Dave Roche Credit: Town of Needham

Over his 11 years as Needham’s building commissioner, Dave Roche had a front row seat to a historically active era of town construction that added nearly $2 billion to the town’s total assessed property valuation.

Between 2013 and 2022, new growth value — the calculation of the net increase in municipal property values, largely because of new construction — increased in Needham at nearly twice the rate it had during the 10-year period prior to Roche’s arrival.

Roche, who retired last week, oversaw nearly 100,000 inspections and the issuance of nearly 50,000 permits during his tenure in Needham, according to building department records. The department collected more than $36 million in fees during a period when Needham businesses and residents spent more than $2 billion on new construction, remodeling and renovations.

Roche received special recognition at last week’s Select Board meeting, with Chair Marianne Cooley noting Roche’s role in turning around the department. “I thank you because you brought sanity to the building department,” she said.

Roche took some time away from cleaning out his office to sit down with the Observer to discuss both the highlights of his tenure and what lies ahead.

The state of the building department was much different when Roche was hired.

There was a bit of lack of staffing.  The people running the office had a different philosophy than I have — which is you treat people the way you want to be treated. And, guess what? That wasn’t happening.

I can see people getting hardened in these positions after a while. Maybe you take it out on the general public and the contractors, but it was not a friendly environment.

It took quite a while for that staff to move on; they didn’t all leave at once. Slowly but surely we were able to replace people and we have a great group of people right now. It’s quite different than it was before.

Like I said at the (Select Board) meeting the other night, we’re in business together with these people (builders and contractors). It’s a business for us, it’s business for them. We can’t hold their business up by not doing our job.

Chart: David Vergara

In addition to overseeing literally billions of dollars in construction activity, there were also 975 building demolitions during Roche’s tenure. He thinks current market forces might influence future teardown activity.

The cost of the property — “the dirt” so to speak — has gone up significantly since I started here. The average home 12 years ago was in the $450s. That same house today is between $900,000 and $1 million. That, coupled with the interest rate hikes, has slowed (teardown rates) down. But it hasn’t stopped it by any means. We’re still going to see a fair amount of building.

One of the major regulatory changes during Roche’s tenure was Needham’s 2020 adoption of a new stretch energy code, which applied greater energy efficiency standards to new buildings. He believes that code may have the unintended consequence of encouraging teardowns. 

Because of the energy code requirements, the remodeling part of it is going to be quite different. I’m not quite sure how that’s all going to shake out.

If you have an addition of more than 1,000 square feet, you now have to bring the whole house up to energy code standards. That’s absolutely absurd.

Some projects you can do it, but if you have an average family that just wants to add a couple of bedrooms on because they had a couple of kids and they want to do an addition, they can’t afford to go through the rest of the house and rip out walls, reinsulate, put all new windows and doors and heating and cooling systems in.

With the new code requirement, if you were forced to bring the whole house up to code, you may be better off to knock it over.

Known as a straight shooter, Roche urges caution on the town being overly aggressive with the option for a net zero energy requirement.

Frankly, my opinion is the town should wait a couple of years because I don’t think Eversource has the infrastructure to support that many electric homes — especially the size of the electric homes we’ll be building.

We’re not building the old 2,500 square foot, four-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath Colonials anymore. We’re building on average six or seven bedrooms, five or six bathrooms and a house that’s probably crowding 6,000 square feet by the time you finish the basement and the attic. That draws a lot of electricity.

What won’t he miss?

This town’s fortunate that they have a good core of builders and general contractors. The difficult ones are those that have never built in town or some of these remodelers who are . . .  less than perfect. Let’s put it that way. They’re the ones that are going to be a little bit of work.

From time to time, Roche got involved when he encountered problematic contractors.

We had a couple that we found were taking advantage of homeowners. I’ve either pulled them into my office or talked to them out in the parking lot and said,  “You’re done. We’re not issuing any more permits to you. And if you don’t like that you can take it to the state and report that I’m not issuing permits to you.  And I’ll tell the state flat out why I’m not. So move along.”

I had an obligation to the homeowners of this town to protect them against people like that. Fortunately, we didn’t get many of them. But we had a couple (of contractors) that were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and with multiple jobs, which is not good. 

I mean, these people should be in jail.

Roche offers some parting advice to homeowners.

People need to make sure they get a written contract, a written estimate and something that shows when payments have to be made. 

You would not believe the mistakes people make. They’re just writing checks to these people with no background at all. They’re not getting multiple estimates, they have no idea what it costs, they just assume that’s the cost, and it’s scary.

Needham’s new building commissioner is Joe Prondak, the former Milton building commissioner.

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