A rise in building permits in May provided some welcome news for the U.S. housing industry, indicating that starts will likely increase in the coming months. With demand for housing remaining on the uptick and more permit applications being submitted, counties, cities, and towns will need to stay on top of the inflow to prevent plan reviews and construction inspections from bottlenecking. Why? Consider this: Regulations governing the design and construction of buildings contribute up to 20% of the cost of construction. A single day’s delay caused by the regulatory process can add an additional $100,000 to the cost of a mid-rise building.
To speed the permit process, building officials should look to streamlining—removing any potential regulatory overlap or duplication and creating more-efficient administrative procedures. As the No. 1 customer in most building departments, builders should feel empowered to share this concept with the jurisdictions they work in and encourage them to make their processes more efficient.
Streamlining, as it’s known in the building world, can help ease the pressure on plan review staff and safeguard the quality, safety, and energy efficiency of new homes and renovations. When executed properly, it makes building departments more efficient and effective at enforcing construction code requirements, as well as improves customer service and provides financial savings for the local government, home buyers, and builders.
According to the Alliance for Building Regulatory Reform in the Digital Age, a group formed by associations representing state and local governments and the building industry, streamlining will stimulate economic recovery and community sustainability by annually saving the public and private sectors over $30 billion in unnecessary construction costs due to regulatory duplication, time delays, and other inefficiencies. It can reduce the amount of time it takes to move construction projects through the regulatory system by up to 70% and get homes occupied faster, which is good for all parties, not to mention the overall economy.
A survey conducted by the Alliance on information technology investments related to building codes noted that staff time required for a building permit was reduced from 1 hour to 15 minutes and that staff time required for performing inspection scheduling and inspection was reduced from 2 hours to 1 hour.
With benefits like those as the goal, some key areas where builders should encourage building departments to prioritize their streamlining efforts are:
External communication: A clearly articulated web page, brochure, or checklist containing all the necessary information for various types of projects, permits, and approvals helps to eliminate countless phone calls and emails with questions and needless disapprovals due to a lack of information.
Internal communication: An organized and cohesive system across all departments involved in the building regulatory process allows for ease in tracking projects and clear communication among all the players.
Permit application: A clearly written and easy-to-understand permit application accompanied by a checklist of items required to be submitted with it, is an excellent way to reduce questions and frustration with processing incomplete applications. It’s important to note that where software is used to process permit applications, it should be compatible with any electronic plan review software.
Plan review: It is important that the plan review and approval process be clearly communicated from start to finish. Gillette, Wyo., has an electronic plan review process that incorporates all responsible parties and gives customers “near real-time” online tracking of plans as they move through the review process. It is important to note that moving solely to an electronic plan review process may require a change in state statutes allowing architects and engineers to electronically seal their plans. State elected officials should make this change, where necessary, to enable this very effective streamlining measure.
Inspections: A central system that allows for online as well as automated phone scheduling can reduce the administrative burden on office staff and add efficiency to the inspection process. Scheduling inspections based on their proximity to one another can greatly reduce travel time, while employing multi-discipline inspectors can reduce the number of trips to one building site.
Staff qualification and training: Building codes are continuously revised and updated, so it is imperative that code officials stay current as the codes are updated in their jurisdiction. Requiring certifications, such as those offered through the International Code Council (ICC) is a great way of ensuring that local inspectors and plan reviewers have a minimum level of code knowledge.
Technology: Technology—including software, Internet-based applications, mobile devices, electronic seals and signatures, and electronic storage—all have the potential to improve the efficiencies of various code compliance processes. Most jurisdictions across the U.S. have implemented some type of electronic process in place of a less efficient paper version. As technology continues to advance and become more affordable, and as stakeholders continue to request and expect Internet-based solutions, the trend of electronic processes replacing paper will increase.
Investing in IT to implement or streamline processes can be used for major compliance and enforcement processes including online permit application processing, electronic plan submission, plan tracking and reviewing, and scheduling and conducting field inspections. However, IT is not a magic bullet for fixing a regulatory system. “If all you do is put IT on a bad regulatory system, all you will do is spend a lot of money on making a bad system worse,” Aldona Valicenti, Kentucky CIO and president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, told a group of building officials and construction industry attendees at the second National Forum on Building Smarter in the Digital Age in 2001. That was true then and it holds true now.
Overall streamlining building regulatory processes should be seen as a sensible “win-win” approach for government and industry alike. Improving regulatory and administrative efficiencies can save both time and money for the public and private sectors while not de-regulating or compromising appropriate oversight and safety. For builders, the bottom line is quicker approval for project permits, approval of plans and inspections, which will lead to getting a certificate of occupancy sooner.
For more on this topic, read IMT’s case study: Successful Strategies for Improving Compliance with Building Energy Codes.
A version of this blog post appears in Builder Magazine.