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Ah, yes. The dreaded building plan review backlog, an issue many municipalities across the country are all too familiar with. Construction booms bring floods of new permit applications, forcing building departments to process more plan reviews, often without the additional staff or resources needed to handle them efficiently. What happens? Permit delays, vacant lots, and angry phone calls.

Sound familiar?

You’re not alone. Here are the top five plan review challenges local building officials face and how to tackle these obstacles:


1. The right people at the right time

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.

What you can do: To effectively deal with fluctuating workloads and large projects that can throw a wrench into even the best-laid plans, municipalities should consider options for supplementing their staff. By maintaining access to a pool of qualified, on-demand experts who can back up your full-time staff during busy times, you can better handle economic ups and downs, construction booms, and big projects.


2. Proper communication

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, causing even more delays, which impacts your relationship with the community.

What you can do: 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. 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. It’s paramount to give 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 when needed.


3. Complaints from customers

With plan review backlogs comes a flood of complaints from customers waiting to get in the ground and their projects completed. When developers can’t get their permits quickly, projects cease to move forward, and your community faces vacant lots and unfinished jobs.

What you can do: Streamline and standardize your plan review process. It may seem like common sense, and you may have performed a similar exercise, but it is worthwhile to take another look with these three goals in mind:

  • 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 items needed to submit a complete plan.

  • Minimum set standards – Require that projects be designed to minimum set standards, ensuring approval can be completed within two reviews, and include this in your pre-screening process to catch any red flags right away.


4. Unstable budgets

Unpredictable and unstable permit revenues make it difficult to ensure an always-positive contribution to your budget. The costs associated with traditional plan reviews such as printing, storage, and mailing, are burdensome. Not to mention time-consuming, further complicating an already complex process.

What you can do: Explore the benefits of 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. EPR also provides wider access to technical reviewers, and shorter turnaround times help your building department manage more reviews in the same amount of time, thereby increasing your permit revenues.

Speaking of which….


5. Turnaround times

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, and communities as a whole—posing short- and long-term implications that hamper improvement and growth of the community as a whole.

What you can do: As mentioned above, EPR can also help reduce your turnaround times. EPR enables faster plan review turnarounds with parallel plan reviews, efficient comments, and immediate access to plans examiners. In fact, implementing the tips provided here–in part or in parcel–will have a positive impact on your turnaround times. Likewise, some leading third-party building service providers have the expertise to help you achieve proven five-day residential plan review turnarounds and 10-day commercial turnarounds. Many of these leading providers can also partner with you to ensure you’re only paying for services as they are utilized to provide even greater scalability.

Is Your Municipality Part of OMNIA?

If your municipality is part of OMNIA Partners, you can bypass the formal request for quote (RFQ)/request for proposal (RFP) process that prolongs the start of so many city projects. That means you can get to work on your project right away. As a trusted and vetted OMNIA supplier, SAFEbuilt can provide you with on-call plan review services (without the delay that proposals and quotes create in your timeline).

Learn More about National Plan Review with SAFEbuilt

SAFEbuilt is a community development services company. We provide comprehensive building department, private provider, and other professional services with the goal of helping our customers build better, safer communities.