Electronic Plan Check Implementation
Building Departments are constantly striving to streamline processes while continuing to meet the needs of our customers. As we move farther into the 21stcentury it has become clear that increased use of technology is the means to meet those demands. CALBO’s Innovative Practices Committee has previously identified the 10 essential technologies that every building department should invest in, one of which is electronic plan check (EPC).
By establishing an EPC program your department can reduce processing time, reduce turn-around time between reviews, reduce on-site paper storage as well as increase plan reviewer efficiency. In today’s business climate we are all trying to do more with less, so every little efficiency that can be gained goes a long way.
As a city that has just recently gone through this process, I want to share our experiences of what worked well and what did not, to help departments that are looking to make this transition. I do not want to give the impression that the way we did it is the be all end all to how it should be done, but this can hopefully provide some insight into what needs to be discussed and planned for to assist you with a smooth transition.
Once the decision is made to implement EPC the real work begins, there are multiple considerations that should be addressed in order to assist with a smooth implementation. The questions that need to be asked are:
- What departments need to be involved?
- What hardware is necessary?
- What software should be used to review plans?
- How are the plans processed and routed?
- Where are the plans going to bestored?
- Who will need future access to those plans, and do they have the equipment necessary?
- The aim is to provide our solutions as a starting point to make sure you are asking the right questions for your department and figuring out what will best suit your needs.
Establishing an EPC program is not an isolated endeavor. If only the building department is performing the reviews electronically and all other departments are still performing the reviews on paper than the review process becomes disjointed. The purpose of an EPC program is to increase productivity and a half paper half electronic process will take away from that end. Establishing buy-in from the other departments that perform reviews will make for a much smoother transition. It is important to note that there may exist some resistance to going electronic so go into the conversations with a clear idea of the benefits that it will provide the city and that department’s staff in particular in order to help sell the idea. Another tool that we found useful was to provide training to other divisions on the EPC software. We developed a quick start how to guide and provided one-on-one training with all reviewers from the other departments. By increasing their comfort level with the software, they were much less resistant to implementing EPC as part of their review process. Another means of achieving buy-in is if your budget allows for it, provide the other departments with the tools and hardware necessary to perform the reviews. It is a much easier sell if the other divisions do not have a large financial output necessary to onboard with the process. It is also important to communicate with your partners outside of the city as well. Communicating with the development community will help the transition run smoother. That was done through a soft opening. In January we began offering EPC as an option, then in July we mandated all plans to come in electronically. This six-month transition period allowed the development community time to become comfortable with the process as well as allowed us time to solve issues with processes on a small scale.
Ensuring your staff has the right tools to perform EPC cannot be understated. The efficiencies that can be gained by performing EPC will turn into hindrances if staff cannot properly see plans or computer processorsare lagging and loading pages is slow. The number of monitors and size are important. We set each of our plan reviewers up with 2 monitors a 43” and a 30”. The 43” works well for viewing plans, it will fit an entire plan sheet within the screen and maintain readability. However,it can be too large for performing other tasks on the computer (word processing, email, etc.) The second monitor will serve this purpose as well as allowing for concurrently viewing plans and writing a correction letter without switching back and forth on the same monitor. It is also important to note that you ensure that all staff who will be working with the plans have this 2-screen set up. When we first implemented, we had outfitted the reviewer work stations only. What we found was there was an inefficiency at the permit tech workspaces where they were trying to process plans on a normal sized (24”) monitor. Once we outfitted those workstationswith a second screen the plan processing time decreased. The permit techs were outfitted with a 32” and 24” monitor because while they need a larger screen the detail does not need to be as clear as it does for the plan reviewers. It is also recommended that you work with your IT department to ensure that the CPUs will be able to provide the necessary functionality and processing power to run the EPC software. At a minimum a graphics card upgrade will be necessary to handle the larger monitor, but we found that we had computers that were to slow, and plan pages would take time to load eating away at productivity, replacing those CPUs eliminated this issue.
There are multiple companies that provide software capable of performing plan review. It is always recommended to look at a few different software solutions prior to making a final decision. Price point, capabilities, and integration are the biggest factors. In the end we decided on Bluebeam for our needs. The price point is manageable, they offer a few solutions for pricing. There is a per license price where the software can be installed at a single station or a shared license in which the software can be installed on multiple computers but there is a pool of licenses that cannot be exceeded at any given time. The option that worked for us was the shared licenses. With this model we were able to reduce the overall number of licenses necessary to purchase. We found that it is unlikely that all users would simultaneously be using the software at any given time. We currently have 30+ users and share 15 licenses. Only once has a user not been able to log on due to the maximum licenses being in use. There is also the ability to scale, as more users are introduced more licenses can be added. The capabilities of Bluebeam were another deciding factor in our decision. The software contains tools for mark-up, measuring and overlaying pages. These tools make the process easier as well as provide for higher accuracy while performing reviews. Other added benefits allow for sessions in which multiple reviewers can all be working on the same plan set at once. You can see other reviewer’s notes in real time. The comments list can also be exported so comments can be directly sent to the designer or transferred onto a comment letter. When looking at software for EPC integration is a big question. Will the EPC software integrate into the permitting software? If this is a route you want to pursue you will have to work with both developers to ensure there is an API between the two softwares. While there can be many benefits to an integrated system, it is not necessary for a successful program. The view we took when deciding to use Bluebeam is that it is a plan review tool not a workflow management tool. Whichever wayis decided to managethe expectations of what the system is designed to do, and design processes based on software capabilities.
Processing and Routing
As with any new system that is implemented developing consistency in processes is an important part to ensure all tasks are completed efficiently. When developing your EPC program these routines will ensure that all relevant reviewing parties are included a useful tool for developing processes especially when technology is involved is preparing a flow chart to track all the steps that must be taken. Below is a sample of a flow chart that we used while developing our process.
As you can see through the process of developing and discussing this flow chart. More questions were raised about specific topics. This type of process should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that processes are still working. If they are not working, how can they be improved. Highlighting some of our discussion points from the flowchart that you should also consider; how are the plans going to be accepted, where are the plans going to be stored, how will the reviews be distributed to reviewers, how will comments be returned to the applicant and how will the approved plans be returned to the customer? Building a flowchart by answering those questions will start you down the path of developing your process.
Storage and Access
As we all know document retention is vital to operations. Not just because it is required by law but also because access to historical data and plans makes future projects that much easier. While everyone already has systems in place for long term storage of plans, the electronic plans coming in through this process may not fit into the developed storage plan. As an example, we have been using Laserfische for our plan storage, however in the version of Laserfische that we use the OCR tool is not compatible with PDF’s it is only compatible with TIFF’s, so we cannot apply the search templates to the PDF plans. If the plans cannot be searched for it is cumbersome to find them within all the files. Because of this we worked with our IT division to develop a storage location on our city’s server in which all electronic plans will be stored. Whatever methodologyof storage you develop it is important to be consistentwith that method for all plans. It will be a resource drain for staff if they have to search multiple databases to find the information they are looking for. Another issue that will need to be addressed is access of the plans. Staff that is not part of the review process such as inspectors studying plans prior to inspections or code enforcement officers reviewing property history will need access. Ensuring that plans are easy to find and viewable will assist them performing their duties. What we quickly learned was viewing plans on a standard size monitor is problematic, because details become hard to see. It isimperativeto provide the resources necessary to staff to make the most of the systems in place. Another option that we are trialing to provide better access to plans is making them available on the cloud to allow inspectors to access them in the field on their Ipads. As you further develop your technology resources it allows for an increased ability to perform necessary tasks.
As building departments move into the future increased reliance on technology is required to continue to meet our customer’s needs. EPC allows for a more streamlined review process if implemented properly. Implementing the process can be a daunting task but if you can answer the questions posed above it will ensure a smoother transition. Hopefully, the lessons we learned in our implementation process and our answers to the questions will assistyou with developing a system that fits the needs of your city.
For any questions regarding this article, don’t hesitate to reach out to an Innovative Practices Committee member.