WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Whether you’re a city/county administrator, community development leader, or building official, you’re probably all-too-familiar with the frustrations that go along with building plan review delays. Construction booms can bring an onslaught of permit applications that your staff might not be equipped to handle. Yet the thought of hiring more reviewers during these peak times, only to find your department overstaffed when construction activity wanes, is equally stressful.
A lack of communication between permit applicants, departments, and jurisdictions can also cause problems and draw out the review process. Uninformed applicants don’t know what’s required when submitting a plan or why a project requires a design professional. Meanwhile, comments continue to pile up after plans have already been resubmitted, and the list of hold-ups goes on.
With plan review backlogs comes a flood of complaints from developers who are waiting to get in the ground and residents who want to see their homes and other projects completed. When developers can’t get their permits quickly, projects cease to move forward, and your community faces vacant lots and unfinished jobs. To make matters worse, developers might go elsewhere in search of more efficient service. And as the backlogs build up, your department’s bottom line suffers since you aren’t efficiently collecting permit fees.
Lengthy permit turnarounds and building plan review backlogs are an unfortunate trend in communities across the country. And while municipal leaders and building officials certainly experience a good portion of the headaches that go along with them, there are plenty of pain points to pass around. The backlog burden is one that’s shared among municipalities, developers, residents, and communities as a whole—posing short- and long-term implications that hamper improvement and growth.
CONSIDER A NEW APPROACH
Imagine if you could trade out building plan review backlogs, customer complaints, and vacant lots for faster plan review turnarounds, consistent service, and a thriving community.
During our 26 years partnering with communities large and small across the nation, SAFEbuilt has picked up a few tricks of the trade—proven techniques that help municipalities stand out to developers, keep residents happy, avoid budget shortfalls, and enhance their communities.
By taking four intentional steps to make your department more efficient, you can achieve the 5-day residential plan review turnarounds (and 10-day commercial turnarounds) that we’ve been able to deliver in our 1,000+ partner communities around the country.
Step 1: Streamline plan reviews
The first big step toward faster building plan reviews is actually a handful of small steps, all of which lead to a better, smarter process for your municipality. In order to improve efficiencies and keep up with development, it’s important to implement these must-have approaches to plan reviews:
- Standardized submittal forms – Ensure clear, consistent application forms and requirements for permit applicants to avoid misunderstandings and confusion early on.
- Clear submittal checklists – Provide a submittal checklist to applicants indicating all of the items needed to submit a complete plan.
- Pre-screening process – Train intake staff to pre-screen proposed submittals for minimum submittal requirements, catching any red flags right away.
- Minimum set standards – Require that projects be designed to minimum set standards, ensuring approval can be completed within two reviews.
- Internal process outlines – Measure work performance against a set timeframe for each step of the process.
- Team assignment lists – Keep close tabs on the workloads of individual team members to maintain flexibility and progress.
- Detailed revision letters – Provide a revision letter to applicants to communicate any issues in a clear and concise manner, identifying specific problems and their locations within the plan, as well as how changes to the plans should be made.
To improve the efficiency of your plan review process even further, think about leveraging Electronic Plan Review (EPR). Eliminating the need to print plans, mail them, and wait for review and return, EPR offers a cost-effective option that can help communities like yours boost their bottom line, improve customer service, and get caught up fast.
Step 2: Implement proactive performance goals and metrics
The second step toward a timelier building plan review process might seem commonsense, but it’s one that can easily slip through the cracks in the midst of the craziness and chaos that comes during busy plan review seasons. Taking the time upfront to establish proactive performance goals and metrics is critical to gauging your department’s progress so it can improve over time.
As you think about the kinds of performance metrics you should implement within your department, be sure to include:
- Weekly metrics and goals
- Detailed reporting schedules
- Routine reports to track and summarize activities
Once you’ve outlined realistic goals and decided on reasonable performance metrics for your department, make a point to consistently share those metrics with your team, and use your measurements to identify opportunities for improvement. This will give you the confidence you need to know your building department is operating at maximum effectiveness, no matter the workload or season.
Step 3: Encourage rock-solid communication
Communication, both among municipal staff and externally with customers, is a critical component to speeding up the plan review process. Internally, department supervisors should provide a well-defined plan review process for examiners to follow. This process can include:
- Internal checklists
- Plan review timelines
- Handouts detailing codes and regulations
It also falls to supervisors to review the work of plans examiners, identifying coachable moments to help them improve their skills and make the process a good one for the customer.
And when it comes to establishing trust and goodwill among developers and residents, building departments need to encourage a two-way communication street that ensures full transparency and understanding throughout every stage.
To help customers communicate the complete and accurate details of their projects, it’s important to establish simple and concise ways of gathering information from them. We’ve already addressed the necessity of giving customers clear submittal guidelines and checklists for completing permit applications. But it’s also essential that department staff know how to verbally communicate correct instructions, guidelines, and expectations to developers and residents when needed.
Municipal employees must be trained and prepared to deliver clear, appropriate responses to customer questions as they come in, whether over the phone or in person. Establishing a solid level of communication upfront between the building department and customers will help prevent misunderstandings, confusion, errors, and frustrations throughout the rest of the permitting process.
And if a customer is required to make changes to a project plan, they should know exactly how to go about making those changes to avoid multiple resubmittals, reviews and additional fees. By using a detailed revision letter as previously mentioned, plans examiners can provide clear instructions for how to make corrections on a plan—helping customers feel empowered to finish the necessary revisions and get the plan approved.
Step 4: Get flexible, experienced staffing
The fourth and final step toward faster building plan reviews involves finding ways to optimize your staff. Building departments can take a number of actions to enhance the efficiency of their internal employees, including:
- Hiring experienced, versatile reviewers – Find plans examiners who have the know-how needed to take on different kinds of plans, from the simplest residential applications to complex commercial projects.
- Establishing a continuous training program – Leverage experienced staff or a professional training agency to train staff on the proper ways to pre-screen submittals, communicate with applicants, and perform reviews.
- Maintaining accurate workload assignments – Assign a realistic number of plan reviews to staff, understanding the skill sets of individual reviewers and allotting work accordingly.
- Encouraging ongoing communication – Share progress among team members and adapt to changing workloads, letting other team members step in to help when necessary.
To effectively deal with fluctuating workloads and large projects that can throw a wrench into even the best laid plans, municipalities should also consider options for supplementing their staff. By maintaining access to a pool of qualified, on-demand professionals who can back up your full-time staff during busy times, you can better handle economic ups and downs, construction booms, and big projects—maintaining the high level of service that will keep developers knocking on your door.
FROM THEORY TO ACTION
It could be that your backlog is measured in weeks, or maybe you’re keeping up with demand but can’t find the time to sleep anymore. Either way, it’s good to know that there is a step-by-step approach to guaranteeing 5-day/10-day building plan review turnarounds within your organization.
Yet even with these steps in mind, one obvious question remains. How do municipalities like yours actually apply these strategies? The answer? You get to decide what’s right for your community:
- Do it gradually on your own (using some of our tips)
- Do it quickly with some help (aka third-party plan review)
The beauty of the third-party solution
Whether your municipality is facing a staff shortage, dealing with a fluctuating workload, or needing additional technical expertise on a large or complex project, a third-party building plan review firm can offer the services you need to get caught up, even if it’s just for a temporary window of time.
With large networks of ICC-certified plans examiners, third-party community development firms can lighten the building plan review load, helping your department reach life-safety and code compliance standards in a timely and cost-effective manner.
Maybe you need your staff to focus on incoming permit applications and other tasks while you send all of your delayed plan reviews to third-party examiners. Or maybe you have a six-week backlog and want to be up to speed in the next three months, so your department handles “X” plan reviews a day and lets a third-party expert take on the remainder until you’ve put your backlog behind you. One of the many benefits of working with a third-party firm is that you can send out as few or as many plan reviews as it takes for your department to get caught up.
And once you’re back on track, your department can get the flexible ongoing support it needs to avoid building plan review backlogs altogether. By leveraging the resources of a third-party plan review company to handle changing workloads and busy seasons, you can:
- Keep up with development, managing ups and downs in construction activity
- Secure projects by guaranteeing a timely process for developers
- Better serve your customers with the ability to be responsive
- Attract new development as time goes on
- Minimize internal and external strife
- Reduce budget risk by using third-party resources only when needed
And as your needs evolve over time, you can choose the level of support to best help your department and your community, including:
- Speedy supplemental plan reviews when permit applications pour in
- Large/complex project plan reviews that don’t compromise quality or increase the headcount in your department
- Electronic Plan Reviews that help streamline the process and save money (for applicants and building departments alike)
IS THIRD-PARTY PLAN REVIEW THE RIGHT FIT FOR YOU?
While third-party plan review does offer a smorgasbord of opportunities and benefits for many communities, it’s admittedly not the only option for:
- Municipalities without enough plan review work for their one examiner
- Municipalities with only simple and straightforward development
However, for a great many communities of all shapes and sizes, third-party plan review is a match made in community development heaven. If you fit into one or more of the following categories, the third-party option might be exactly what your community needs to rise up and move forward:
- Municipalities who have started implementing process efficiencies.
- Municipalities paying overtime for plan review.
- Municipalities receiving complaints about plan review turnarounds.
- Municipalities who value best practices.
- Municipalities with complex and varied development —unusual projects and conditions, large facilities, etc.
Building plan review backlogs are an increasingly common problem for communities across the nation. But for municipalities that are fed up with the burdens and geared up for change, there’s a four-step process for obliterating those backlogs and achieving 5-day/10-day plan review turnarounds.
With streamlined approaches to plan reviews, proactive performance goals and metrics, rock-solid communication, and flexible, experienced staffing, you can reach higher efficiencies and better results for your municipality, for your customers, and for your community. And by turning to a third-party plan review expert like SAFEbuilt, building departments can get caught up and stay caught up, delivering uncommonly exceptional service no matter what comes their way.