On the Road to Digitization
When Gale Grady, district manager at PCL Civil Constructors, discusses Florida's Dept. of Transportation's information technology system, it sounds a lot like sailing: To take advantage of a beautiful day, or an interesting contract up for bid, a contractor connects to an online program that allows digital submissions, or even multiple resubmissions if modifications are necessary, before bids close. Like a sailboat catching a good wind, the e-bid system propels the contractor through a streamlined process fairly quickly and pretty smoothly.
"This is far and above what manual submissions are like," says Grady, whose Tampa, Fla.-based firm has teamed up with Walsh Construction Co. for work on the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge in New Haven, Conn.
While some state and local regulatory agencies offer similar technology, the online offerings for the A/E/C industry are spotty nationwide. The majority of jurisdictions, including many in the tristate area, lack even the basics in their technological offerings. Many in the industry see that as a problem. "Building departments have been so decimated by the recent recession that, without IT, when the economy turns around and construction volume comes back, they will not have enough staff to efficiently conduct basic code compliance services," says Robert Wible, principal of Robert Wible & Associates, Reston, Va. "There will be growing backlogs and wait times for projects to be submitted and reviewed, inspections to be conducted and certificates of occupancy to be issued."
Even in today's slow economy, as the number of projects shrink and the number of bids on those jobs rises, demand for regulators to digitize their processes has intensified, says Wible, who is calling for industry regulators to automate processes. He says regulators should at least offer the digital basics—interactive voice response systems, mobile field inspection technology, building e-plan reviews and e-licensing and e-permitting. Some 10%-15% of jurisdictions nationwide now have some form of the basics in place, but less than 1% of those have all four, he says.
Putting such IT functionality in place can reduce the amount of time it takes to get a building through the regulatory process by as much as 80%, Wible says. "That means buildings open faster, hire people to work there faster and get the building on the tax rolls faster," he says. "Regulatory streamlining and IT then mean jobs, jobs, jobs—and more rapid economic recovery for the communities that take those steps."
Some cities in the tristate area, including New York, have made strides, especially in the last two years. But IT advances have been slow in others.
In Hartford, there is "nothing online in terms of permit applications, no electronic tracking. In New Haven, you can download a PDF of a permit so you can apply online, but there is no online tracking," Wible says. "Connecticut is not as far along as other states." John Butts, executive director at the Associated General Contractors of Conn., agrees the state has a long way to go. The Conn. Dept. of Construction Services has no online channel for bidding or plan review. While both the Dept. of Administrative Service's procurement division and ConnDOT are in the process of implementing online bid systems, DAS's system will not be specifically for construction-related procurement. The DOT, however, will begin to phase in an online system this month.
In New York, the DOT has an electronic engineering data (EED) system in place, says Karen P. Morrison, vice president of transportation and technical services at AGC New York, which helped NYSDOT develop the EED specification protocols. The system provides downloadable, pre-bid electronic engineering models that can be used with the contractor's estimating system and, ultimately, allows the contractor to e-bid.
Wible acknowledges that NYDOT is making progress but says that is not the case for all state agencies "and not for construction of state facilities."
In New York City last fall, the Dept. of Buildings launched the Development Hub, a plan review center that accepts digital plans for new buildings and major alterations. Using video conferencing tools that include webcams and smart boards, the center allows architects and engineers to submit plans electronically and to review them in a virtual environment along with officials from DOB, DOT, the Fire Dept., Dept. of Environmental Protection, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, City Planning and the Dept. of Parks and Recreation—which are linked up to the system.
"The idea is to never make anyone leave their office to do business with us," says Robert LiMandri, DOB commissioner.
Use of the system is optional now but will eventually become mandatory. DOB plans to offer an electronic payment platform in April for credit card transactions. Wible says that few cities have systems like the Hub. "Indianapolis has a pretty advanced system in place that includes e-permitting," he says, adding that the city is one of the leaders in use of IT in its building regulatory process. Indiana, which has begun to offer e-plan review for some structures, is another leader among the states, he adds.
Michael DeLacey, president of Microdesk, Nashua, N.H., calls the Hub "a useful portal" but says officials "are still looking predominantly at two-dimensional drawings." Some regulators are seeking three-dimensional building information modeling for "a much more intelligent and sensible way of reviewing whether the building is meeting codes," says DeLacey, whose firm provides BIM services and is working with several agencies to develop BIM standards for the review process. These include the NYC Dept. of Design and Construction, which plans to roll out BIM standards later this year, making their use mandatory by year-end.
Moreover, the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York recently led a construction RFP for the Bronx's Office of Mental Health, Adult Center. DASNY required that BIM be used for construction and that the shop drawings during the construction process be done using BIM, DeLacey says.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection has a long-standing proprietary environmental management system (EMS) that provides workflow and data processing functions as well as payments. The EMS will soon include more functionality for several services, including review of land use data. "We have four land use permits online now, but more are coming," says Jim Bridgewater, NJDEP manager of Enterprise Information, Web and Content Management Services. DEP, working with tech firm CGI, Fairfax, Va., hopes to launch a beta system in May that uses the EMS to process geographic information system data. The service would eliminate the need for a contractor to submit CAD files to DEP directly and for DEP to manually collect and process those files for review, Bridgewater says.
The agency's success has gone beyond IT. Through a deal with CGI, NJDEP receives royalties when the system is marketed to other entities. "We've been working with DEP equivalents in other states to develop the NJEMS program," Bridgewater says. Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi and Utah have already implemented versions of the system, he adds.
New Jersey agencies are coming along, says Jack Kocsis Jr., CEO of Building Contractors Association of New Jersey. He says the Division of Property Management and Construction has begun to process constructability reviews online, although it does not do so for all of its services. "What's been done so far is not a big time saver now, and you're not going to feel economies of scale until this is done across the board," he says.
On a national level, some industry players are working through the public-private Alliance for Regulatory Reform in the Digital Age, which helps state and local agencies advance on the IT front. Some are also working to promote IT issues through Fiatech, for which Wible is a senior project manager.
Wible says the private sector has, in many cases, agreed to pay a surcharge to advance IT in the regulatory process. In Oregon, for example, contractors agreed to such a fee. "There was no opposition," he says, adding that the charge pays for itself in time saved in getting projects under way.
The bottom line, he says, is that the regulatory system overall should be streamlined and that regulators must examine all of their processes to "make sure they have made them as efficient as possible—and then bring IT in." He says that if "they just slap IT on a broken system," no one will benefit.