the building codes that have been adopted by the City of Evanston. See a list of the City’s building codes here.
These codes are periodically updated by the International Codes Council and the other organizations responsible for their codes. Every nine years, Evanston reviews and adopts the latest of these codes. Nyden said the City is now in the process of reviewing and adopting the 2021 Codes.
In Evanston, proposed buildings must also comply with the Evanston Zoning Ordinance. Among the categories it regulates are the size of a building, its location on the property, its type of use and parking requirements. Nyden pointed out that the Zoning Ordinance is crucial for protecting the built environment and for making sure “we are not overwhelming our land with too much building.” Its regulations can help relieve the burden on Evanston’s infrastructure. For example, impervious surface limits in the Zoning Code help control the amount of surface water that may flood onto neighboring properties. That can help keep sump pumps from running continually.
The current Zoning Ordinance, adopted in 1993, is periodically updated with amendments until a new Zoning Ordinance is adopted by the City Council.
City staff (or external contractors hired by the City for this purpose) then review the construction documents to determine if they are compliant with all applicable codes. The Department staff also guides applicants through the process of getting all City approvals.
Licensing of contractors and in-person inspections
Worried Evanstonians can also brush up on their knowledge on how contractors are licensed and buildings are inspected.
All contractors must register with the City of Evanston. Registration has different requirements depending on the trade. In the case of plumbing and electrical contractors, they must have State of Illinois licenses.
During the construction phase City inspectors approve different parts of the process and different trades at different stages. These inspections typically include the structural, plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), and sprinkler and elevator work. Certain requirements during the construction phase may include specialized testing such as soil testing or multi-day testing of concrete by an independent consultant.
During the 2020 pandemic, some inspections had to be done remotely, relying on the contractor to send photos or videos of particular construction details to the inspectors. Nyden said the department’s inspectors have now returned to doing in-person inspections.
Monitoring building maintenance
At the end of the construction phase the contractor or developer must apply for a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) from the Building and Inspection Services Division. Issuance of the CO requires passing final inspections of all relevant trades. For certain buildings, the City requires periodic elevator and fire department inspections after the CO is issued.
After the City has issued the Certificate of Occupancy, the building owner (whether an individual, management company or condominium association) is responsible for maintenance of the building. The owner often hires licensed engineers, as needed, to monitor building maintenance issues.
All rental buildings are registered and get inspected, typically every three to five years.
The City’s Property Maintenance Division is also involved if notified of possible property standard code violations. The Evanston Municipal Code lists property maintenance requirements, including the definition of “dangerous and unsafe buildings.”
Possible unsafe conditions may be brought to the City’s attention by building residents or neighbors. Nyden stressed that the City takes any complaint “incredibly seriously”.
An individual can file a complaint by calling Evanston 311, texting 847-448-4311, or using the online report form under Property Maintenance on the City’s website.
Angelique Schnur, Property Maintenance Supervisor for the City of Evanston, explained that property maintenance inspectors are responsible for conducting inspections of residential rental properties, home day care businesses, and structures in response to complaints received through 311, as well as inspections of the general upkeep of properties in town. Inspectors conduct exterior inspections of properties from the public way unless they are invited onto a property to inspect.
The Property Maintenance Division receives on average 18 to 22 exterior-conditions complaints per week, according to Schnur. These types of complaints are not always structural in nature but can include unlicensed and/or inoperable vehicles, rubbish and/or garbage, or general upkeep concerns. Sometimes these complaints lead to notices being issued for siding, fencing, chimney or stairway repairs.
Since the Surfside collapse, Schnur said one complaint was received regarding a possible pool deck issue, but the condo association decided to have its own structural engineer inspect the building.
Schnur said that during the past year, “two properties were brought to administrative hearings, the judicial body that reviews ticketed complaints. One was for a wall that presented as potentially failing and another was for an industrial storage building that was unsafe.”
In the first instance a structural engineer deemed it safe; in the second, a structural engineer agreed, the building was deemed unsafe and persons were prohibited from entering until it is demolished or conditions improve.
Schnur said the remainder of violations are not safety- but maintenance-related, such as uncut grass and accumulation of trash.
Evanston has electrical, structural, plumbing and HVAC property maintenance inspectors who are required to obtain the International Property Maintenance certification of the International Code Council. Inspectors attend regular quarterly trainings on such inspection-related topics as hoarding and temporary event inspections, she said. They are also required to earn Continuing Education Credits to maintain their certifications.
Schnur said that each property maintenance inspector typically has approximately 100 to 150 open cases. Every case may not be in an “active” state, meaning the City may be waiting on a property owner or contractor to complete some aspect of addressing the violation. For instance, a building permit may be in the process of being reviewed or the owner may be waiting for estimates on work or waiting for a contractor to start. Other cases may be awaiting a re-inspection and disposition.
Building collapses, or partial collapses, are rare in Evanston. Schnur cited a partial roof collapse at 1801 Central St. in 2017. The building had been vacant for a long time and was unoccupied at the time of the collapse. The owner was cited for the collapse and was provided a time frame for corrections to be made. When the time frame expired and the roof remained in disrepair, a ticket to an administrative hearing was issued. The owner was provided additional time to make the repairs and was subsequently fined. There were no injuries, and damage to the adjacent property was limited to water infiltration from a shared wall and roof joint.
The Surfside building collapse illustrates the crucial role that condominium boards play in assuring that a building is properly maintained.
For current owners or potential purchasers of a condominium, there are online checklists that may help them evaluate condominium boards. The checklists include such items as reviewing the board minutes, the financial statements and the amount in the reserve fund and finding out whether there is any cash surplus, whether the building’s budget is balanced and whether there are engineering reports about the condition of the building.
Local real estate professionals are often aware of which condominium buildings are well run and have conscientious board oversight.
Monitoring the maintenance of a building by condominium board members can be challenging because board members are often volunteers who may have had no experience with building maintenance. As one Evanston resident who has served on her building’s board reflected, “What do we know?”
City staff in the Building Department and the Property Maintenance Division, as well as licensed engineers, should be consulted for any maintenance concerns.