COVID-19 and U.S. Building Regulatory System - On-line and In the Air

by Bob Wible, CII

Our series of COVID-19 blogs thus far have focused on the owner, designer, contractor, materials and product supplier and software aspects of the capital facilities industry. But what about the regulatory community at the state or local level - building and fire officials, electrical, mechanical and plumbing inspectors who review and approve plans and conduct on-site inspections? How is COVID-19 impacting their work? What’s changed? What are likely to be the long term changes as we move past the current crisis?

This blog column addresses these questions based on input from state and local building departments across the United States, the nation’s model building codes and standards organizations and the hardware and software industries which serve them.

As with other posts, your feedback on this blog is greatly appreciated. In particular, please share with us any stories you have on how the construction regulatory system has impacted your company and your projects. Do you have examples that point to successful collaborative and cooperative interactions between your projects and those who review and approve plans and conduct inspections which we can share not only with your fellow CII members but with the building regulatory community as a whole? Please write to robert.wible@cii.utexas.edu. We will share with your permission in another blog and with CII Sectors and CBAs.

COVID-19 and the U.S. Building Regulatory Community – The Beginning of the Crisis – Slowdown / Shutdown – The Big Scramble & Improvisation

Beginning in the Pacific Northwest and following shortly thereafter in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, the growth in COVID-19 cases caused state and local elected officials and their building departments across the nation to scramble to determine how best to respond to this unique crisis.

Which construction projects should continue? Under what enhanced health and safety requirements should they operate? Which should be ramped down? Shut-down? When and under what circumstances should projects be reopened? How best to continue to provide building plan review, approval and inspection services to those projects either deemed “critical” or “essential”?

With the exception of the 1918 influenza epidemic there was not a clear template for how best to respond. The World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and OSHA offered guidance but there were no hard and fast rules. States and localities were largely on their own, called their own shots as to what to slow or shut down and for how long. 

The Scramble

Adhering to decisions made by governors, mayors and county officials, building departments had to scramble as to how to comply with their elected official’s directive, keep their employees as safe as possible and depending on edicts keep either all, some or only critical/essential construction projects moving forward. This unfolded in New York City, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and other major cities across the nation undertaking plan approvals and inspections for COVID-19-specific facilities ranging from testing sites, to converting hotels into quarantine centers for those testing positive for COVID-19 to converting convention centers into hospitals for treating C-19 patients.

Like the private sector, building departments sent nearly all employees home, employed social distancing and use of PPE for those who must continue to work on construction sites performing basic inspections.
During this time frame, just as CII has done for its members, state building officials associations, the International Code Council (ICC) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) surveyed members and collected and distributed best practices as to how to best prepare for and respond to COVID-19.

Survey Findings – A snapshot

Between March 22nd and April 1st, the International Code Council, which produces the nation’s model building, mechanical, plumbing, energy, rehabilitation and other codes, surveyed their members and received responses from 1,158 building departments in 50 states with jurisdictions ranging in size from 1,000 to 4.6 million residents.

Their findings offer a snapshot of what building departments were experiencing:

  • 93% of all jurisdictions were still conducting some inspections either remotely (using cameras and drones) or in person.

  • 65%  had their plan reviewers working remotely.

  • 26% had issued special occupancy permits related to building new or converting existing facilities to handle COVID-19 issues (testing, quarantine sites and hospitals).

In their scramble to work remotely, 40% of the respondents noted that they did not have the capability to do electronic plan review, 30% did not have the capability to do permit processing on line, and 61% did not have the capability for electronic or remote inspections. Access to PPE also was a problem for some departments. 

As with the construction industry, over the past 10 years significant efforts had been undertaken by organizations supporting the building regulatory community to promote the adoption and use of on-line and cloud-based technologies which made working from home or conducting remote inspections possible. Jurisdictions which had adopted such technology prior to COVID-19 found themselves in relatively good shape. For Arlington, Virginia, which in 2019 had used electronic plan review and an extensive cloud based library of codes and standards to have the majority of their plan reviewers work from home, it was business as usual. While Long Beach, California, which had a significant number of “critical” structures, was able to rapidly shift from conducting only 10% of their plan reviews electronically to having all plan reviews electronically, remotely aided by the recent acquisition of the same previously mentioned extensive cloud based library of codes and standards to continue their operations. On the inspection side, Sacramento County, CA, which began using drones in their inspection program in 2018, found themselves in good shape to expand their drone and camera use to conduct more inspections remotely.

For most jurisdictions, however, as reported by building officials through their associations in Wisconsin and Ohio, the transition to work under COVID-19 has been extremely difficult. This included coming up with procedures and requirements for converting existing facilities to handle COVID-19 patients and enforcing work site shut downs. In New York City for example, building inspectors went from one pre-COVID construction site to another making sure only those that were authorized to stay open were open and that they were practicing mandated social distancing in their operations. Inspectors also were charged with fining non-authorized sites ($10,000 per incident) which had not shut down. Many building departments across the nation where all but “essential/critical” construction was shut down likewise ended up enforcing those closures.

The Current Situation – Gradual Re-Starts – Recovery Phase

Moving from April into May, building departments began adjusting to this “new normal” of operating remotely for plan review and where possible for social distanced inspections, and enforcing project shut downs. By early May, adding to the challenges facing building departments were dwindling permit fee revenues to support operations and retain their staffs. Those jurisdictions which in the recovery from the Great Recession had supplemented their staffs with third party inspectors, now terminated or suspended those service contracts first and then when necessary began furloughs and reductions in force of their own employees. Some communities even allowed some degree of “self-certification” by builders.

In communities where the “stay at home” and business shut down resulted in a drop in COVID-19 cases and in states where governors decided to reopen their economies, building departments found themselves having to work with the construction community to provide plan review and inspection services for those projects which were being restarted. 

Building official associations across the nation began gathering and sharing with their members “best practices,” in remote work and on-site inspections which covered everything from PPE, to maximizing social distancing on the construction site for those inspections which had to be carried out in person. Typically in this latter area, PPE were required and construction workers had to leave the area being inspected so the building inspector could look at it without anyone around.  In some cases this caused its own unique set of problems to be resolved, which departments did using cameras.

As departments follow the directives from their elected officials and work with their construction community to resume construction, three questions dominate their activities:

  • Revenue/work volume: How many construction projects will restart and what new projects will come to their jurisdiction over the next 6-12 months?

  •  How will they resolve (and fund) still pending technology limitations on their operations?

  •  How will they retain key staff and obtain staff back-up as construction volume increases?

Jurisdictions across the United States fully remember the hit their building departments took during the Great Recession of 2007-2008 in terms of both revenues and staffing. Indeed, some departments never fully recovered. The COVID-19 crisis has slashed state and local government revenues and furloughs and reductions in force are being put in place with no guarantee that the U.S. Congress will make funds available to them to help ensure the continuation of critical services – even in the area of health and life safety of which building departments play an important role.

Most building departments operate under enterprise funding – paying for their staff and services from permit fees and licenses. With very few exceptions, all current industry projections show an extremely slow restart to existing construction projects and very little coming in at the other end of the pipeline once these buildings are completed. Indeed the entire picture for the retail, travel and home building industries point at best to 60% to 70% reductions from pre-COVID levels. If it comes, massive Federal funding for infrastructure will mean little to no support for these segments of the economy. Highways and bridges, water and sewers will see boosts but these largely lie outside of building department responsibility.

Building departments once again will be put into a double bind: downsized because of revenues, and at the same time pressured to provide timely plan review and inspection services to get buildings open and generating revenues for both their owners and for the tax base for their community. To do this departments are working to complete their adoption of technologies which enable them to both work remotely and as quickly and efficiently as possible.

These technology changes will offer the private sector the opportunity to receive more timely plan reviews and perhaps inspection services where agreements can be reached on how best to conduct them.     

Longer Term – 2nd half of 2020 and early 2021 – the Resiliency Phase

Looking ahead to the second half of 2020, building departments like their construction industry partners are wary of the timing and strength of what the CDC, WHO and others are saying will be the “second wave” of COVID-19. With a vaccine not available until early 2021 at best, building departments have to continue to practice social distancing and remote plan review and where possible remote inspection services. 

To support their work during what will hopefully be the recovery or what some people are calling the resiliency phase, building departments will not only need to retool but to retrain their employees to make maximum use of these technologies. Some jurisdictions are already experimenting with on-line training which includes use of Virtual Reality and Integrated Virtual Reality.

Building departments will make greater use of tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams for pre-construction consultations with owners and AEC firms as well as remote inspection systems using cameras and drones. As more building departments make use of cloud-based extensive electronic libraries of codes and standards, owners and designers who use the same cloud-based service as their building department will have the opportunity to further speed up the plan review process.

Lastly to help pay for adopting and integrating these technologies, the construction industry can look towards jurisdictions adopting a “technology surcharge” on top of their traditional permit fees.

The Post COVID-19 World – Long Term Changes

Like for most of our CII members, building departments in the “post-COVID-19 world” will be leaner and will more fully and permanently integrate many of the remote operation technologies which our current crisis required them to adopt.

The COVID-19 crisis is a second hit to building departments since 2007 with respect to staffing. Greater use of technology, making increased use of qualified third party agencies to perform plan review and inspection functions and as the economy rebounds, finding ways to further enhance the use of upfront virtual pre-permit application meetings with building owners and EPCs will become standard operating procedures.

In addition to the above, look for the following:

  • Virtually all building departments and services on-line 24/7/365
  • VR & IVR not just in training but in on-site inspections
  • Codes and standards generating bodies to conduct voting virtually as well as at face-to-face conferences

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. We hope it provided you and your company with a view of the “other side” of the construction community and a feeling for what lies ahead. 

Again please share with us examples of your experience with the building regulatory community – both the good and the bad that we might, with your permission, pass along to your colleagues in CII and to the leaders in the building regulatory community.

A list of informative websites monitoring the building regulatory community

International Code Council
https://www.iccsafe.org/advocacy/coronovirus-response-center/free-webinars 

Building Officials Association of Florida
https://boaf.net/Covid-19

California Building Officials Association
https://www.calbo.org/news-updates
https://www.calbo.org/e-mail-blast/calbo-news-spring-2019

Oregon Building Officials Association
OBOA COVID-19 Resources

Virginia Building Code Officials Association
VBOA Newsletter April 2020.pdf

National Fire Protection Association
https://www.nfpa.org/Codes-and-Standards/Resources/Standards-in-action/NFPA-responds-to-the-coronavirus

International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials
www.iapmo.org/ibu/whats-new/coronavirus-resources

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Date posted: June 3, 2020

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