Commissioner's Corner by John Caywood, Allen County Building Commissioner
John Caywood

Why Building Permits are a Big Deal:

One thing I love and vowed not to change when I became Allen County Build Commissioner was the mission statement. It reads: To protect life and safety in the built environment. What a simple, yet clear statement of the Building Department’s mission. I direct a staff of men and women who diligently work to ensure the schools, homes, restaurants, shopping malls, and yes, even tents are safe structures for those who occupy them.

Recently, the local media covered a story about a small business owner up in arms over an event tent. The owner complained about having to purchase numerous permits in order to comply with local and state building laws. He also claimed these permits were costly and resulted in paying thousands of dollars more than last year. Because of this, the owner is considering ending the event next year.

I was disappointed when I read this, but as Building Commissioner, I am used to being that cold, wet blanket that is draped over enthusiastic shoulders sometimes. People often question why the building department does not make exceptions to the building codes. Being the bearer of bad news just comes with the position.

Historically, tragedies such as fires, structural collapse, or entrapment have been behind the creation of most building code. The earliest known building codes date back 4000 years to 1792 B.C. with the Babylonian King Hammurabi. Faulty building practices were no more appreciated then than they are now. Then, if someone constructed a building that collapsed and killed the owner, the builder would be put to death also. If we fast forward to the 1800’s, New York created some progressive building laws on exiting and using stone instead of wood on tenement housing as a way to preserve life and safety. The iconic metal fire escapes were also a result of these progressive codes.

With the economic vitality we are experiencing in our local community, many new structures are being planned as well as renovation of existing buildings, many of them with historic significance. Entrepreneurial excitement of a business owner sometimes conflicts with the process of getting the right permits every time. The Building Department in coordination with other permitting departments offers a “Special Projects Meeting” on a regular basis. Those with questions on virtually any aspect of permitting have access to department experts who will offer guidance on making their projects successful. A citizen is always welcome to contact the building department with permitting questions.

One of my duties as Building Commissioner is responding to fires and other structural emergencies in Allen County. It is my responsibility to determine whether a structure is safe after a tragedy. I cannot count the number of times I have stood outside a burning building at 2:00 a.m. somewhere in Allen County. More often than it should be, the cause of the fire is due to a violation of building code that could have been easily detected by an inspector if permits were pulled.

Reading about business owners complaining about spending money to provide life safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, additional exits, and emergency lighting is discouraging. In this case, building permits cost approximately $140.00, not thousands as stated. It is reasonable that one could spend thousands for safety items for an event with thousands of people in attendance. What price does a community put on safety though? Let’s learn from past tragedies and do what must be done legally and morally to do that simple thing: to protect life and safety in the built environment.


John Caywood Building Commissioner

© Copyright 2017,
Home Builders Association
of Fort Wayne