Building Department Review and Inspection

Reducing the Uncertainty and Increasing the Efficiency
SPUR Report
March 1, 1999

This report is the fourth in a series of SPUR reports on ways to increase the supply of housing in the San Francisco. The others are: "The Central Waterfront – One SPUR Answer to San Francisco's Housing Crisis" (March, 1998, Report 361); "Zoning for More Housing – Proposed Changes to San Francisco 's Planning Code and Zoning Map" (April, 1998 Report 362); and "Reducing Housing Costs by Rethinking Parking Requirements" (November/December 1998, Report 369).

In 1995, the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection (DBI) was created by a citizen initiative which changed the city charter. It split the (then) Bureau of Building Inspection (BBI) away from its parent, the Department of Public Works and provided a new Building Inspection Commission (BIC) to oversee the DBI's operation, establish department policy and goals, and hear appeals with regard to certain department actions.

The creation of the Commission has give the public a forum to discuss concerns and to bring questions which it has not been able to resolve with the staff. In addition, the BIC has moved toward becoming an effective body composed of citizens, most of whom are required to be experienced in one way or another with the design and building process, to which the public may appeal department decisions. In fact, notwithstanding the opposition of SPUR to the original passage of Prop G in 1995, which created the BIC and the DBI, this change in the way San Francisco governs itself has improved the access the people of San Francisco can have to the inner workings of the DBI and removed the impression of impenetrability that hung over the former bureau.

The new DBI is charged with maintaining the public safety in all structures within the City and County of San Francisco (including City buildings, but not federal, state or port buildings). The vehicles provided it to accomplish this task are the building codes (including the regular and historical building codes as well as the plumbing, mechanical, electrical and housing codes (the health and fire codes are enforced by the Health and Fire Departments). DBI staff is responsible for, among other things, review of submitted applications for permits to verify that they propose to conform to all applicable codes (known as plan review) and then to visit construction sites to assure that the actual construction also meets public safety requirements (known as field inspection). These are separate and supplementary processes from the City Planning Department review (which is supposed to assure conformance with the San Francisco General Plan and the Planning Code). DBI review is seen as a service to the public as a whole, as well as to the applicants. Needless to say, the amount of information needed to construct or rehabilitate a building, or to assure the public safety in its construction is very often staggering. Because of the sheer volume of construction under way at any time in San Francisco, even during an economic slump let alone a hot economy like today's, the Department has a lot of people who must work with these codes. Not surprisingly, it is human nature for each to bring his/her own code interpretations to the review of each application for a permit or field inspection.

Today's robust economy presents the DBI a special test of its capabilities. As of today, it is shorthanded and overburdened due to inadequate staff for the actual caseload.

During 1996-1997, DBI: issued 51,000 construction permits, approved 88% of construction permits in one day or less, performed 118,000 inspections and responded to 92% of inspection requests within 48 hours. When discussing interaction with the DBI, as well as the other agencies which review building applications for life safety and construction standards, the issues which most often arise among the department's clients are time loss and a lack of clarity in the application of the appropriate codes and regulations. As a result, in addition to the specific changes recommended by SPUR in the Housing Task Force's first three recent reports, there is a need to clarify building requirements and develop better communication between City technical regulatory agencies (Department of Building Inspection, Fire Department [FD], Department of Public Works [DPW], etc.) and each other, as well as with the design and building communities.

Delays in the issuing of permits and delays caused by conflicting interpretations of building codes are costly to both the builders of San Francisco's sorely needed housing as well as to it occupants. The issues cited manifest themselves during both the plan review phase and the construction phase of building. During the plan review stage, delays are caused by waiting for plans to be approved. At the end of construction, occupancy can be held up because of field changes by City Departments due to lengthy final check of revisions. The crucial point to keep in mind is that unnecessary delays in the approval and construction process add to both the cost and scarcity of housing in San Francisco. In addition, the lack of clarity in code enforcement has led to a perception of both unfairness and confusion within the subject departments, requiring the services of private expeditors to obtain what seems to be the simplest of permits.

We propose a number of specific and easily implemented changes for both plan review and field inspection to address these concerns. SPUR's recommendations are either already used by Building, Public Works and Fire Departments in other cities or are suggested by many years of experience working in San Francisco.

Problem 1

Applications for building permits are not always filed completely or correctly by the applicant, resulting in delays in submittal and processing a permit. The building department could aid the applicant by providing specific and timely information to the public prior to application. Example: A building owner (or designer), unfamiliar with the application procedures, is required to return repeatedly, simply to submit his/her application.

Solution: Publish and maintain an up-to-date permit processing booklet. Distribute it in hard copy, on the web and/or as a computer disk. The information contained should describe how to apply for a building permit according to the type and size of project being proposed (new construction, alteration, wood frame, fire rated, etc.), as well as the application review procedure desired (standard permit, site permit, One Stop Approval, Office/Tenant Commercial, etc.).

The booklet should also provide tips on how to complete applications and how to track the progress of a permit, listing typical causes for delay, such as the kinds of information most often missing from the applications and construction documents. The information must be updated, as required to maintain its currency and effectiveness.

Problem 2

Applications for permits are submitted without all the necessary supporting documents, causing delays in the approval process.

Example: An applicant submits all the information he/she believes is needed to communicate what the applicant wants to accomplish, neglecting to include information on unrelated code requirements triggered by the proposed work, such as accessibility or seismic improvements.

Solution: Publish and maintain, as hard copy and on the web, a standard format typical title sheet and an application checklist. The sheet(s) should include a checklist of items required to be included in the permit application and supporting documents. The City of Seattle does this and finds it assists its Building Department as much as it helps the permit applicant.

The checklist could be generated by DBI from recurring items showing up on "Correction Notices" issued by plan checkers for permit documents and field inspectors for construction work. The list should be available to DBI plan checkers and aggressively distributed to architects, builders and other applicants.

Problem 3

Departments and individuals within each Department staff are inconsistent in the application of the appropriate codes to permit applications. This leads to confusion on the part of the public as it interacts with the related departments.

Example: An application is approved by the DBI and the FD without fire sprinklers. The contractor is told some months into the remodeling project by the FD field inspector that sprinklers will be required and the project will not be "signed off" without them, adding unanticipated time and cost to the project.

Solution: Publish and maintain an up-to-date Plan Checking Handbook which is used to assist plan checkers-and, when published, designers-in developing and understanding a consistent and legal basis for interpretation of the codes. Train staff in code interpretation and code changes as they occur over time.

Problem 4

When building changes are made during construction, waiting for review and approval of the changes puts construction on hold and, as a result, can greatly increase the cost of the project.

Example: Through no fault of the project team, an existing condition (perhaps, a pocket of soil with unusually poor bearing capacity) is found on site which requires redesign of the project (in this case, the structural system). Depending on the size of the project or change, it may have to go on hold until the DBI reviews the new design and approves it through the normal process. Sometimes the DBI can speed up the review process, but there is no clear and dependable system for doing so. Again, the services of a private expeditor are often seen as essential, but not always successful.

Solution: Create an instant plan review process paid for by fees for its use. This review would be available only for projects under construction or for which permits have been granted and time is of the essence. Ordinary DBI processing of proposed construction revisions would remain available at the normal fee. The delays that occur once construction has begun can be the most costly part of construction overruns. Most builders would find the extra fee far preferable to the cost of losing construction time.

Problem 5

DBI field inspectors can approve certain construction changes on site during the process. However, when a sizable, or even a modest change requires documents reflecting the field approved changes to be resubmitted for review, the plan checkers do not always honor these field decisions, sometimes denying approval of them. The resulting flurry of confusion and meetings causes significant delays and increases costs.

Solution: Develop stronger coordination between DBI field inspectors and plan checkers. If a DBI Field Inspector gives written approval for construction changes, those changes should be accepted by DBI plan checkers during review of subsequent construction changes. Frequently, approval is given in the field, but denied by the subsequent plan check of the revised drawings. This can cause major delays and increased costs.

Problem 6

Permit approval can be a lengthy process even when most efficiently handled. The delays are aggravated when an application waits weeks to be reviewed. There is a need for more personnel to respond to permit applications more quickly and cost effectively.

Example: Projects are typically reviewed in series. Each time a project is completed at one station, it is put at the bottom of the in-box at the next station. Plan checkers take vacations and projects sit and wait. Project sponsors are subject to numerous waits for approval as a result.

Solution: Investigate "outsourcing" plan review services when the workload requires it. Analyze the effect that outsourcing plan review services would have on the responsiveness of the review process. Research the effect that private permit expediters have on the plan review process. Examine the following questions:

Has it become normal for project sponsors hiring private expediters to receive preferential treatment?

If private permit expediters have become necessary because DBI is overworked wouldn't it be better for everyone if permit fees were increased enough to allow for faster processing?

Conclusion

Designers, contractors, building professionals and the related City Departments are, in effect, the co-creators of San Francisco's built environment. A dialogue that addresses the regulatory process, making it smoother and more efficient, is essential to decrease the cost of housing production and would contribute greatly to both the supply and the affordability of housing in San Francisco. The approving departments must recognize the often immense economic and social costs related to time and must all come to see themselves as a part of the City's overall responsibility to assure these basic needs in order to maintain an appropriate quality of life for the people of San Francisco. Although it is important to recognize the responsibility of the FD to protect the citizens of San Francisco, ways need to be found to minimize their discretionary requirements initially imposed during the construction phase. The later in the process that changes have to be made, the more costly those changes are to both the builders and the community.

The DPW needs to recognize that time is money, both for itself and for the public, and the time it takes to review their part of a project application is a significant element in the cost of housing. The SPUR Housing Production Task Force has assembled a team with expertise in all areas of design and construction. The knowledge and experience of this team could be of great use in helping create timely responses to issues which arise during project approval and construction. We propose that a continuing dialogue be developed between DBI policy makers and the SPUR Housing Task Force in order to create guidelines for promoting such timely responses. Any dialogues that exist between the DBI, the FD and the DPW regarding how better to serve the public should be intensified. We wish to begin dialogues between the FD Plan Checking Division, the DPW Bureau of Streets and Sidewalks and the SPUR Housing Task Force on how to make more helpful decisions on fire protection and off-site construction features during the design and approval phase instead of waiting until the construction phase.Spur logo

This report was drafted by the SPUR Housing Committee, co-chaired by Oz Erickson and Tom Jones. The principal authors were Bob Herman, Roberta Swan, and Bruce Bonnacker. The report was debated, refined and passed by the SPUR Board, with the direction that it be reviewed with the President of the Building Inspection Commission, Bobbie Sue Hood. That was completed and adjustments made within the guidelines established by the SPUR Board. It represents the official policy of SPUR.

About the Authors: 

SPUR Housing Committee