I understand what you are saying. I have also experienced the exact same thing with actual identical projects being proposed at the same time in multiple cities. Many will argue about what I am going to say, but it comes down to understanding the intent of the code and applying the intent correctly. I know first hand that there are a lot of people working for jurisdictions who simply have never read the book, let alone taken the time to understand how it is applied to any given architectural project. They read a section, take it out of context, and then make you do it. The politicians who run the departments think those with code knowledge are a dime a dozen. Now for the real controversial statement. Most architects have never read the book either. Early in my career I was really humbled and amazed by taking the time to completely read and study the building code (cover to cover). My boss at the time made me do it. I have sense done so two more times. Each time was an eye opener. You can look at all of the various systems out there to speed up the permit process, but if this topic is not taught to the end users, you are always going to have problems.
Among other things, I teach the building code to new users at the university level and really feel it should be a required class for all architects before they complete their college degree programs. The designers that I know who are also good code users will all tell you that the code can be one of best working tools you will ever have, it you just understand the intent of its application. I will be the first to say I do not agree with everything in the code, but at least I know what the intent is meant to be.
For what it is worth.
AIA member Architect
Name withheld on request
You might get the guys in San Francisco to talk about the SF Building Department’s Accelerated permit program for interiors projects. I am sure it has evolved since I departed SF 3 years ago, but it worked pretty well to get a permit for limited scope work in a single visit to the Department.
RK Stewart FAIA
RK Stewart Consultants
Salt Lake City UT
Message From: Cary Westerbeck
In Seattle we have the “Subject to Field Inspection” permit, or STFI, that is issued on the spot if plans are ready and meet the requirements. STFIs only apply to single story projects, no span over 14′ and a few other provisions, so they’re limiting. However, a large number of projects fall under the STFI category and it keeps the plan reviewers available for the bigger projects. I’d love to see it applied in some way to larger projects, or maybe to all single family residential or some qualifier.
Nearby Seattle, the City of Kirkland has “Fast Track” and “Express” permits that are similar to Seattle’s STFI. I have asked other jurisdictions around the greater Seattle area to adopt the STFI and express permit approach with little success, though I think more will do it in time.
Thanks for looking into this for all of us.
Message From: Christopher Walsh
My only true “permit in a day” experience came in Glenview Illinois, they set aside Monday mornings and Friday mornings for people with additions and build-outs. They review the plans on the spot on a first come first serve basis. It was nice because many of the people are residents who normally wouldn’t have gotten a permit because they are afraid of the process. The plans are still stamped by the Architect but residents typically expedite them. As the Architect I was able to make the corrections on the spot.
The City of Chicago has a “Self-Certified” program for Architects. You need to enroll in their 3-day class which costs about $2500 (but you receive 21 hours of HSW credits), they review the code and their permit process during the class. Once “Certified” you basically skip their formal review, they review for zoning and do a cursory look over then you are approved. This still takes about a month but it is better than the 6-8 week process. They can pull your plans for a formal review at random to make sure you comply with code, if you don’t you get a strike, 3 strikes and you are out of the program. I should also note that this program is only for single family homes, light commercial buildings and commercial build-outs.
Hope this helps.
Christopher Walsh AIA
Buffalo Grove IL
Just a note in support of your effort to help streamline the Plan Check process. While not personally familiar with the examples you cited, a checklist would certainly help both sides of the Bldg. Dept. table. Cities differ on what notes, references and details they want included in their submitted sets. Sometimes it seems it would be easier to just staple the IRC to the sets!
Salt Lake City UT
Message From: David Maurer
Michael – I’d be glad to share our experiences with the Express Permit Review process here in Raleigh, from the early days in 1995 where we brought pizza and beer to evening sessions to present day twice daily sessions. Unfortunately, the beer was soon forbidden, but bagels and donuts are still gratefully accepted. There was also a brief program for ‘certified’ plans by architects and engineers, but quickly failed due to liability concerns. I’ll be glad to speak directly with you for a lengthier discussion.
David Maurer AIA
The City of Dallas is just starting to require construction documents in pdf form. It’s a start.
Dave Powyszynski AIA
Senior Vice President
Aguirre Roden, Inc.
New York State has no unified filing procedures & leaves this to each local jurisdiction.
New York City has two programs in place:
- “Self-Certification” is an expedited filing & approval process reserved for projects not impacting zoning, usage,major structural changes, or occupancy. It used exclusively for interior alterations filed as a Type 2 Alteration and is approved under Directive 14 which requires a Design Professional to take responsibility for final inspections. This has been in place since the late ’70’s with great success. Permitting occurs after a cursory review by the DoB and usually takes a week or less.
- “Pro-Certification” is an expedited filing & approval process which can be applied to any size or type project including New Buildings. Under this system the Design Professional actually submits a certification with their documents stating that the project complies with ALL applicable code requirements, both zoning & building. Upon submission of this certification the DoB has no review and a permit is issued the next day. The DoB does reserve the right to audit the project at any time including post completion.The DoB also conducts all final inspections. The risk fro the Design Professional is that even the smallest honest mistake or difference in interpretation exposes the DP to suspension of their Pro-Cert privileges, potential suspension of their filing privileges in NYC and possible state SED sanctions. The review process is onerous and does not fully ensure Due Process. AIANYS has been working diligently to correct the inequities in what should be a very beneficial procedure.
Separate and apart from these two, several jurisdictions have begun to allow fro electronic filing in the hope of expediting the process.
Happy to discuss further.
Burton L. Roslyn, FAIA
Roslyn Consultants, LLC
Roslyn Heights, New York
There are two practices here in Philadelphia which have proved helpful. The most popular by far is the “Accelerated” permit. With the payment of a $520 fee, you can accelerate any building or zoning permit application. This means that you get a response in 5-10 days.This was originally set up as a way to thwart the “expediters” who would charge a fee to push your permit and used relationships with the plan examiners to do so. This way, it is completely open. The fee was intended to pay for staff overtime to get the work done. It worked well as long as the plan examiners were allowed to take the work home to do. It has become more problematic since the Department of Licenses and Inspections (which issues permits) has required the work to be done in the office (which makes it less attractive to staffers). But it still gets permits moved much more quickly.
Another device, which has not been used as much, is that for single family houses of three stories and under, the design professional can “self certify” the plans, allowing the permit to be issued in 5 days.
Jerry Roller AIA
In reading your message and the follow up comments from others, I am beginning to feel like a minority. I apparently approach the permitting process much differently than most. I have had excellent success in working with permitting authorities in several jurisdictions across the United States. In my code consulting work, I find it comes down to taking the time to better communicate with the AHJ. After all, the permitting process is simply a confirmation of compliance. The AHJ has to trust that you can (and will do) what you say you will do. In order to make sure the GC is not delayed when he is ready to pick up his permit and start work, I do the following:
- Perform my code research very early in the project. Usually, most all of the major code issues can be identified during early schematic design.
- Meet with the AHJ (specifically the commercial plan reviewer) in person early in the project. Develop a good relationship.
- Confirm the intent and application of the specific code requirements to the building in question. I get early buy in by making the AHJ part of the project team.
- I actually apply for the permit, or in some cases, at least pay for the permit plan review services myself. This allows me to work directly with the AHJ during their review process. It puts me in control of the process and the AHJ talks directly with me about any issues that come up during their reviews. In this way I have all of the things that can slow the GC down done in advance.
- When the GC is ready to get his permit, all he has to do is go to the counter and write the check.
In my experience, most jurisdictions (and architects) seem to feel that this process I describe will add to their work load. In reality, every one of these early meetings with an AHJ, makes the final review much faster for them because they already know what to expect.
Architect Name withheld by request
Working with Michael F. Malinowski AIA and Gene Paolini, CBO Roseville, regional Jurisdictions in California’s Central Valley have launched a working relationship with AIA Central Valley to initiate an effort to launch a PreQualification Permit Streamlining Program. Jurisdictions involved so far include
City of Sacramento, County of Sacramento, City of Folsom, City of Rancho Cordova, City of West Sacramento, City of Roseville, Placer County.
I’m gathering ‘Best Practice’ permit streamlining examples for a program at the Atlanta convention, and would appreciate hearing about any examples you have experienced.
I’m particularly interested in hearing about use of ‘Permit in a Day‘ programs (such as Dallas’ QTeam; Raleigh ‘Express Review); “Prequalification” programs where plans prepared according to a ‘plan check friendly template’ get expedited review while the jurisdiction experiences quicker processing (one example uses the AIA Florida’s “Guide to Creating Code Compliant Documents”); and “Professional Certification” programs that are ‘architect friendly’ in how they are structured and implemented.
With staff reductions of up to 80% in some building jurisdictions during the recession, there is increasing interest in finding ways to operate more efficiently and effectively in permit processing, which can be a ‘win win’ – with benefits to community economic development, jobs, adding to the high performance building stock, and lowering costs for both public and private sector.
Thanks for taking a moment to share, even if only a sentence or two. If your story touches more on the ‘dark side’ of programs that are not so architect friendly – that’s of interest as well.
Michael Malinowski AIA
AIACC President Elect 2015/2016
Applied Architecture, Inc.
Dru McKeown, AIA, LEED AP
Architect at TOIstudio
What risk is the city/county assuming? From my understanding they assume no risk for approving any plans, discrepancies with regards to meeting minimum code requirements still fall on the shoulders of the person who stamped/sealed the documents. Am I wrong with that assumption?
Principal at Caroline & Lawrence Schwirian, Architects
There is a fundamental disconnect between those who write and publish building codes and those who are responsible for enforcing them. Those who write the codes earn their living by adding new requirements and making changes every three to five years and then publishing new additions; those who enforce the codes are most often state or municipal employees and in departments that are understaffed and under funded. The consequence of this is that many building officials do not have adequate training and/or sufficient time to do a comprehensive check and therefore rely on other strategies to fulfill their duties.
Mitch Ptacek, Assoc. AIA likes this
President at Linderman Group Architects
I have dealt with competent code officials and also with too many others. First, at least where I have practiced, code officials are not required to have had any formal training. Many are not qualified for well paying jobs. It does not take very much to pass the code official certification exams – where they are required. As a result we have a lot of under-educated, insecure individuals with the power to make more qualified individuals jump through hoops; and, they seem to love it. Also as noted above they have no liability for their mistakes in interpreting and enforcing the codes. The codes with which I am familiar, make the owner responsible for code compliance. He, of course, has recourse against his architect. The code official has no liability. Does abuse of authority apply?
Vice President at Howell Rusk Dodson – Architects
My all time “favorite” code review comment was that the sink did not meet ADA because we did not draw the wrist blades in the interior elevation.
Partner at Hengst Bajko Architects, Inc.
a grad student could do a thesis on the different ways municipalities deal with plan review. knowing what to expect depending where you are working is definitely a learned skill. on the other hand, I have had some really excellent plans examiners who have taught me a thing or two over the years.
Designer (Interiors & Architecture) & Building Code Consultant
I am currently reviewing a 200,000 sf project and as a code compliance manager with a background in architecture, interior design & eligibility to take the ARE I am surprised at these comments! Just because you have the license that doesn’t mean I’m going to take your word! Prove to me that you meet the code! Ok I have to get back to my comments which considering the complexity there aren’t as many as there could be. Once out to bid the contractors come back with over 100 comments duplicating some of ours! We try to resolve these issues before the bidding process.
Have a nice day.
Principal at J.M. Califf AIA & Partners, Inc.
In most cases, the comments that bother me the most are the ones that indicate that the reviewer didn’t really look at the plans very carefully. There will be a load of boilerplate type items that are already addressed in the plans as submitted, but I end up having to make written responses to point them all out.
Owner, Alexander Associates Architects LLC
I recently completed a two story duplex (5 sheets) and had the plans rejected three times. Each time the code examiner would add items. Why can’t they (the code examiner) do all of the comments once so the Owner can get going with the project. The initial review took six weeks. Each return, for review, took an additional three weeks hence delaying the over three months.
Supervising Plans Examiner at Co. of S.L.O.
I share the sentiments of my fellow architects in this rant. I am on the other side of the counter. Plan checking has become extremely complicated especially when you look at the code bloat that has taken place of the years. I supervise a staff of six plans examiners and we struggle to stay abreast of the ever changing structural, life-safety, accessible, electrical, plumbing, mechanical, energy, green and erosion control codes.
Many jurisdictions have lots their staff due to the recession and now that it is getting busier they have turned to outside plan examining services that use boiler plate checklists because the jurisdictions that they work for don’t want them to miss a thing.
I guest lecture at Cal Poly SLO, my old alma mater, and I tell the students there and I tell anyone who will listen, it’s all about building relationships and inviting the Planning and Building Divisions to be a member on your team.
And I find the older I get the grumpier I become. And I ask myself, do I want to be a grumpy old man? and then I adjust my attitude.
President Applied Architecture Inc
As Stephen suggests, Architects CAN and SHOULD be leaders in shaping the permit processes. I’ve established an on-line resource for sharing ‘best practices’ from around the country on how that can happen: please add your 2 cents and see if there are notions here that can help you make your own community more ‘permit friendly’. AIA Research has documented that Permit streamlining is good for the community, for the local economy, for business, and for the Architectural profession. More here:
Owner, JRT•AIA ARCHITECT
Comment was the codes are shaped by others. If this bothers you, get involved. Many AIA chapters have code committees. Attend the ICC code hearings, either in person or online.
As to other comments, there is no excuse for boilerplate comments, although I have often seen them. I do third-party reviews, and unfortunately have seen terrible drawings submitted by architectural firms I expected better from.
I also teach seminars on the codes, and one point I always make is don’t make the plans reviewer look for answers or need to make assumptions, give them the information about code compliance in plain, simple form. This is what the codes require as does our license. There are always lazy or uninformed people, but most are just trying to do their jobs as best they can. Meet with them early and often as your project developes and the permit review will be a snap.
It is a constant struggle to get projects permitted and seems to have gotten worse during this economic downturn. Best to educate the client and try to anticipate the delays. Time is money and waiting for a bureaucrat to perform is money down the drain. As bad as it is, getting Planning Approvals can be even worse waste of time! Herding cats would be easier!
President at Mattoni Design Studio, Inc.
Jerry, I really do not have a problem with legitimate discussions about the code I also agree with forming a relationship with the jurisdiction. This works great on larger projects, or projects within smaller municipalities. Larger cities it is impossible. for my little project I paid for a preliminary review, flew to the city with 80% drawings and had a good discussion about the code issues related to the project. unfortunately, the actual code reviewer has no relationship to that group.
Planning Partner, Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects
A further problem coming out of this recession is contract plan checking. Municipalities have pared staff back to near-zero and are reluctant to hire new employees, so contract plan-checking services are on the rise. They tend to be even more zealous and less connected to truly protecting the public. Embracing streamline changes now will serve us better than waiting for this to become a full-blown crisis.Mike Malinowski’s venture is a good step in that direction.
Principal at Caroline & Lawrence Schwirian, Architects
As a follow up to my previous comment regarding a disconnect between those who write and publish codes and those who are charged with enforcing them I would like to come to the defense of those who are charged with enforcing the codes. As I see it, the bigger problem is the sheer volume and complexity of the codes today. Four decades ago the codes were much more prescriptive and straight forward; over the intervening years the codes have become more performance oriented and consequently less clear. The codes, in addition to covering more concerns than just health/welfare/safety, have also become more verbose, more redundant, more circumlocutious and in some cases less logical. As a registered architect for over 40 years, an ICC member and certified Building Plans Examiner, a past instructor of Building Codes at the college level, and a current CEU provider on the basic and finer points of building codes I am frequently frustrated and agitated with the effort it takes to find answers to what should be simple questions.
Example #1 – Verbosity, redundancy & circumlocution: What does the IBC/2009 Code require in regard to fire dampers, smoke dampers and/or fire& smoke dampers in a vertical shaft? Section 716.3 deals with this topic and it says “Shaft Enclosures that are permitted to be penetrated by ducts and air transfer openings shall be provided with approved fire and smoke dampers installed in accordance with their listing”. Then it proceeds to list no fewer than 10 exceptions to this rule. Embodied within these 10 exceptions are references to the IBC Mechanical Code, ASTM and UL standards and at least two references to other sections in the IBC code. The two references within the IBC code make references to yet other sections of the code and in one case the reference is many page long. Top that all off with state amendments to the IBC codes and it would be possible if not probable that one could spend a day or more trying to define what specifically the code requires for this one question.
Example #2 – logic: Forty years ago stair handrails/guardrails consisted of two, approximately 1-1/2″ diameter steel pipes running parallel with the slope of the stair: one at handrail height and one half-way to the nosing of the stair tread. Then there was a 9″ ball rule, later changed to a 6″ ball rule, and currently a 4″ ball rule. Now I understand the safety issue with regard to infants and children but the code provisions requiring operable windows to have their sills located a reasonable distance above the floor did not appear in the codes until after the 4″ ball rule. Also, is it logical that exit stairs in a high rise office building be held to this standard since a) these stairs are typically used only in the event of an emergency, b) there presumably would be a limited number of infants and babies in an office building at any given time, and c) if there were infants in the building they would more than likely be carried or held onto by an adult while exiting. Is it possible that the committee that was responsible for writing this section of the code was heavily represented by individuals from the steel fabricating industry?
To my mind it is clearly not reasonable to place the lions share of the blame for the tedious and lengthy code review process on building officials and others responsible for enforcing the codes; the basic problem is much larger and more complex.
President at Linderman Group Architects
Just a quick intro, I am an architect with 50 years experience, a member of ICC, certified building code official and accessibility exam/insp.
I have previously mentioned incompetent code enforcement. Someone else mentioned some of the ridicules submittals for permit applications with which the code officials must deal. Yes there are two sides to this issue.
I am sure that most of us architects have had to deal with the some arrogant jerk in a small municipality who, with his hands defiantly placed on his hips, proclaims, “That is just your opinion. I am the code official and the code says, only my opinion counts.” Of course we can appeal. This takes several months and cost thousands. So unless we want to file a complaint with the State the get the jerk de-certified, the problem persists. Unfortunately this process takes months also. Yes, I have done this.
On the other side of the issue, I have seen some of the garbage that has been submitted for permits. Code officials should not be expected to try to figure out some of these obtuse drawings and vague references such as “shall comply with governing codes’ duh?
Recently I was executive/coordinating architect on 400M project with several major architectural and engineering firms providing design services. I applied for all the building permits. Since the permits were in my name I was careful to check the submittals for compliance before submitting. I was amazed that these large well respected firms had such a lack of knowledge of the codes. I would have thought that a large office would have someone on staff who was up to date on the governing codes.
Before I go on, keep in mind, the code official enforcing the code has NO LIABILITY for errors and omissions, but when the buck stops, it is THE ARCHITECT who should have known and is responsible.
With that said, why not train and certify some licensed professionals to be qualified to comply with the code. They then can submit their permit applications certifying that they meet code. This relieves the code official from the trouble of a review that does not guaranty compliance anyway. This would speed the process and put the responsibility where it ends up anyway. We could still have the existing program for smaller firms who do not have time to get so certified.
Your thoughts please.
Michael Malinowski likes this
Principal at Caroline & Lawrence Schwirian, Architects
Yes, it is true that there are many building officials who are not well trained and some who like to be belligerent for the sake of being belligerent. It is also true that many if not most architectural schools do not bother to teach courses on building codes and many large architectural firms have licensed project managers and project architects as well as principals who stamp the drawings who have only a marginal understanding of codes. But the nature of this problem is much larger than just the code review process.
I think it is safe to say that we (architects, engineers, building officials, fire department officials, architectural and engineering schools, those who write and format the codes, and many others) are all responsible for the current malaise we have created for ourselves but it is patently unfair and unproductive to attempt to place the blame on any one group.
Joe MattoniPresident at Mattoni Design Studio, Inc.
Richard, My experience is a little less than yours. I’ve only been practicing 20 years. I agree with nearly everything you’ve said. except the smaller firms comment. Code understanding is not hard – especially with the alignment of so many jurisdictions to the IBC. Every professional should have a code book on their desk. (or the electronic equivalent.) In my little practice, I still need it every day.
My original post was more about the NON-code stuff. I’ve had comments such as calling out what level/floor a plan applied to (in a one story building seriously) Adding boiler plate comments about gas meters etc. for TI work with no mechanical. I have needed to get zoning approval for this current back-of-house TI. ugh.
Owner, Kevin deFreitas Architects, AIA
The entitlement process here in San Diego has become so onerous and painful, I actually dread submitting a project which should be a positive and culminating experience. Four aspects I find especially egregious; 1) The plan checkers take the position “if the code doesn’t say you can do it, than you can’t” (which is the opposite approach most architects take. 2) Often times the plan checker will request “modifications” to the plans specifically the structural details because they believe it to be best, despite being produced by a licensed Arch and Structural Engineer who are required to stamp and sign the plans and calcs (often the they want a larger margin of error built into the design, not taking into account that the code already has such a feature. 3) Because things are slow here, there is a disincentive to approve plans because it will lead to an empty desk and possible layoffs so 3 and 4 review cycles in not unusual even for a house, which causes un-necessary heartache and expense for the design team and the owner (the owner will often respond you are a professional and do this all the time why would you need more than one review cycle?) 4) our building department requires multiple printed sets for each review, which is a huge waste especially in the digital age when marking up a pdf is so easy and efficient. The plan review process has become just another hidden municipal tax on construction/development.
2013-2015 Board of Directors at The American Institute of Architects (AIA)
It has gotten so ridiculous, that I have considered buying copies of the various code books to submit with the plans, as part of the plans and specifications.
Not to mention the joy of being told one thing, then having the various departments do something or require something totally different.
Michael Malinowski likes this
President at Linderman Group Architects
David Argano’s idea is a bit extreme; however, I often use something similar, but less severe. I copy the salient code sections of items that may be interpreted differently by the code official and include that as part of the submittal. Where the code allows an exception ,I show the code section allowing the exception, etc. this is usually 3 or 4 pages long. As long as the code official can read (I had one once who could not read, for real) it makes it hard for them to disagree. Many thank me for making their job easier. By the way, I was concerned about coping copyrighted material. I asked ICC, they said what I was doing was fine as long it was no more than 8 pages.
President Applied Architecture Inc
Kevin … many jurisdictions I’m afraid are in the same mode; having laid off up to 80% of plan review staff, they are not equipped to deal with things picking back up. One common response is to use more contract plan review – which brings it’s own headaches.
Professional Certification is being used in many enlightened jurisdictions – some have used this very successfully for literally decades, with a benefit both to economic vitality in the community as well as letting design professionals do the work they are already responsible for. Other innovations include PreQualification programs, where those who do good work are treated differently than untrained and unlicensed drafters for example. Some AIA components have actively engaged their local jurisdications to revolutionize plan review. See case studies at PermitStreamline.Com I did a presentation in June on this topic at AIA Convention and there was so much interest and so many painful stories being shared they proctor had to finally shut the room down and shoo the hundred plus attendees along to their next session.