Gabe Vellante: the wizard of buildings

By Jon Bishop

AYER/HARVARD/DEVENS — Gabe Vellante, the part-time building inspector for Ayer, Harvard and Devens, is like a maestro, or maybe a wizard, for when he walks into a home, even one under construction, he sees where everything needs to be.

He knows right away if he’s in a bedroom; he can look at a wall and tell if everything is in place.

To a layman, it all just seemed like a bunch of wood.

But none of this should be surprising. The art of building, after all, is in his blood.

“I grew up in a construction family,” he said. “It was kind of one of those natural extensions,” referring to his choice to enter this line of work.

He studied building construction at Wentworth and then architectural design at Boston Architectural College.

His first stop: Harvard, his town of residence, and that was in 1984. He followed that up with building inspector in Ayer in 1993 and then for Devens in 1995.

He starts his day by checking e-mail, just like everyone else. And then he moves onto permit processing.

Also, he has to greet guests.

“You deal with whoever walks through the door,” he said, and that can mean a homeowner or an architect.

“That pretty much takes up most of the morning,” he said.

He does inspections after lunch. Sometimes he has three, but other times, that number can balloon up to 7. Once he’s done with that, he’ll do more permit processing.

His job puts him in constant contact with builders — his favorite part, he said.

“They’re hard-working tradesmen,” he said.

And they feel comfortable around him. They stop by, asking questions. His office can turn into a roundtable, he said.

“It’s nice to know that we have that relationship,” he said. Many of the people, too, are repeat builders: 80 percent, in fact.

“I have a good time with everybody,” he said.

His job allows him to take a survey of the character of the different towns and communities. Harvard is mostly high-end custom home renovations, while Ayer is a blend of residential zoning and small to medium commercial, he said.

“Devens is a totally different animal,” he said, meaning that it’s mostly large-scale projects. And, often, they’re one of a kind. It’s the stuff you see once in a career. Consider the former Evergreen Solar. What went in there, he said, was mind-boggling.

The first time he had to work on one, he was nervous.

“It was scary,” he said. “I’d never done anything like that before.”

But his job is not just showing up at buildings and seeing if they meet code. He can also get close to the people he serves.

“The job’s a life safety job,” he said. Its goal is to create environments for people to work, raise families.

That’s why he took what his predecessor in Harvard told him to heart, which was: “Your position should not be an obstacle to people.”

As a building inspector, people approach you and tell you that they want to build their dream house or start their own business. But they run into regulations, which are legion, he said.

“Part of your job is to guide them through it,” he said.

And when fires or floods or other disasters happen, he’ll remind people that the possessions they lost are easily replaceable. He’ll tell them to start making new memories, start taking new pictures.

For it’s far more important that everyone got out alive.

Every trade has its own tools, he said.

His: passion, smarts, friendliness, humor and even … wizardry.