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Electronic Plan Review

Part 1: Advantages

I was asked in an interview one time whether a plan reviewer is a consultant or an enforcement agent. I would say both or perhaps neither. Plan review is actually supposed to be a quality control process that the government provides to protect the public from improper building designs. A plan reviewer is a quality control person.

For example, when a state reviewing agency performs plan review of fire protection sprinkler systems and fire alarm systems, it’s providing a quality control function to assure the systems are correctly designed and will operate properly in the event of a fire. In Wyoming, the State Fire Marshal’s Office employs a fire protection engineer (this author) to perform that function.

Also, the Wyoming Fire Marshal’s Office has set precedence by developing “paperless” electronic plan review. This is much more efficient than conventional plan reviewing methods and is very beneficial to owners, design firms and contractors that are constructing new buildings or remodeling existing buildings.

Electronic vs. Conventional Plan Review

Over the past 30 years or so, building designers (A/E firms and specialty design firms) have transitioned to computerized drawing known as CADD (Computer Aided Design and Drafting). The difference between the conventional drafting board and the CADD system is in the speed of it. It’s astonishing how fast a good CADD operator can produce drawings compared to hand drawing done in the old days. Today a design firm can’t compete with other such firms without CADD capability, because the speed of completing design work is so important.

However, although the days of hand drafting are gone, reviewing agencies are still implementing conventional plan review methods. This requires designers to print paper sets of drawings, calculations, catalog cuts, specifications, etc., package them up and mail them (by snail mail) to the reviewing agency. Conventional plan review can easily take 15 to 30 calendar days due to mailing time and backlog.

In contrast, with electronic plan review, documents are sent instantly as email attachments. There is no printing of documents and no time lost through postal mail service. If corrections are needed, the reviewer can call or email the designer and explain necessary changes. The designer can make the changes and immediately email the corrected documents to the reviewer. This saves valuable time for the designers and contractors.

The Importance of Time

In the private sector “time is money.” For example, suppose a citizen (owner) borrows money to build a grocery store. Every day that goes by costs principle plus interest. Obviously the store makes no money to recoup this cost until the building is built and operating. Too much time and the owner will end up excessively in debt or will go broke before the construction is complete. This puts the designers and contractors under great pressure to finish the work as fast as possible. The old conventional plan review methods slow down the process and often create a no-win situation. Often owners and contractors end up with two options: sit idle and lose money waiting on the review process or break the law by starting construction before plans have been reviewed and accepted by the reviewing agency.

Like the CADD system, the greatest advantage of electronic plan review is in the speed of it. By eliminating paper plans and postal service mailing, the time for a typical plan review goes from as much as 30 days down to one to three days.

When done properly, electronic plan review enormously improves the efficiency of the reviewing agency. This takes pressure off of the designers and contractors, saves them money and keeps them from breaking the law to survive.

Misconceptions of Electronic Plan Review

Plan reviewers that have never done electronic plan review usually think it’s too complicated to learn and operate. In fact, electronic review has exactly the opposite effect. It’s very easy to set up and greatly simplifies the review work. Also, design firms are very receptive to it, since they realize the advantages it provides them.

Another reason reviewing agencies resist electronic review is because they think it’s expensive. I use a computer work station with a 500 GB hard drive and dual screens (30-in. and 27-in. flat panel monitors). The bigger the screens and the higher the resolution the better, and you need at least 4 GB of RAM (preferably 8 GB or more). In 2006 the total hardware cost was around $10,000. As of this writing, however, computer hardware producers have come out with improved lines of work stations that are considerably less expensive. The total hardware cost has dropped to around $3,500 for a better setup than I use.

Also, there is concern about the cost of software. Good CADD software costs upwards of $4,000. However, the premier CADD software producer in the country provides an excellent plan review program as a free download from its website. So if you think the software is expensive, think again. It costs nothing.

Another concern is the expense of CADD training. It takes some education and a good deal of experience to become a proficient CADD operator. That’s not the case with the plan review software. It’s simple enough that training isn’t necessary at all. Evidently the people that developed it realized the need for review software and also realized that plan reviewers aren’t CADD operators. They had the foresight to develop a simple program specifically for that purpose. Any plan reviewer with minimal computer knowledge can easily be performing electronic review in a very short period of time.

Summary

Following is an outline of the advantages of electronic plan review:

The economics of speed: With electronic correspondence, documents are submitted and returned immediately over the internet rather than by postal mailing. There is no wasted time mailing rejected documents. Resubmittal is performed instantly. This reduces design cost and cost of delays of construction startup caused by excessive review time. Other savings include eliminating paper, postage, printing, packaging, and associated manpower costs to do all of that. This saves time and money for the design firms and the government as well.

Eliminating paper: This is a tremendous advantage to the reviewer and reviewing agency. When everything is done electronically there is no need for paper document filing cabinets, flat file cabinets, hanging files or large amounts of physical storage space. There is no need for drafting boards. Everything is accessed instantly by simply turning on your computer.

Archiving: If older archived documents need to be retrieved, there is no need to go to a warehouse and dig through paper files. When stored electronically, documents several years old can be accessed at once. Years of project files can be saved on DVDs or data storage chips and will take up less physical space than a desk drawer.

Simplicity: This is the most misunderstood part of electronic plan review. Failing to realize the simplicity of it is the reason it isn’t happening. Setting up electronic review is not only one of the easiest things I’ve ever done, it makes the review process itself tremendously simpler as well. It takes a little time and a bit of revolutionary thinking, but once in place, it very effectively simplifies the reviewer’s work. You need powerful equipment, and an effective electronic filing system, but you do not have to be a CADD operator. It takes no specialized training.

Technological advancement: Implementing electronic review puts the government reviewing agency on an advanced technical level equal to that of the design firms. That’s where it should be. This allows design firms to capitalize on the efficiency of their electronic design methods.

Diplomacy: There is another technological advancement that a lot of reviewers don’t seem to know about. It’s called the telephone. Unlike most reviewers, anytime I review a project I call and talk to the designer. In concert with the speed of electronic submittal, the telephone provides instant communication that makes the review process quicker and more amicable. A phone call is diplomatic. It expresses an element of respect toward the designer. Sending a rejection letter doesn’t. Since I respect them enough to communicate directly with them, I convey that my job is not to cause them trouble but to keep them out of trouble. This makes the designers appreciative and grateful. Because of that, I never have a problem getting them to make corrections.

Politics: Electronic plan review is something that is very beneficial for the constituents. That’s good politics. As a government plan reviewer, the constituents you deal with are owners, designers and contractors. Trust me, if you want to make them happy, electronic plan review will do it.

Conclusion As a reviewer, the greatest concern is that fire protection systems will do what they are intended to do in the event of a fire. In the interest of life safety and property conservation, the government has a responsibility to protect the public by assuring that fire protection systems meet proper standards and are correctly engineered. The government also has a responsibility to assure those efforts are not a hindrance to prosperity.

The private sector lives and dies on the premise of free enterprise and competition. If a business or industry in the private sector refuses to embrace new technologies that improve efficiency, they will quickly be left behind by those that do. The government lives off of taxation and has no competition. But state agencies are supposed to be working for the constituents and enterprises that generate and pay taxes, not the other way around. Those of us who work in the government must not lose sight of the private sector’s ingenuity that moves this country forward.

It is well proven that computer technology has given us the ability to do things tremendously quicker and more efficiently. Whether you like it or not, this is the computer age. Electronic review is not the wave of the future. It’s already here. No question about it.

The advantages of electronic plan review are indisputable. All that’s left is to just start doing it.

my pic2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: At present Bruce Erkiletian is the Senior Fire Protection Engineer for the Wyoming State Fire Marshal’s Office. He created (and personally implements) electronic plan review of design documents for fire protection sprinkler systems, special hazard systems and fire alarm systems. Erkiletian is a graduate of the University of Missouri – Rolla (Missouri University of Science and Technology) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. He is a registered professional engineer in the fire protection discipline in Missouri and Wyoming through the National Council of Engineering Examiners and is past president of the St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He entered the fire protection profession in 1977 with Factory Mutual Engineering (now known as FM Global) as an industrial field investigator and plan reviewer and was trained in Fire Protection Engineering at the Factory Mutual Research Center in Norwood, Massachusetts. He entered the engineering design field in 1980 and has designed virtually all types of fire protection and fire suppression systems for government, industrial and commercial facilities

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 2 of this article will appear in a future issue of Sprinkler Age.

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