For Greater Success in Permitting:





Even in polite company, the topic of construction permits can bring unsavory four-letter words to the lips, or at least an underlying feeling of dread. We've all heard horror stories of the neighbor who tried to get a permit for a small project and got tied up in a bureaucratic mess that cost more to untangle than the construction itself. The reason for the angst is that nearly everyone outside of those who enforce the laws lack an adequate understanding of the processes involved with obtaining construction permits.  This lack of understanding causes some of us to think that "Permit" is just another four-letter word-in disguise.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Those who deal with permit departments regularly learn the tricks of the trade and become quite successful at shuffling their applications through the system. Those who do it often come to enjoy the process and derive a great deal of professional satisfaction from getting construction permits on time and under budget. It is time to supplant the negative associations tied to construction permits with a set of tools that make permitting a more positive and profitable experience.

Begin by using another four-letter word, pass, to remind yourself of the ultimate goal you want to achieve with your next permit application. Expand this word to serve as an acronym for defining the foundations for greater success in permitting. P.A.S.S. stands for Preparedness, Attitude, Surveillance and Surrender. By understanding and incorporating these concepts into your permitting routine, "PASS" will replace other four letter words that might describe your permit experience.


P = Preparedness

The most effective way to eliminate problems with the permit process is to be prepared. The more complete your application package, the better your chances are to gain the governing agency's approval the first time through. A good technique is to imagine the plans examiner as he looks at your plans for the first time. Remember that he probably has a work quota. His boss expects him to complete a review of a given number of applications each day. Consequently, he's going to allot a specific amount of time to his first look at your plans. As he opens your package, he looks for key information to identify the nature of the project. He has no idea what it is-your plans have to speak for themselves. Did you clearly define the scope of work? Did you give him a code summary? Is there a sheet index? Is it to scale? Is it legible? Can he easily find the elements he needs to check?

Within a few minutes, he will have made up his mind whether he will approve or reject your plans, and this decision will affect the way he views your plans for the remainder of the time allotted. If his initial assessment is that your plans are essentially clear and complete, he will move into the remainder of his review with the belief that he'll find the answers to all of his questions if he just looks hard enough. He will do everything he can to approve your plans in the time allotted because doing so reduces his work load tomorrow. On the other hand, if he gets the impression early in his review that you did not take the time to present your information in a format he can easily understand, he will resign himself to the fact that there is no way he can approve the plans. He will find everything he can wrong with the plans and prepare a list of items that need to be corrected before his allotted time runs out.

To make sure you are better prepared, here are a few steps you can take:

1) Most jurisdictions publish a checklist of items required for a complete application.  Make sure you obtain this list and use it as you assemble your application package. If you are not sure whether a particular item applies to your project, include it anyway. It is always better to provide too much information than not enough.

2) Interview the plans examiner who will actually perform the review before submitting the application. Let him know that it is your intention to satisfy all of his requirements and that you have checked off everything on the published checklist, but you are wondering if he uses a more in-depth checklist as he performs his reviews. Plans examiners are individuals just like you and me. Often times, they will develop their own "cheat-sheets" to help them with their jobs. See if you can get a copy of the list of things that they look for. They'll be impressed that you care enough to find out, and the seed of goodwill will be established.

3) Keep a file of all the past comment letters you receive from each jurisdiction and each plans examiner. Get to know their pet peeves and idiosyncrasies. Check your plans against these lists of past concerns to make sure the application package you are preparing today doesn't include the same problems identified in earlier applications. Plans examiners have a memory for those who consistently submit inadequate plans, and right or wrong, their preconceived notions of your ability to produce good plans will have an impact on your next application.

A = Attitude

Having adequate plans is a good start and will result in a permit, eventually, regardless of your attitude; but if you want to get your permits faster, you must understand that building departments are run by people. These people, from the receptionist all the way to the building official have the ability to delay the issuance of your permit. You serve yourself well by making sure you never get on their bad side.

If you've ever spent any time at all in the lobby of a building department, you've heard the grumbling that goes on. Before you give in to the temptation to join the complainers, remember that the government staff have ears, too, and they remember who the complainers are. Now ask yourself, which of your customers are you more likely to extend a greater effort: the ones who show you respect and appreciation, or the ones you can never please no matter how hard you try. Sure, you may work harder for the complainer in the short term, but just to get them out of your life. Once the job is complete, you are likely to arrange future interactions in a way that shields yourself from further abuse. On the other hand, customers you enjoy are the ones you likely put ahead of others when you contemplate your workload each day. They are the ones that you will spend more time with making sure they understand your product and, if necessary, the limitations that prevent you from giving them exactly what they were hoping for. You are more likely to think of them and give them a heads-up when market conditions change in a way that may affect their future projects. You go the extra mile to help them find solutions to their problems.

The same holds true for the men and women who work in your local regulatory agency. They are humans, too. They have the same inherent desire to please their customers. Sometimes their generosity gets hidden by their own shields of self defense because they get burned so often by the complainers in the lobby. By having a good attitude every time you come into contact with the agency staff, you will establish yourself as a "non-threat," and with time, they will come to see you as a favored customer. You'll begin to notice a marked difference in their efficiency, cooperation and demeanor when this happens. You may even notice your permits come out faster than your competition's permits.


S = Surveillance

Think of the regulatory agency as a large, complex machine. It receives raw materials at one end (permit application packages) and spits out a finished product (construction permits) at the other. The machine is designed to do the job every single time, eventually. Internally, the machine is very complex and there are many areas where the unfinished products can fall off the track or get held up. A good system will quickly identify anomalies and correct them when they occur, but as the applicant, you can't afford to rely on the machine by itself. You need to assist the unimpeded progression of your unfinished product by lending your eyes and ears to the process. Doing so can shave weeks off the plan review and approval time.

First, you will need to identify the locally acceptable forms of surveillance. Some jurisdictions don't mind if you call the plans examiner directly to inquire the status of your applications. Others prohibit such interaction entirely. If you find yourself in the former, call the plans examiner(s) soon after you submit your application. Identify yourself by using the permit application tracking ID you were given when you submitted the plans. Let the plans examiner know that it is your intention to give him the time he needs to do his job, and then gently inquire as to when would be the proper time to check in with him again. Let him know that you won't bother him again until the designated day. Then, mark your calendar and stick to it. In this way you'll establish a reputation for being a non-threatening, professional customer.

Next, you will want to find out if the jurisdiction has a method of checking the status of your permit applications on-line. Obtain the web address and instructions on how to use it. Check the status of your application online at your first opportunity to make sure the instructions they gave you are adequate to gain a complete understanding of the current status of your permit and to make sure that the intake personnel entered the data concerning your permit correctly. There are few things more disappointing than to wait a few weeks for a plan review and then find out your permit has gone nowhere because of a data entry mishap on the first day.

Develop a system to periodically remind yourself to review the status of your applications. Some people use a calendar or some kind of a spread sheet to track their applications. For those who are responsible for multiple projects, there is custom software available that serves up reminders and facilitates the numerous tasks involved with managing permits.

The greatest advantage to monitoring your application status regularly is two fold. First, it is true what they say about squeaky wheels getting the grease. When the agency staff knows that you are monitoring their progress regularly, your project will be "top of mind" and will receive attention more readily should an opportunity present itself. Secondly, by checking frequently, you'll get a jump on answering any of the plans examiner's concerns. If you are not checking in with them, you will have to wait for the machinery to produce a comment letter and for the U.S. Postal service to deliver it, thereby, adding precious days to the approval process.


S = Surrender

The word "surrender" connotes an element of wimpiness that builders may find hard to swallow, but as a strategic move, it serves a higher purpose. By "giving in" and giving the plans examiners what they want, you accomplish at least two things: first, you establish good will (you're a lover, not a fighter), and second, you buy time.

Remember that the government agencies that issue construction permits have all the power in the short term. As regulators, they have the same authority as police officers to enforce the laws of state and local jurisdictions. If a plans examiner perceives a violation of the code (law), he is required to make sure it is corrected before the permit can be issued. If you disagree with a particular requirement and your construction schedule is a driving factor, it may be in your best interest to surrender to the authorities and give them what they want.

Once the permit is safely in hand and construction has started, you have time to explore alternative remedies to the issues you had previously surrendered. You can consult with your architect or engineer or hire a building code consultant to develop plans for methods or materials that will comply with code. These alternatives can then be submitted as revisions to the approved plans. With careful timing, this solution will result in a design you can live with and won't disrupt the construction schedule.

Some jurisdictions offer an appeal process. Check with your plans examiner to find out what their process is, how long it takes and how much it will cost. Construction code appeals are arguments you or your consultants develop to demonstrate that a particular design, at first deemed unacceptable by the plans examiner, does in fact meet the intent of the code. It will be your burden to prove that the design delivers an equivalent degree of safety to the end-users. Those who are authorized to render judgment on construction code appeals have a broader sense of their role in the community. They understand that while their primary directive is to preserve safety, they also have a secondary responsibility to promote the economic viability of their communities. This means that they have the latitude to recognize and embrace alternative interpretations, materials or methods presented by the applicant.

Of course, with either of these "surrender" techniques, you run the risk of having your alternative plans or appeals denied, in which case you will be stuck with having to build according to the previously approved plans. Surrender only applies when obtaining your permit to maintain your construction schedule is your primary directive.

Finally, if you are not satisfied with requirements imposed and intend to continue building within the same jurisdiction, remember that new construction codes are adopted on a regular basis, usually every three years. You always have the option to engage the quasi-legislative code change process to re-write construction codes to your advantage. Each state has an association of construction officials that get together periodically to review and update the building codes. Contact a representative of these associations to obtain information on how to develop, submit and lobby for new code language. If your code language is accepted, it will be adopted into the next code version, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you corrected a problem that impacted not only your company, but the whole construction industry.

All of us want our construction permit applications to "pass" muster. To be a contented, successful, construction permit applicant, just remember, being "Prepared" establishes your reputation as a professional. Checking your "Attitude" garners favorable treatment when things could otherwise go wrong. Conducting proper "Surveillance" ensures timely correction of issues that may arise. "Surrendering" small points promotes good will and buys time to develop more appropriate solutions.  Use the four-letter acronym, P.A.S.S., the next time you need a permit, and you'll come to agree that permit is not a four-letter word.

Construction Business Owner, September 2006