A purpose and a plan: Cliff Isaac facilitates a better-built environment through improved community connections
As a licensed professional engineer, a licensed general contractor and a certified floodplain manager, Cliff Isaac is uniquely qualified to do most anything related to construction.
He holds Standard Level III certifications in building, fire, electrical, plumbing and mechanical; serves as the secretary on the North Carolina Building Code Council. He has also served in the past on the North Carolina Code Officials Qualifications Board, the North Carolina State Board of Examiners of Electrical Contractors and the North Carolina Structural Pest Control Committee while working for the state.
While his experience and talents could take him in many directions, his focus since 2017 has been as the deputy commissioner for the State of North Carolina Department of Insurance. In that role, he works with the North Carolina Building Code Council to evaluate proposed code changes and ensure smooth code change processes, and performs research to ensure that proposed code changes are correct.
Born to build
Isaac has worked in the construction space since he was 14 years old, first as a high school student working part-time for his family’s commercial design-build construction company. He holds a degree in civil engineering from North Carolina State University. After working in the industry designing buildings and bridges, he returned to the family business in 1996 where he worked for another 15 years.
“The year 2012 was a transition for me and my family’s business,” Isaac recalled. “After 56 years in operation, the design-build construction space came to a halt, largely due to the economic recession that hit Catawba County and surrounding areas.” He further notes that the manufacturing base of textiles, furniture, fiber optics and others went from roughly 55 percent to 25 percent of the total labor force as the Great Recession continued in North Carolina, and commercial construction was reduced to nearly zero.
Instead of taking a paycheck with no work, Isaac applied for a job with the North Carolina Department of Insurance and the Office of State Fire Marshal in the Engineering Division, first as a code compliance investigator and then as the chief residential code consultant.
Isaac was well-suited for these jobs as he had studied the North Carolina Building Codes since he was in high school as part of his family’s construction business.
“Studying the codes was part of my early education about design-build from seasoned competent design professions,” said Isaac. “Working for the state, we provided code support and monitored code compliance for the roughly 4,167 inspectors across the state of North Carolina. The engineering team also worked with code officials to develop better policies for effective government.”
As a code consultant, he was responsible for finding solutions to informal complaints and writing formal reports to be represented to the North Carolina Code Qualification Board. During his 20 months in this position, he’s particularly proud that of the 21 cases presented to the board, he received unanimous votes on all 21 investigation reports from the board.
From buildings to rails
In March of 2015, Isaac took over as facilities and properties manager with the Rail Division at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, managing facilities and properties within the division.
Essentially, he oversaw operation and management of rail corridors and construction of rail facilities on properties throughout the state. His responsibilities included construction, demolition and preservation of structures, including the development of bids, contracts, plans, estimates and budgets. As a Secretary of Transportation-appointed member, he also represented the Rail Division on the North Carolina Department of Transportation ADA Committee.
“Interestingly, the building codes were a big part of the work that the Department of Transportation did and the knowledge of those codes helped shape the design and compliance,” continued Isaac.
After two years with the Rail Division, a friend and colleague tapped Isaac to return to the construction space to make a difference in the code world.
A new perspective
When Mike Causey was elected as the North Carolina Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal in November of 2017, he looked to Isaac to help enact his vision of government operations within the organization. “He asked if I was interested in assisting him help bring builders, inspectors, engineers and developers together to make a better, more efficient way of building inspections through the codes and statutes,” said Isaac. “I was all in.”
In March 2017, Isaac became the deputy commissioner of the Engineering Division, a group charged with the administration and private plan review, interpretations and enforcement of the building codes. Isaac also serves as the commissioner’s designee to provide written technical interpretations and served on both the North Carolina Code Officials Qualifications Board and the North Carolina State Board of Examiners for Electrical Contractors on behalf of the Commissioner of Insurance. Currently, he serves as secretary of the North Carolina Building Code Council, an organization that adopts and modifies the code as well as conducts appeal hearings.
“As an engineer and one who has designed and built many buildings, one must understand the language,” said Isaac. “However, many strongly believe that building codes should be written in such a way that they cannot be confused, which causes misinterpretation. As well, inspectors should strive for consistency while builders should make every effort to check their jobs before requesting an inspection.”
As part of his quest to ease complexity and streamline operations, he was instrumental in the development of the Live Remote inspections program, which allows permit holders to demonstrate code compliance of certain types of first-time inspections as well as re-inspections using video chat apps such as Skype, Zoom or Facetime. A typical example might be a re-review of a failed framing inspection that had up to four clearly marked, non-life safety violations. If all those items were corrected, the building inspector could approve the framing inspection using Live Remote from the office computer or phone, allowing the builder to continue work.
Isaac also introduced the new Residential Changeout Inspector Certification. “This certification covers simple heating, ventilation, and air conditioning electrical/gas 1-phase systems as well as water heaters,” he explained. “So instead of having to obtain multiple certifications, the inspector only needs to obtain one certification, which builds our cadre of qualified inspectors.”
“Working with inspectors, builders, legislators, engineers, architects, developers and the local inspection departments, the team here at the North Carolina Department of Insurance has truly created an environment that benefits the entire construction industry,” Isaac stated. “This is exactly the vision of North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Causey. A more efficient and effective government that serves the people to keep costs down, which will keep homes and businesses more affordable. This was a team effort.”
“Cliff’s no-nonsense, forward-looking approach has transformed building code services in the state,” said International Code Council Government Relations Senior Regional Manager Stephen Jones. “With insight and vision, he is continually working to improve and streamline the regulatory process for contractors and code officials alike.”