University of Virginia Building Official Shortens Construction Time

July 8, 2011 — With more than six buildings and several renovations coming online this summer, it is a busy time for Elaine Gall, the University of Virginia's building official.

Gall, a mechanical engineer, is responsible for inspecting new construction and renovations on Grounds and issuing certificates of occupancy. Her post was created after the University gained more autonomy through the Commonwealth Chartered Universities and Colleges Act, passed by the state legislature in 2006. Prior to that restructuring, Richmond-based state inspectors handled all of the work – on a first-come, first-served basis.

By contrast, "we can prioritize," Gall said. "We know what projects can wait and what can't."

"She has saved the University a lot of time and money," said Donald E. Sundgren, U.Va.'s chief facilities officer. "We can save one to three months on a project with in-house reviews."

According to Gall's report to the Board of Visitors in June, from April 2010 to March, her office performed 503 plan reviews, a 41 percent increase over the previous year, and issued 174 permits and 19 certificates of occupancy.

The University is still subject to audits by the Department of General Services. Auditors review certificates of occupancy and then inspect structures with the University's building official. All certificates of occupancy must also be signed by the state fire marshal, who is not in the University's employ.

While Gall reports directly to the Board of Visitors, her office is located at Facilities Management, convenient to the project managers with whom she works. She said it is much easier for them to come the short distance from their job site with a problem than it had been to have to go back and forth with the state government.

"Sometimes we have a line out the door," she said. "We have people in here daily asking questions, and sometimes it is easier to go to the site and see something in three dimensions than look at a two-dimensional drawing."

Gall's office oversees all new construction, from design through completion, as well as renovations, which she said are more challenging.

"You never know what you will find when put a hole in a wall," she said. "Also, old buildings do not have to be brought up to code, but new work in them does, and that line is not always black and white."

While the Christiansburg native was named the building officer in 2009, she has been working at the University since 2006, starting as a fire protection engineer.

"I had to make sure we were using fire-safe material for the walls and floors, that the sprinklers worked, that there were enough exits and emergency lighting," she said.

Before coming to the University, Gall, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech, worked as a fire marshal for the state, based in Roanoke.

"We'd help localities with big projects," she said. "A building inspector in a small town may only see one school get built in his career, so we would work with them. I'm an engineer and we like to build things."

When she worked with the state, the University was a client. "I saw that U.Va. was trying to do the right thing and they had a very progressive attitude here," she said. "When the job opened up, I thought real hard about it. I like U.Va. and think it has a great culture of doing things well."

Her previous state service is a benefit to the University, according to Sundgren.

"Because of her previous work, she has great credibility within the state," he said.

Nor are her responsibilities limited to Grounds. She and her staff of six also handle all the projects for the University of Virginia's College at Wise and University satellite facilities such as Blandy Farm and the Mountain Lake Biological Station.

"They represent different disciplines," she said of her staff. "I have an electrical engineer, a structural engineer, an architect, a fire safety engineer and a contract administrator who looks at things such as handicapped access.

 "We do all U.Va. property," she said. "Sometimes we are a little overwhelmed."

Gall and her staff begin working on projects in their early stages, meeting with planners in value management sessions, where they look over the plans, make suggestions and review lessons learned on previous projects.

She said her inspectors also meet early in a project's life with contractors, to review expectations and look for ways to streamline.

"We try to encourage the contractors, if they are installing 20 restrooms in a building, to get one ready and we will inspect that and they will know what to expect," she said. "And that way they get to fix one, instead of 20."

"She looks for ways to get things done," Sundgren said. "She is professional and hard-working."

Gall said working for the University is the high point of her career so far, most of which has been spent working with the state. She said her previous territory was 20 counties and 14 cities, so she got to know a little bit about a lot of places. This job has allowed her to become very familiar with one place.

"Working for U.Va. is nice because it is like a small community," she said. "It is very rewarding."

Gall says her work is fun and challenging.

"I love it," she said. "I like to see how we go from plans to a finished building. I like the challenges going from a sheet of paper to the three-dimensional buildings. I like being around construction because each building is different; each building has its own personality."

– by Matt Kelly

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications