Streamlining the construction permitting process

Development in region is growing rapidly, is ever more complex and our industry is part of the problem

Every construction project requires advance approval from a city or county planning department. You file plans, receive approval and have your work verified by inspectors along the way.

Sounds easy, right? Maybe it once was. But today it involves a complex and ever-changing process of laws, rules, codes and checklists that often vary by city or county, in an effort to manage growth and protect people and nature.

Planning departments across the region are still in the process of reorganization nearly a decade after the recession. More than just re-staffing with talented people, it takes many years to rebuild systems, processes and relationships to make a planning department function smoothly. No planning department is perfect and each one operates differently. But every one is striving to adapt to our surging construction cycle through steps like electronic plan submittals, express review of minor revisions and peer review options.

Those of us who manage complex construction projects have many ideas for how governments can improve the permitting process. But when we point a finger we should remember there are three pointing back at us. Our industry is part of the problem.

Development in our region is growing rapidly and is ever more complex, where there are no easy projects and no clear set of rules that encompass every project. Each assignment becomes an evaluation of best practices, possibilities and reasonable options rather than simply answering a yes/no question.

Tight budgets and short staffing magnify the desire for a smooth trip through the plan review cycle. The construction industry needs to apply more time and expertise to this critical component of the construction process, not only to help themselves but to help everyone. Here are places to start:

Staff your projects with experienced and trained people. Plan submittals require your best and brightest, not your newest and most inexperienced, and should never fall upon a single staff member. Your submittal will require multiple professionals working together often in collaboration with planning officials.

Build a reasonable timeline. The construction industry is notorious for building optimistic schedules, often shortchanging and later blaming the permitting cycle when deadlines are missed and costs rise. Meanwhile, client financial and operational pressures mount and frustrations intensify. The solution isn’t yelling louder, it’s planning better. The secret to sailing through the permitting cycle is allowing time to do it right the first time.

Do your own internal plan review first. If you want to streamline the permitting process, submit a package that has been thoroughly evaluated in advance. Bring in your own professionals. This will help your staff and client understand potential concerns and give you time to study and propose reasonable options very early in the planning cycle. A little extra work upfront will save time and money.

Engage with planning officials. Regardless of which side of the planning counter you stand, everyone wants quality projects completed as efficiently as possible. In addition to everyone deserving professionalism and shared respect, planning officials often have critical insights regarding how to address difficult issues. Those insights will remain buried unless we work together as partners.

As a leading design-build contractor, RSV has developed a client service and project management culture over 45 years that has taken these improvements to heart.

Contractors who take full responsibility for setting client expectations and project outcomes; routinely provide quality control for any documents between various consultants and engineers, functioning like plan reviewers themselves before submitting plans; hold weekly design meetings with architects, engineers and the project managers to assure quality and consistency; always discuss lessons learned so they can internalize any solutions or breakthroughs and apply them elsewhere; and keep their clients involved and apprised, are typically able to save 5-15 percent of project costs and shorten project cycles by as much as one-third.

This is the kind of value that building owners and developers need in this competitive environment.

As the construction industry joins planning jurisdictions in adapting to the new normal, we will be improving the speed and volume of permitting, which reduces risk for everyone, while building the vibrant, thriving community we all want.

Debbie Marcoulier is president and CEO of RSV Building Solutions, a “Best in Business” design-build general contractor headquartered in downtown Vancouver.

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