Planning relations between architects, engineers and the government can be strained.

Forensic plumbing

A few years ago, a local architect designed a little elementary school for a rural school district near here. That was back when local school boards still worried about such things as community tax burden, so the approved design featured an open plan on the inside. The three classrooms opened onto the library, so kids could be sent there without escaping from adult visual supervision, but without a full-time librarian, either.

The approved design was earth-set on the outside with the building set into the site on three sides so that only the south was exposed to the elements and solar gain. Inside, a cathedral ceiling with glazed clerestory and exposed trusses enabled sunlight to penetrate all the way to the north wall at the time of the winter solstice, while a deep roof cornice prevented any solar penetration at all from mid-April to mid-August.

The school board loved the design, both for its looks and its operational efficiency. The State Education Department hated it, particularly after its construction cost out at 30% less, on a square-foot basis, than other schools it was enthusing over. Threats of state construction aid denial were withdrawn only after the board--they were independent thinking folks in those days--informed the state that construction would proceed, aid or no, and that the state decision would receive suitable publicity. In that political climate, retaliation was sure to come.

Problems Arise

That retaliation came a few years later in the form of a message from the state to the architect. "We have a complaint from a local parent about a sewage odor in your school," it said. "Your design must be defective." (Just as we suspected all along, you scoundrel.)

Such messages from government, even from one which rules over only a population equal to that of a mid-size county anywhere else in the country, are enough to give most architects a stomach ache. This one was no exception. He called the board chairman the same day he got the state message.

"What's going on?" he asked.

"Beats me," came the answer. "I'll find out."

A few days later, the facts began to come in. The complainant was a state bureaucrat with family ties to the education department. The complaint, it turned out, was legitimate when more accurately described as a sewage odor of varying intensity, which showed up for a few widely spaced days over an 18-month period.

"Why hadn't the complainant gone to the board?" the architect asked.

"That's not the way the game is played," said the chairman, an older and wiser veteran of the political wars.

What design or operating defect can cause an episodic sewage odor, we wondered? Is it even possible to miss a plumbing rough-in mistake in a school with a fixture count to serve only 60 students? After all, the rough-in had been approved in the design stage by one state bureaucracy and in the pre-sheetrock stage by another. The state education department was not impressed by the approvals of its sister agencies.

"We clearly have a serious health hazard here," they informed the school board. "For such an obviously negligent design, we may have to retroactively confiscate the construction aid we so generously gave this questionable project," they advised the chairman in a series of phone calls.

The Investigation Begins

We took our keyhole saws and cut away the sheetrock to reveal the in-wall plumbing-vent connections. They were all there, in the right shape and in the right place.

Back to square one.

"It's kids on my roof," said the architect, in a fit of paranoid speculation. "They're sneaking up there to stuff rags into the main vent."

True enough, I thought; it's easy indeed to walk right up onto the roof on this earth-set building; but what normal school-kid would remove the rags, once installed?

We put a couple of nearly invisible strands of sewing thread across the vent opening and waited for the next odor-event.

We also picked the brain of the well-driller who'd been working in these counties for the last 30 or more years. "Sulfur water," he said. "The further west you go in this state, the more likely you are to hit it. Smells just like sewage."

We weren't convinced. Either you hit sulfur water in well-drilling or you don't, we thought. Like a plumbing stack defect, it isn't something that comes and goes.

"Wrong," said the well-driller. "When you're on the edge of the aquifer, tainted water can move into and out of the well's draw zone. Call me when you get another whiff of it," he volunteered.

The next whiff was three months in coming.

In the meantime, the architect campaigned unsuccessfully for the new-school design work in a nearby district. "We're sorry," the building committee told him apologetically, "but the state education department warned us about your plumbing design weaknesses."

The Mystery Is Solved

Soon thereafter, the awaited odor arrived. On a call from the board chairman, we all assembled in the small lobby adjacent to the school's two little toilet rooms.

"Sulfur water," said the well-driller, after barely inhaling. "Go buy a carbon filter."

A week later, one was in place on the main water line into the building from the on-site well. There hasn't been a detectable odor or a complaint, bureaucratic or otherwise, since. Meanwhile, the months and years keep moving on.

Some months after the carbon filter was installed and the problem apparently solved, the architect called the state education department about the advice they'd been giving other school districts regarding the quality of his work.

"That's old news," the officials said. "Never mind."