Brita Van Horne
Chief Building Official
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I was born in Minnesota and lived there until I was an adult. I spent time living in Colorado before coming here to Texas almost a year ago, so I’m a “new to Texas” person. We had family moving to the area and I was looking for a new opportunity, which I found in Garland. Moving from Colorado to Texas has had some adjustments. I love to hike and bike, so I miss the access to nature that we had in Colorado, but I love the amazing diversity of Texas with big cities, farms, ranches and access to forests, deserts, mountains and the ocean all in one state.
Can you tell me a bit about your role?
I wear a lot of hats, but my official title is “Chief Building Official.” I’m basically the manager of the building department. This is where you come if you need to build, construct, change equipment or remodel a building. We are the ones who would review the plans and issue the permits for that. We also look a lot at zoning and things like parking minimums and setbacks.
We also issue certificates of occupancy, which is a little bit like a business license, but involves making sure that a business fits the building they’re in from a use, parking, safety and code perspective. We also help connect businesses to City departments and services they may need at that same time.
What attracted you to this field?
I like technical things and construction and have always been interested in things that are spatial. I also enjoy trying to find ways to simplify government processes that are very complicated for people who don’t work in this realm. For a lot of business owners who aren’t familiar with this world, it can get complicated and scary for them. I like to find ways to make things more streamlined and efficient. I like to help them through the process in a way that’s less painful. Right now, we’re revamping our computer systems and creating an online portal to make interactions with the building and other departments more streamlined and easier for customers.
How did you get started in this industry?
I started off studying architecture but then switched to a program designed to study building codes, which exist to make sure buildings are safe and constructed properly. My dad was a building official for many years. He encouraged me to give it a try. I started off as an inspector, working out in the field with all kinds of buildings and slowly worked up, started doing plan review, moved into management and then moved to different positions over the course of time.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face?
One internal challenge is finding ways to improve technology and communication so that everyone working in city government feels like they’re on a team instead of working in their own silo. I think we can use technology to create better collaboration so people can visualize themselves as part of a big team, able to see bigger goals.
From a technical, industry perspective, we’re seeing a lot of emphasis on energy efficiency and environmental sustainability as it relates to building codes. That’s the area where we’ve seen the most changes over the past several years. There’s a continued push to think about how the built environment is going to have an impact on the world long term and trying to make improvements there.
How do you work with small businesses?
We coordinate with new businesses and their contractors who are remodeling tenant spaces to make sure they build according to city codes. We also work with development customers…those who have a piece of vacant land and want to build new buildings. We help them through the development process and advise them on the best way to accomplish goals, in addition to handling permits.
What advice would you give small businesses that you work with?
I would say it’s always best to ask a lot of questions and ask us about it if you’re unsure about anything, about a process, make sure to call us before you get too far down the road and get committed to something. Often, we see a business owner go out and look for a tenant space, sign a lease and then they realize they have to get a certificate of occupancy or get a permit for reconstruction, only to find out it’s not a good fit. Ask those things proactively before you’re down the road. We want to help you not get into that situation.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I’m a big baker. I like to bake bread and sourdough. I’m also a big outdoor hiker and biker, always looking for better opportunities to do that, I love poking around in different parks. I also read a lot.
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