The Building Department ensures 'nothing happens' at LLNL

Chris McMillan (Download Image)

As part of his role as an inspector with the Building Department, Chris McMillan supports construction crews and helps ensure adherence to building codes and safety standards by visiting sites and double-checking work done at different stages. Photo: Garry McLeod/LLNL.

On one of this spring’s first warm, sunny days, Chris McMillan of the Operations and Business Directorate’s Building Department stands overlooking a lattice-like framework made from interlocked lengths of rebar that will soon support the extension of a large concrete slab attached to the exterior of Bldg. 432. The slab will be the new home of a large, industrial cooler that will facilitate the important work being done by scientists and researchers inside. McMillan, in his high-visibility vest and hardhat, inspects the rebar cage, testing places where two pieces of the twisted metal have been joined together with his full weight in steel-toed boots.

“Now I can see just with my eyes that these guys have done a great job. The depth looks good, all the overlapping lengths far surpass minimum requirements, and the welds look sturdy,” said McMillan as he demonstrates the strength of the structure by bouncing on it slightly. “So now that we know it’s sturdy and everything is to code, I’ll sign off on it, and the concrete guys can get ready to pour the slab.”

McMillan’s day will include stops at other Lab construction sites and time at his desk handling a substantial amount of paperwork, but in a nutshell, this is what the Building Department does: ensure things are done right the first time every time. While critical for the safety of the Lab employees that will someday occupy new buildings and renovated spaces, site visits and inspections are just one part of the process. From reviewing the earliest design concepts of a new building or structure to ensure code compliance to issuing a Certificate of Occupancy allowing Lab staff to officially move in and start work, the Building Department is involved in every new build and improvement plan on site, saving the Lab a lot of money and time along the way. However, code compliance is not only for the construction process of new buildings. The Building Department also is responsible for ensuring the continued safety of the built environment including any future remodeling, addition or repair construction on existing structures.

With five or six new buildings being erected in fiscal year 2023 and nearly 200 smaller projects involving renovations of existing spaces or changing out aging air conditioning units, the Building Department has had an active year so far. Deputy Building Official Chris Landreth joined the Lab in 2021 but is no stranger to construction contracting and California building codes, having come from the public sector working for the nearby City of Tracy.

“We try to promote ourselves as a resource for contractors,” Landreth said. “We work directly with them providing code-compliant options to achieve their goals and move projects along quickly and efficiently.”

Before a building or any project is kicked off, Building Department plan checker JoAnn Schultz must review and okay the plans to ensure that the proposed designs are compliant with codes for categories including building, mechanical, plumbing, electrical and fire. Permit technician Cheryl Carey manages this back-and-forth process with the designers before issuing the permits for the project to commence. Once the project is underway, McMillan and his fellow combination commercial inspector Lisa Sarto inspect and confirm that installations match the approved drawings and meet codes. If more specialized expertise is needed, they can call on the help of their colleagues, senior electrical inspector Loren Rocha and structural engineer Toan Phan, who have decades of combined experience in their respective fields.

Some of McMillan’s and Sarto’s inspections are unannounced, but most are planned, happening between phases of a build like the morning’s visit to ensure the rebar structure was ready for the concrete pouring phase. Some other phases may include ensuring the proper installation of fire-rated assemblies within the walls of an electrical facilities closet or soundproofing of meeting spaces in what will be secured office buildings before drywall goes up.

“It’s really more about seeing a work site on a normal day, providing an extra set of eyes on the work being done and letting them know we’re available to support them,” McMillan said.

Chris McMillan looks through plans
Building Department team member and inspector Chris McMillan looks through plans to confirm the work recently done at this site is correct, to code, and ready for the next stage of construction. Photo: Garry McLeod/LLNL.

Walking into a nearly finished building on the other side of the Lab from the rebar structure he approved earlier that morning, McMillan smiles and greets contractors, some by name, as they bustle up and down carpeted hallways with cordless drills and caulk guns. Here, he’s looking at the width of doorways, height of countertops in a kitchen area and testing the heaviness of a door to ensure that all Lab buildings are built or upgraded for accessibility.

“It can be hard for people who are not disabled or don’t know anyone who is to understand when something needs to be re-done for accessibility reasons,” McMillan said. “But the work being done at the Lab is extremely important and everyone deserves to feel safe when they’re here so that work can continue.”

Longtime Lab veteran Rocha echoes this sentiment and said he’s worked on buildings that have gone on to house research for everything from new treatments for breast cancer patients to the Lab’s new Space Science Institute. Even when working on projects with limited information for security reasons, Rocha says supporting the Lab’s mission is ultimately why the Building Department aims to get projects done right the first time.

“I have a lot of pride in working here because of the important science being done,” Rocha said. “We don’t always get the details about what will go on in the buildings we work to make safe, but it’s been amazing to play a part in it all.”

Starting at the Lab in 1998 as a contractor himself, Rocha has seen many of the Lab’s construction and improvement phases and said even compared to the busier years in his time here, the work to come will be substantial. This future workload is why Rocha said spreading the word about what the Building Department does and prioritizing recruitment of skilled tradespeople or folks willing to learn a trade is more important than ever.

“Doing it wrong costs three times as much,” Rocha said. “So we want to bring in more highly trained personnel to work on these projects with us to make sure that never happens and the Lab’s mission-critical construction goals are met.” 

Returning to the office on what is now a hot and sunny afternoon, McMillan hangs up his hardhat and sits at his desk to begin his post-site visit documentation. In the next room, Landreth nods at the mention of the inevitability of earthquakes, climate change, updated safety codes and new accessibility standards. 

“LLNL does amazing work and there will always be a lot of change,” Landreth said. “But no matter what comes down the line, our job will always be to make sure nothing happens.” 

- Amy Weldon