Mayor Emanuel announced today he is planning to streamline the Department of Building’s permitting process.  Hoooray!  He says the changes announced would reduce the permit wait time from submittal to issuance down to 35 days.

(He also mentioned setting up a website for homeowners to track the status of the permit.  He’s new to this, so I don’t expect him to know the capability already exists, assuming you know your application number.)

To do this he is initiating an E-Plan submittal, which would allow architects to submit plans online, eliminating the need for paper drawings (and tree killing) to be shepherded to City Hall.  Applause!!!  Back in 2000 (yes, Chicago is getting to this 11 years later) my firm at the time worked with the City of San Diego to implement a similar program.  Technology was different back then making the process a bit cumbersome, but we got it worked out.  Unfortunately, the Building Commissioner left in the middle of the project for a plum job up the coast and the project died.  It has not been resurrected.  Today, though, it is much easier to transmit drawings with reduced file sizes via .pdf.  What is missing from the announcement, though, is whether the Department of Zoning will also implement the program.  If not, paper drawings will still have to schlepped to the zoning counter for their tedious review process.  And will the Department of Public Health also be signing on?  The Health Department has to review every restaurant, grocery store, or commercial kitchen project.

Lastly, the City will now require that half the estimated permit fee be paid up front to prevent already reviewed plans from being abandoned at City Hall.  Chicago, again, is slow to conform.  Most other cities have a separate plan check fee due up front, and a permit fee when the project is ready for issuance.

Everyone likes to complain about the Building Department (me included), however, they aren’t always to blame.  Just most of the time.  Here is what I think would help the department curb wait times.

– Over the counter service:  Most cities in Southern California have an expedited permitting process that anyone can use (not just architects who are ‘self certified’), which allow for drawings to be reviewed by a plan examiner while you wait. (You, or your expeditor, actually waited right there in front of them so you could address any issues on the spot).  This process was limited to ‘tenant improvement’ type work which required plans but did not involve any additions or work to the exterior building envelope.  The City could easily dedicate existing, idle project managers to this role on a rotating basis allowing us to walk away with a permit that same day.  The City currently has an EPP (Easy Permit Program) to deal with cosmetic work.  This program could be made more robust to include more types of projects, thus lightening the load on the full time plan reviewers.

– Amalgamate the departments:  Plain and simple, there are too many departments reviewing plans at City Hall.  Every other jurisdiction I have worked in from coast to coast has, at maximum, 2 reviewers in their respective building departments that could possibly review plans.  For a normal commercial project you would have a Life-Safety review, typically a structural engineer that would review for compliance with most of the Building Code, and an MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing) review, all three disciplines would be checked by one engineer.  Compare that to The City of Chicago which has… are you ready?… 9 reviewers!  Here they are:  Architectural, Structural, Fire, Ventilation, Refrigeration, Plumbing, Electrical, MOPD (Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities), and Environmental.  We regularly get identical comments on drawings from two different reviewers.  Suffice it to say, if the union issues can be worked out, less reviewers lobbing the drawings from one desk to the other would dramatically reduce wait times.  Far more than any E-plan process could.

– Examiners should only return comments when the design might actually change:  An all too often occurrence is when drawings are returned back for comments like “add this general note to the drawings”, or “revise the occupancy count from 60 to 65”.  These are unnecessary and waste time.  In all my time submitting drawings to the City, not once has there been a significant design change based on comments from plan reviewers.  Not once.  And why should there be.  I am the licensed professional whose responsibility it is to ensure compliance with the building code.   The amount of time wasted waiting for an appointment to see the plan reviewers just to show them that a general note was added or some other trivial element was revised to their liking is staggering.  In the City’s defense, they have enacted a ‘certified corrections’ program that would eliminate the need for an ‘open plan review’ meeting, but the paperwork is too cumbersome and onerous to save any time.

I could go on, but lets start there.

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