Salt Lake City Reduces Plan Review Process Time up to 50 Percent; Spurs Economic Growth
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Salt Lake City was one municipality among thousands in the United States to be hit by the recession. But it was one of the first to respond by streamlining its building permit process. Making that process faster, simpler, and easier for real estate developers would attract more of them to the city, officials reasoned. So, the city adopted a Microsoft technology–based solution featuring a document management interface that was tailored for the permit process by provider Avolve Software. The results: The time required for the process has been reduced by up to 50 percent, potentially shaving days or weeks off the typical schedule. Even the carbon footprint generated by the process has been reduced. Salt Lake City now points to businesses—from a major retailer to a global manufacturer—that have launched or expanded in the city as a result.
The economic recession slowed construction and business development in Salt Lake City, Utah, as it did in much of the United States. City officials could, however reluctantly, accept that. What they couldn’t accept was the possibility that they were making matters worse for themselves, their taxpayers, and the developers and investors who were considering projects in their city—and that they might be losing major businesses to other locales.
In an economic climate that called for cities to be their most hospitable to developers and their business clients weighing where to locate a shopping mall, a manufacturing facility, or a car dealership, Salt Lake City’s approach left something to be desired.
Software from Microsoft and Avolve enable us to partner seamlessly with private industry in the development review process. Businesses want to go where government is their enabler, not their impediment.
Development Review Administrator, Salt Lake
That was evident when it came time for a developer to obtain building permits. Contractors and developers had to submit their plans to, and work separately with, as many as six departments—Planning, Building, Fire, Public Utilities, Transportation, and Engineering—housed in three separate facilities. Plans could get stalled on a reviewer’s desk, holding up the other reviewers who needed to approve them. Often, a developer had to continually call each of the departments that was reviewing the plans to ascertain the plan’s status, and then to prod the plan through the rest of the permit process.
Inaccuracy was always a concern when multiple plans were sitting in multiple city offices, with little way for anyone to know if reviewers were indeed reviewing the same plans and how comments made in one department might affect comments in the other departments.
While many factors could affect the length of the permit process, it was possible to see it drag out for months. That meant lost time for architects, engineers, and others spending time and money on a necessary but unprofitable part of their development project. It also added uncertainty to a developer’s plans—would the necessary permits be granted?—at a time when the massive investments required for major construction projects made everyone particularly risk averse.
And then there was the environmental concern. Developers had to deliver as many as six sets of plans consuming hundreds or thousands of sheets of paper. The plans for many projects were so voluminous that each one could fill most or all of the van that was required to transport it to the city’s offices. When plans were revised, a new vanload of drawings and documents would soon follow. City officials had scant space to unroll the plans to review them, and virtually no space, or only very expensive and inconvenient space, to store them where they would be easily accessible for the duration of a development project and the State-mandated holding period.
Often, developers and their clients would have to fly to Salt Lake City to transport plans and meet with permit officials, further driving up the environmental costs associated with their projects. Even when developers or architects were locally based, they often hired engineering consultants or others who weren’t.
These broadly dispersed members of development teams have been using technology to communicate effectively among themselves for years, but the city lacked similar technological resources. When it came time for reviews and revisions of plans for permit approval, no common technology platform existed for effective communication between the city and the development teams.
There was no way to separate the economic effects of this process from the broader effects of the recession, but certainly no one in city hall thought that the permit process was helping to attract developers and new businesses. “We knew we had to make it quicker and easier for customers to get through our process and get on with construction on their projects,” says Orion Goff, Director of Building Services for Salt Lake City.
The first step in “making it easier for customers” was to integrate the separate islands of information maintained by each of the departments involved in permit approval into a single, shared database. For such a mission-critical function, scalability and reliability were crucial. Fortunately, Goff and his colleagues didn’t have far to look. The city’s IT infrastructure was based largely on Microsoft technologies, from the desktop to the back-end servers. Microsoft SQL Server data management software was the data solution of choice, but could it handle the requirements that would be placed on it by the permit process?
The city adopted SQL Server 2005 (subsequently updated to SQL Server 2008 R2) as part of a data integration program that included a single, shared database, as well as a web-based interface easily accessed by staff, elected officials, real estate developers, and the public. Information about a development project—including land-use petitions, permit applications, inspections, and zoning cases—is tracked and can be accessed at any time by developers.
We knew we had to make it quicker and easier for customers to get through our process and get on with construction on their projects.
Director of Building Services, Salt Lake City
That was the first step. Next, for the city’s solution to meet developers’ needs for an expedited approval process, the solution had to provide the same support for design/construction plans and other project information documents. Goff and his colleagues wanted to be able to receive documents from developers electronically, review those documents with expedited workflow, collaborate with colleagues during reviews, and share comments with developers to get to an approvable plan more quickly. Meeting these criteria would also mean meeting the city’s goals for reducing the use of paper and minimizing the “carbon footprint” (i.e., the environmental impact) of the permit process.
The solution also had to meet technical requirements, particularly for high scalability—the planning documents for one major retail project exceeded 1 terabyte by itself—and high availability, so that developers anywhere could upload and amend documents whenever they wished. It also had to be compatible with the SQL Server database and the data solution already in place.
To meet these needs, Salt Lake City adopted ProjectDox® by Avolve Software. The software contributes to the overall solution with a highly secure, online site for file sharing. The site provides change notification, threaded discussions, change history tracking, and markup collaboration for electronic design and construction plan submission. Avolve worked with the city and the permitting software provider to create a seamless integration and automated workflow process.
The workflow of the combined solution starts when a developer goes to the city’s website to apply for a permit. If the permit request requires the submission of plans, the solution sends the developer an automated email invitation to do so, including instructions on uploading documents. The solution gives the developer password-protected, limited access to site folders for uploading the plans.
Once the plans are received, the solution replicates and archives an uneditable set as a baseline against which revised versions can be compared. The solution then sends automated notifications to each of the city departments responsible for reviewing and approving the plans.
Their reviews are coordinated by the customized workflow. Reviewers make their markups and comments in an overlay, allowing anyone to view the underlying plans independent of the notes. The solution sends the developer an automated request for additional materials, if needed. The solution also updates the workflow in the shared permitting database.
When the departments complete their reviews, the solution facilitates the consolidation of their comments into a report and sends the developer a notification including a link to the report. The developer reviews the report online, uses hyperlinks to view sections of the plans that need modification, and uploads revisions. The reviewers use the solution’s compare feature to ensure that all requested modifications have been made, and that no unrequested changes have been added. When the reviewers approve the plans, the developer receives notification and the permits can then be issued.
The city’s goal for its new solution was to make it easier for developers and other customers to “get through” the process. By that measure, Salt Lake City has succeeded—and economic growth is the ultimate benefit.
Eliminates Steps, Complexity for Building Plan Submissions
One way that the city made it easier for developers to get through its permit process was by eliminating steps and complexity with which they had to deal before. For example, developers no longer need to make trips to the city’s offices to deliver stacks, and sometimes a vanload, of plan review documents. Instead, delivering documents now is a simple online upload from the architect/engineer to the city. That makes the process faster, simpler, less expensive, and more convenient for the entire development team.
It’s revolutionary for a city to conduct its permit process this way.
Planning Program Supervisor, Salt Lake City
“The fact that we save our customers the time and trouble of multiple trips to our office is a huge benefit for them,” says Nole Walkingshaw, Planning Program Supervisor for Salt Lake City. “The contractors or developers can sit in their offices, and upload their documents to us with a few clicks on the computer. And they have one place to go when they want to review their submissions and our comments and reports on them. It’s revolutionary for a city to conduct its permit process this way. We have customers telling us all the time, ‘Are you sure I don’t need to bring something down to your office?’”
Goff recalls the example of an architect a continent away, in Washington, D.C., who was working on a high-profile development project in Salt Lake City. It was late in December, and the architect had to submit plans before January 1, when changes to building codes would go into effect.
“The architect was in a rush to get the plans in,” says Goff. “She would have had to book and take a last-minute holiday flight to Salt Lake City, lugging half a dozen very large sets of plans—except that we had this online solution. The architect sat in her office and seamlessly submitted the electronic files over the Internet through her computer. It couldn’t have been simpler, and she couldn’t have been happier. She was even able to pay for the application online with her credit card. To me, it’s absolutely amazing that we have been able, with the help of our partners, to provide this capability as quickly as we have.”
Reduces Time for Approvals by up to 50 Percent, Saving Days, Weeks
Beyond the ease and simplicity of the new permit process for developers is the very significant increase in the process’s speed. While the length of the permit process is still dependent on the size and complexity of the project being proposed, it’s now common to see the time for that process reduced by up to 50 percent because of the Avolve and Microsoft solution. The time needed for the second review—which can be a very time-consuming part of the process because it includes close scrutiny of a developer’s proposed revisions—has now been reduced by as much as 70 percent. These reductions can shorten the permit process by days and even weeks.
The time savings accrue in a variety of ways, starting with eliminating the time needed to transport physical plans. There’s also the time savings that come when city reviewers can instantly spot an outstanding requirement—for example, a new set of drawings to satisfy an engineer’s concern—and direct the developer to address it. The steps in the process have been drastically reduced and some completely eliminated due to the automation provided in the software solution.
The second review process sees substantial time savings because it formerly consumed major amounts of time as physical plans had to be shared among several reviewers, and as plans could sit for days or more in a reviewer’s office before the reviewer could review them. Now, reviewers receive instant notifications telling them when plans are available for review. The online availability of digital plans eliminates the need to wait for physical plans to be routed among offices.
In addition to these timesavers, the online process is more accurate, which also expedites work for reviewers. The increased accuracy comes from the certainty that all reviewers are looking at the same plans at the same time. Previously, the city had no easy way to confirm that the physical plans submitted to each department were identical. Similarly, reviewers gain accuracy and speed from the overlay tool in ProjectDox, with which they can immediately discern any unintended or unwanted discrepancies between document versions.
“What we’re getting with the ProjectDox solution on SQL Server isn’t just the latest and greatest technology,” says Kent Overly, Technology Consultant for Salt Lake City. “It’s the latest and greatest technology applied directly to the business pains we felt as a city government trying to provide the best possible service to our customers.”
Minimizes Carbon Footprint
Time and complexity aren’t the only measures that have been reduced by the city’s use of its new solution; the city’s carbon dioxide emissions and energy footprint have also been reduced. That savings comes from not printing thousands of sheets of paper for each submission, not transporting them physically (often by air), and not having to store them in offices and warehouses, consuming electricity and additional resources best used for other purposes.
Goff and his colleagues estimate that as all permit activity moves online, the city and its customers will drive 360,000 fewer miles, print 512,000 fewer pounds of paper, and spew 2,300 fewer pounds of hydrocarbons into the air each year. “The environmental benefits of the new system only add to the sweetness of its success,” says Goff.
Attracts and Retains Businesses, Jobs
Salt Lake City set out to make the permit process easier for its customers so it could attract and retain the businesses that are fueling the city’s economic recovery. The plan seems to be working.
For example, a global manufacturer of heavy equipment that has operations in Salt Lake City needed to expand those operations, and it needed to confirm government approval quickly to meet its internal schedules. Fearing that Salt Lake City couldn’t move fast enough to accommodate their needs, the company’s executives planned to take all their Salt Lake City operations, including 200 jobs, to another state. City officials responded quickly when they heard the news, demonstrating the new permit solution and guaranteeing a timely response. The company got that response. The 200 jobs were saved—and many more were created by the company’s expansion.
“Businesses tend to locate in jurisdictions where they have the better experience, and they tend to attract other businesses that also want that better experience,” says Lisa Shaffer, Development Review Administrator for Salt Lake City. “Getting projects approved quickly helps to deliver that better experience. Software from Microsoft and Avolve enable us to partner seamlessly with private industry in the development review process. Businesses want to go where government is their enabler, not their impediment. We want to be seen as an enabler. Microsoft and ProjectDox are helping us to do that.”
Microsoft applications, solutions, and services help to empower public servants and government employees to share critical information and serve their constituents more efficiently.
Visit the Microsoft Case Study page and download your own copy of the Salt Lake City case study in Microsoft Word.
For more information about Salt Lake City, call (801) 535-7700 begin_of_the_skype_highlightin, , (801) 535-7700 or visit the website at: www.ci.slc.ut.us/visitors