This article appeared in the January 2011 edition of Constructech magazine and can be viewed at http://www.constructech.com/news/articles/article.aspx?article_id=8712&SECTION=1
Oregon municipality expedites the submittal and inspection process with electronic-plan technology.
“As of 10/10/10 the Building Division will require all electronically designed submittal data to be submitted in an electronic media format.”
What type of response would you have to this message if it appeared on your city’s building division Website? Likely the first reaction would be an overall resistance to change. For many companies, change is difficult. Change means new strategies or processes need to be implemented and put in place throughout the company. But the truth is electronic data carries significant benefits for everyone involved in the construction process.
For the owner, the city now has an electronic record, which means the plans are easily accessible anytime a change needs to be made. For the city, electronic systems mean data no longer needs to be stored in a filing cabinet or scanned into a system. One of the biggest benefits is the fact processes are significantly expedited and overall waste is reduced throughout the entire building lifecycle.
Given this knowledge, now how would you respond to the aforementioned message on your building division’s Website? Change might seem pretty good.
This is the message that was front and center on the City of Bend’s, www.ci.bend.or.us, Bend, Ore., Website late last year. However, the move to electronic data has been a work in progress for three years, according to Robert Mathias, chief building official, City of Bend.While the City of Bend is an early adopter of electronic technology such as this, the trend for municipalities and governments to move toward electronic submittals is a growing one, and now is the time for owners, contractors, and municipalities to understand what this change really means within a city’s building division. The City of Bend serves as a good example for technology adoption in a municipality and demonstrates what this change means for all parties involved in the construction process.
Making the Change
Located in the center of Oregon, the City of Bend has more than tripled its population since 1990. In 2007, the city’s development-activity percentages exceeded that of Las Vegas, making it a significant area of growth. Between 2002 and 2007, the department staff grew from 12 to 40, and was processing 14,000 permit reviews annually.
During the height of the construction boom, Mathias began looking for an electronic system in order to manage the growth in the building division. At the time, in order to maintain a high level of service, his options were to continue to grow and train a staff or figure out a way to do more with less using new technology. He first began accepting electronic data years ago as a voluntary way to get people used to the electronic method.
The system Mathias chose is ProjectDox ePlan software from Avolve Software Corp., www.avolvesoftware.com, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Naviline from SunGard Public Sector, www.sungardps.com, Lake Mary, Fla., for electronic-permitting workflow. This system allows plans to be submitted and routed electronically, which has permitted more efficiently.
“We were actually looking at it to be more efficient due to the rise in building permits,” says Mathias. “What we have actually found now that the economy has taken a big dive … is that we are actually able to be more flexible in the amount of work that we take in.”
The technology is designed for electronic plan submission, review, and workflow. Plans can be submitted in PDF, DWG, and DWF formats, among many others, which allow for a significant amount of flexibility from submitters. The technology will keep track of timestamps, detect if changes are present, and prevent overwriting files.
At the City of Bend, reviews are done on dual-screen computers—one for reading emails and codes and the other for the plan sheets. With the technology, users can markup the plans and send a notice back to the submitter to view the corrections online. Reviewers have the ability to view others’ notes, but can only change their own.
Departmental reviewers can link directly to their corrections for the project, and the submitter gets the same form with direct links to the pages needing revision. From there the routing slip shows the progress and can be viewed by anyone involved in the workflow. Once reviewed, the plans examiner batch stamps the plans and publishes them to the final folder in the project. All markups and stamps are embedded in a PDF file for security. When the project is complete, the submitter is given access to download and print from the final folder.
Billy Staten, plan examiner, City of Bend, says, “A big thing that we have been doing over the past couple of years is developing these new processes and getting feedback from Avolve. That has helped in developing new versions of the software as it has come out.”
The city has also taken the technology beyond just the plan-review program. In case there’s any doubt of the field set’s authenticity or if a plan sheet is missing or damaged, inspectors can use ePlans to view the approved plan sets.
“We have taken a plan-review program as part of our overview program and incorporated it into high technology out in the field for inspections,” says Mathias. “The old way to do it was to have a big set of plans on a building site and sit there and look through paper to find what you are looking for. Now the inspector can just take his computer and walk through multistory buildings.”
While making the change from a paper-based to an electronic process was a fairly smooth transition for this city, there are challenges associated with any type of new technology implementation, but there are also significant advantages in the long run.
Challenges and Solutions
One of the challenges with any technology implementation is creating interfaces to current databases. The City of Bend overcame this challenge by developing an interface between its existing building-permit software and the electronic-plan program.
Mathias says, “One of the problems that you have anytime you have new software is trying to figure out how to interface with your current software. What we did was work with our permit-software vendor along with other cities and municipalities that had the same software.”
Other challenges when implementing technology include new formatting and naming systems, restructuring paper processes to electronic, legal concerns, resistance to change, and providing documentations to public users.
Even with challenges, Staten and Mathias say there have been very few hiccups. Overall everybody has been fairly receptive to the change. This may be due to the advantages that come along with the electronic process.
“We have done some large national companies—Jack-in-the-Box and Olive Garden—and what they have found is they don’t have to fly in an architect to come to a meeting to show us what they are doing. They do this all from their office,” says Mathias.
The benefits of the technology for the users include a more efficient way to complete the submittal process, reductions in paper waste, consistent revision history, customizable workflows, and archiving capabilities.
“We are able to spend more time working with the customer on the actual code issues as opposed to the process,” says Mathias.
And beyond this the city has been able to quantify a number of advantages. Customers have been able to save more than $30,000 in fuel costs. The city has saved 1,100 pounds of hydrocarbons and 10,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, in addition to reducing paper waste to save the equivalent of 150 large trees. But overall the process has improved, saving time for all parties involved.
A ‘Plan’ for Other Cities
Municipalities might say now isn’t the ideal time to implement new technologies due to the slowdown.
Mathias says, “My answer to that is: this is when you have to afford it, because with the unsure economy you need to be more flexible. You need to be able to offer your customers what they are really looking for and technology is the direction that building departments have to go down.”
Throughout the past three years, the city has slowly built up to a large majority of materials being submitted electronically, and has only recently begun requiring the electronic-media format. So it is a process that other cities can ease into slowly. But the end result is the technology is reducing waste and speeding up the submittal process.
Staten says, “Before it was just they brought out a roll of paper, we did the plan review on it, issued permits or correction letters. But now with this (technology) the whole process has changed and because we are developing that process we are trying to make it work for everybody as efficiently as we can.”
Beyond the cost and time savings there is another huge benefit that Mathias says is key right now—accountability.
“Accountability is a big deal because now it can’t be left on somebody’s desk,” says Mathias. “We know exactly where it is and when somebody touched it, who touched it, and what they did with it.”
Due to the need for a high level of accountability within government organizations, technology is beginning to play a larger role in all divisions of the city. Since the time the City of Bend has implemented the electronic-plans technology, other jurisdictions have also jumped on board and implemented similar technology.
The Alliance for Building Regulatory Reform in the Digital Age, www.natlpartnerstreamline.org, Reston, Va., says the electronic-permitting process is now used in more than 500 jurisdictions across the country, reducing the permit process by up to 40%. The electronic-plan review process is being conducted in more than a dozen jurisdictions, reducing the time it takes to review plans by 40% and reducing the number of trips to the jurisdiction by owners and architects by 80%.
The mobile-inspection technology reduces the number of inspections performed per day by 25% and reduces contractor downtime waiting for inspections by 20%.
A growing number of jurisdictions have implemented information technology. But there are still thousands that have yet to implement electronic technology.
“For years, industries had systems and computer-generated programs, and the municipalities just haven’t kept up,” says Mathias. “Now it is our opportunity to catch up to the industry and really become a partner and help the economic structure of this country.”