San Juan County building inspectors stand by certifying Microtel in Aztec as safe
AZTEC — The newest hotel in Aztec has been mired in problems ranging from poor craftsmanship to failure to pay workers, but officials say the building is certifiably safe.
That's the stance of San Juan County Building Official Ken Douglas and Larry Hathaway, the county's community development administrator.
The Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham, a 70-room hotel, opened on Oct. 4, two days after Douglas awarded the contractor for the hotel a certificate of occupancy from the county's building division. The hotel is located on the south end of Aztec's historic downtown corridor off U.S. Highway 550 in the Dillon Industrial Park.
"It's up to code, but codes don't address quality," said Douglas, a former carpenter and builder and one of 700 Master Code Professionals in the world. "They address safety. They probably should (address quality), but they don't. We're the silent defenders of public safety in public buildings."
The county adheres to the 2009 International Building Code or state Commercial Building Codes with construction projects like the Microtel. Hathaway said officials look at whether a building meets the building code adopted by the state.
"We don't necessarily inspect quality, but there's a minimum that needs to be met. We're not looking at every nail and every board that's put into a structure, especially a project of that magnitude," Hathaway said of the Microtel. "We're not the quality control. There's a minimum of quality of workmanship that needs to take place. We do some measuring, window and doorway sizes, but the quality of sheetrock and taping, we don't get into. The building is structurally sound, in regards to safety and health."
During various stages of the construction project, county inspectors were at the hotel every day, Hathaway said.
Douglas said his objective early in a project is to compare design elements in the architectural plans against building codes.
"I review the entirety of the plans in advance of any work," Douglas said. "If anything doesn't match (with code), I cite it with the code it fails to match, the page number (for the reference number for the plans) and send it off."
Douglas sent a list of more than 30 code violations in the Microtel plans to the architect on Oct. 17, 2012. The violations were in the site plan and in the architectural, structural, electrical and mechanical areas.
Douglas said he began working on the hotel project in 2012, inspecting architectural plans for the building's design — inside and out — before the land was graded and the foundation poured. It's a meticulous process that continues to this day. On Thursday, Douglas sent letters to Construction Management International, the Florida-based general contractor on the project, and the subcontractors about a portion of the hotel's pool area that has four outstanding permits lacking his final inspection.
During construction, Douglas or any of his office's three field inspectors would visit the site for consultation or inspections.
Through the course of construction, Douglas' office issued 15 permits in areas from plumbing to electrical, each one involving dozens of individual inspections and site visits.
During a routine visit by one of his field inspectors, Douglas learned drywall workers were sealing a second-story corridor with two layers of sheetrock before required inspections of the hallway had been made. He said he drove to the construction site, stopped the work and ensured the workers removed the premature work after consulting with the contractors.
"I dot my i's and cross my t's," Douglas said. "I am focused on structural integrity and fire and safety. Somebody's really looked out for your family. If a door doesn't latch correctly, it's fixed on the spot."
Still, the Microtel struggled to open its doors. When it did, it did so with a list of more than 150 items to be corrected or completed. Called a "punch list," the seven pages included things like a gas leak in the hotel lobby's fireplace, missing paint and incorrectly cut acoustic ceiling tiles.
The list was submitted by the project architect, David Anderson of FORM Architectural Group, a firm in Oakmont, Penn., nearly a month after the hotel's opening. But according to Hathaway, the long list of repairs have nothing to do with the county's inspections of the construction project nor state code that officials use to ensure safety of county buildings.
Sam Blue, Microtel's developer, stressed that the hotel's punch list problems are matters of cosmetics, long-term and resale value, not safety.
"The building's safety has been met in aces and spades, and that's documented," Blue said. "We haven't had any customers get hurt or fall. Overall, the architect did a good job."
Blue's concern is over delivering a first-rate product, which has been compromised by instances of shoddy work, such as nails fired through ceiling sprinklers and warped faulty siding.
"When you read that the floors are uneven, it's not saying you're going to fall down," he said. "But the floors, as an example, are poured at hundreds of thousands of dollars and the high spots prematurely wear from foot traffic, daily vacuuming. It's a combination of cosmetics and longevity. Safety, on the other hand, is assured."