Guy Lawrence, Nancy Soulliard/ENR
Electronic plans can be submitted by computer from any remote location.
The year was 1982. The place was New Orleans. The meeting was convened by the National Conference of States on Building Codes and Standards Inc. The problem—the need for regulatory reform—was legendary. The solution—harness the computer to streamline code enforcement—was radical, the tools to reach it were nonexistent and the resistance was palpable. “I don’t want to find a faster way to do a lousy job,” said one building official at the meeting.
But the obstacles didn’t stop Robert C. Wible, then communications director for NCSBCS, from moving forward. At the meeting, he announced the formation of the NCSBCS computer committee. It was a largely symbolic gesture but gave code enforcement its first nudge toward the digital age.
The group’s initial charge was to define how code officials could use information technology to streamline permitting. “Using IT, a jurisdiction can increase the uniformity, effectiveness and efficiency of building codes adopted and enforced,” says Wible, now an “e-regulatory reform” consultant in Reston, Va. “As far back as 1982, we realized the potential.”
To move code enforcers closer to e-regulatory reform, Wible treks back and forth across the nation, proselytizing e-permitting. He carries with him a briefcase full of success stories, some of them involving just partial e-permitting. Among them, jurisdictions in Oregon report they have slashed by 40% the amount of time it takes to move a construction project through the regulatory system. Los Angeles has reduced by 40 to 60% the time it takes to process building permits and schedule and conduct inspections. Further, it has reduced waiting time for permits from two to three hours to seven minutes, plan check times from 10 weeks to 10 days and waiting times for inspections from four or five days to less than one day. In addition, it has handled an 88% increase in construction volume with only a 1.5% increase in staff size. In Louisville and Jefferson County, Ken., officials report a 50% reduction in permit application and inspection time and a 75% reduction in licensing application time. Even Chicago, perhaps the most notoriously slow-to-permit jurisdiction in the U.S., has cleaned up its act. Online permit submittals and processing enabled staff to reduce the time it took to process a package of building permits for commercial structures from eight to 21⁄2 hours.
|"Using information technology, a jurisdiction can increase the effectiveness of building code enforcement." |
— Robert C. Wible, Consultant
Starting virtually from scratch, Wible knew his journey would be an uphill battle. But he probably didn’t think he would still be on his quest a quarter-century later. “A lot of people [still] think we are just out for regulatory abandonment,” he says. “We are not trying to weaken codes.”
Soothsayers predict a full-fledged “e-permitting” utopia is still more than a decade away, thanks to funding barriers, a lack of mature software, especially for e-plan review with automated code checking, and hesitation on the part of code officials.
“While technology certainly offers tools to gain efficiencies of certain tasks, it is far from a panacea,” says Chris Rute, development center manager for Milwaukee’s Dept. of City Development. “The shorter, smoother permitting process is open to interpretation and needs to have a definition that is mutually understood by both the regulating entities and the development community,” Rute adds.
Its boosters say the intent of e-permitting, which can include digital filing, permit and plan tracking, plan review, payment, permit issuance and inspection, is to save jurisdictions time and money, while improving the regulatory process. E-permitting also gives code administrators accurate resource management data and frees personnel to concentrate on the more complex construction projects, says Wible.
On a broader scale, Internet-linked and interoperable statewide e-permitting systems, such as one in the works in Oregon and another that is so far little more than an idea in Louisiana, allow cross-jurisdictional permitting and review. During disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, statewide systems would allow jurisdictions to come to each other’s aid for damage assessments and later for rebuilding permitting.
For many jurisdictions, e-regulatory reform means revamping the building department’s business plan and practices, which for many is a daunting concept. “The biggest barrier to this is sheer inertia,” says Wible.
Alliance for Building Regulatory Reform
Louisiana’s use of IT roughly parallels other states’ use.
But he remains unfazed by resistance and, with momentum building toward e-regulatory reform, he is even upbeat. So much so that in December 2005, after 21 years as NCSBCS’s executive director, he left to pound the pavement full time—almost a one-man show—for e-regulatory reform. Along the way he touts the six-year-old Alliance for Building Regulatory Reform in the Digital Age, an organization he championed at NCSBCS and currently directs.
The 36-member coalition, which is changing its name to the National Partnership to Streamline Government, gathers and disseminates information on best e-regulatory practices so that jurisdictions starting e-permitting projects do not have to reinvent the wheel. One 2005 study compiled and analyzed costs and savings from 43 jurisdictions that have implemented some level of e-permitting. A 2006 report serves as a building department guide to implement e-permitting. A third is a model procurement guide for digital permitting of IT systems. In the works is a “streamlining tool kit” for elected officials.
The alliance also is developing a model set of regulations for plan review and approval for replicable buildings, such as chain stores. Materials are available on the Alliance Website.
A 2004 digital permitting survey for the American Institute of Architects concluded that e-plan submittal, tracking and reviews were still in their infancy, with only 16 of 120 survey respondents reporting they used such systems. But nearly 50 respondents said they were considering putting programs in place over the next two years. Only about 1% of all building departments do e-plan review, says Wible.
Rather than fighting the future, building officials are beginning to envision e-permitting utopias. For Bob Goodhue, assistant director of Phoenix’s Development Services Dept., that means all plans would be complete when submitted over the Internet. Reviewers would use a 42-in. screen showing a full sheet and have the ability to mark up plans by writing on the screen. Notes would be transformed into a typed format for easy reading and be saved in the permitting system for record-keeping purposes. The document then would be sent back to the design professional electronically for corrections and come back ready to permit. The permit would be issued and the plans sent to the records section. The design professional would then be responsible for ensuring documents are available on the jobsite.
Back on earth, building officials still shudder at the potential pain associated with the gain of the transition to a digital process. Departments are strapped for funds to buy software packages and hardware and pay for staff training. Some help pay for e-permitting by charging interested customers extra permit fees. Code officials are wary of software vendors selling them a bag of goods. They are cowed by the process changes required to suit up for e-permitting, including personnel retraining and the new skill sets required. Some have gotten burned in the start-up phase, running into cost overruns and systems that cannot be expanded over time.
Nevertheless, cities too numerous to list are moving in the di-rection of e-permitting. Many, including Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., start with e-filing for plumbing and electrical permits and for online issuance of permits for projects that do not require plan review.
“I don’t believe we have reached the full potential of speed in services yet, but what it has brought about is consistency in the application of things like fees, prerequisite approvals, license checks,” says Michael E. Fink, Philadelphia’s director of construction services in the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections. “We anticipate...