During the next four years our construction community and state and local governments will face immense challenges as they strive to revitalize, build and maintain sustainable economies, get Americans back to work, help the nation recover from the “Great Recession” and become a more disaster-resilient society at the same time.
As a result of the recession, building and land use department staffs have been cut to the absolute minimum in many local jurisdictions. And now, as construction begins to rebound, it is imperative that owners, developers, designers and builders and local officials work together efficiently to ensure that building department cutbacks do not slow or imperil economic recovery by adding costly delay to the regulatory processes.
The solution is to transform a building regulatory system that was largely built in the middle of the last century into an effective and efficient modern system that leverages new and innovative construction practices and technologies, while continuing to assure public safety.
While the task seems daunting, a growing number of jurisdictions are successfully working with stakeholders to assess and streamline regulatory processes by transitioning from paper-based operations to digital technology. It is part of a trend that began before the recession, paused, and now has resumed.
But it is imperative that all parties now work together to examine all of our regulatory processes and make sure we have made them as efficient as possible—and then bring in, wherever it is appropriate, the innovative technologies available to the construction industry today that will make sure the regulatory system enhances public safety and serves as an asset, and not a hindrance, to our nation’s economic recovery.
A number of those jurisdictions that leaned into the headwind of the recession to implement cost- and time-saving technologies now can help show the way, and several industry organizations, including Fiatech, are conducting studies and publishing guidelines that capture their best-practices to help bring this ambition within reach.
Economic recovery, development, sustainability and disaster resiliency cannot be served by standing still with outdated processes and procedures, regulatory abandonment or just slapping IT on top of a 1950’s regulatory structure. It is time to focus and effect these changes now.
Leading By Example
Surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007 by the Alliance for Building Regulatory Reform in the Digital Age, in coordination with the American Institute of Architects and the International Code Council, documented steady growth in the number of jurisdictions applying IT to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of building regulatory programs.
Between 2008 and 2010 the recession slowed, and in many places stopped the reform trend. Jurisdictions of all sizes postponed or even cancelled internal regulatory streamlining efforts and procurements.
Some jurisdictions, however, took the opposite approach. They used the slowdown to work with their stakeholder communities to either expand upon initial streamlining efforts, or identify barriers to more effective and efficient codes administration and make plans to remove or reduce them. For example:
- Despite staffing cuts, the buildings department in Bend, Oregon, now can handle an increase in current construction volume of up to 120% without slowing processing or hiring additional staff, thanks to its implementation of integrated ePermitting, ePlan review and mobile field inspection technologies. It is using its streamlined processes to assist neighboring jurisdictions that had to radically reduce codes enforcement staffs. And further, it is using its ePlan review technology to build a secure database of electronic plans that first responders can download as they roll up on future disaster sites. Bend thus joins Portland, Maine as one of the first jurisdictions in the United States with such a system.
- Montgomery County, Md. has expanded its use of IT in its regulatory programs by adding ePlan review to its building department program, which already included ePermitting and mobile field inspection technologies. In February the county held hearings to invite input on a proposal for a multi-agency, countywide regulatory streamlining initiative to provide the construction industry and the public a single-portal entry point for a coordinated economic development program. Under the system multiple agencies would use the same software and hardware to coordinate zoning, land use, building construction, environmental, and public works regulatory and administrative services.
- The City of Los Angeles was also hit hard by the recession and reduced its construction regulatory staff. But it is an early-adopter of ePermitting and mobile field inspection technology, and it is exploring adding electronic plan review to gain anticipated staffing and process time-savings of up to 60%, as is being achieved elsewhere in the nation. LA is considering establishing a single, coordinated portal for large economic revitalization and development projects within the city.
- Under the leadership of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the commissioner of the Dept. of Buildings, Robert LiMandri, New York City has researched over the last two years for ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of its construction oversight processes, to both improve public safety and significantly enhance the attractiveness of engaging in construction within the city.
As Commissioner LiMandri’s said last November, "The idea is to never make anyone leave their office to do business with us." Accordingly, the Dept. of Buildings launched a plan review portal for voluntary use called "The Development Hub." Inspired by innovations in the construction industry, such as Parsons Brinkerhoff’s computer assisted virtual environment, or C.A.V.E., located in its offices on 33rd Street, The Development Hub accepts digital plans for new buildings and major alterations and uses video conferencing tools such as smart boards, webcams and ePlan review technology to review and coordinate plans in a virtual environment.
The Dept. of Buildings also uses The Hub to bring in sister agencies in the development process including the Dept. of Transportation, the Fire Dept., the Dept. of Environmental Protection, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, City Planning and the Dept. of Parks and Recreation. The City hopes to make use of the system mandatory in the near future.
In addition, in the area of construction site safety, in early April, New York City became among the first cities in the world to accept and review 3-D site safety plans for construction operations and approvals.
Safety plans are required by the city for the construction of new buildings 10 stories and higher, gut renovation of buildings 10 stories and higher that involve mechanical demolition, façade restoration of buildings 15 stories and higher and for work on buildings with a footprint of 100,000 sq ft or larger. Three-dimensional site safety plans are created with building information modeling software and can be uploaded to a secure, shared website where Department plan examiners review them in an electronic format.
The key element here, the successful ingredient in each of the above jurisdiction has been to involve all of the key stakeholders in the streamlining process.
Industry groups have an important role to play. One prime example is Fiatech, an international community of passionate stakeholders working together to lead global development and adoption of innovative practices and technologies to realize the highest business value throughout the life cycle of capital assets.
Since 2008, Fiatech, through its Regulatory Streamlining Project, has brought together companies, associations and government agencies to identify and work on projects that make the regulatory system more effective and efficient. The building regulatory system’s ability to make use of building information models (BIM) in the electronic plan review process is one such “game changing” technology.
Recently, Fiatech released its AutoCodes Project: Phase I Proof of Concept—Final Report on the feasibility of using automated code checking for BIM. It proves the concept of ultimately enabling plan reviews to be done in matters of minutes, and not months, as can be required now.
This project was launched in 2010 in response to the fundamental need for greater consistency, efficiency and speed within the building codes review and approval process. In their just completed first phase of this project, the project team focused on accessibility and egress provisions of the International Code Council (ICC) International Building Code (2009, chapters 10-11 and it collaborated with the ICC, Fiatech members and 14 authorities having jurisdiction for code compliance. The pilot's success demonstrates the practicality of applying automated code-checking technology to BIMs.
The AutoCodes Project publication covers the timeline, project methodology, findings and next steps in Fiatech’s efforts to improve the plan review and regulatory oversight process.
Last year the team also created a video, produced by the Target Corporation, that outlines the issues and challenges faced by not having automated code checking. It illustrates the benefits that can be obtained.
The AutoCodes project report and video are available for download from the Fiatech web site at www.fiatech.org and typing AutoCodes in the search box.
This spring, Fiatech also will release a second report, A Practical Deployment Strategy for Digital Signatures & Seals in Fully Electronic AEC Processes, which is targeted at speeding the use of digital signatures and seals by the AEC and building regulatory communities.
This report outlines the problems associated with settling for wet-signing as the status quo and it will serve as both an educational primer and a practical guide for deploying digital signatures and digital seals. It also provides compelling reasons to adopt a standard digital approach as an alternative to the current print-scan-mail workflow that prolongs high inefficiencies and unnecessary expenditures for stakeholders.
The key challenge to local jurisdictions and the construction industry is to streamline now to speed the recovery and be ready for the future. As larger jurisdictions as diverse as the State of Idaho; Montgomery County Md.; Bend, Oregon; New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago take the actions described above, so too are jurisdictions as small as Millheim, Pa. (population 1,000) and Grafton, Mass, (population 1,600) looking for ways in which regulatory streamlining and information technology can help them increase the effectiveness and efficiency of their regulatory programs.
There is no jurisdiction too small, and there is no better time to act than now.