Obtaining Permits and Certificates of Occupancy During a Pandemic

With much of the country working remotely and travel restrictions in place for many companies, obtaining permits and certificates of occupancy has posed new challenges for many of us. Just as we have been trying to adapt to working from home, local and state officials have been trying to figure out the best way to continue providing permitting, inspections, and certificates of occupancy while being remote.

Pre-pandemic, it was typically more straightforward to get ahold of municipalities to have questions answered and get permits quickly, even if they were understaffed due to funding and resourcing issues. Today, with stay-at-home orders, increased unemployment, and anxiety about the economy, decreased consumer spending, and investment has led to less local tax revenue, forcing many municipalities to make the difficult decision to further reduce staffing. This has created some difficulty when it comes to getting in touch with permitting officials. From quarantining packages to establishing new protocols for virtual meetings and inspections, municipalities have taken a wide array of approaches to overcome the new challenges posed in our current environment.

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How has getting a permit changed since the pandemic started?

“The biggest changes we’re seeing are extended timelines for plan review,” said Ariane Tattershall, SGA Design Group Principal, “and because some people are potentially working from home, we may not be able to pick up the phone and get through to them quickly.”

To keep projects on schedule, coordination with jurisdictions starts by determining how permitting timelines may have changed. To keep their staff safe, some jurisdictions that don’t accept digital plans have established quarantine periods for plans received. Other jurisdictions that, before the pandemic, required printed plans are making the transition to digital which has come with its own set of challenges. As with starting to use any new technology, there are always hiccups as people get used to the new system, so increased communication has been essential to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

As we’ve all experienced in our own offices and lives with most people working away from the office, clear communication has been crucial to keep everyone on the same page. Individual plan reviewers and Authorities Having Jurisdiction (“AHJ”) have handled this in a variety of ways, from staying on top of voicemail to utilizing video conferencing tools like Zoom and FaceTime, and even providing their personal cell phone numbers in some cases to keep everything moving efficiently.

Another change we’ve seen is a higher degree of collaboration with the general contractors. They have been more willing to help if someone needs to be present for plan reviews or to deliver documents to get permits finalized. While this isn’t a new concept, it’s been more prevalent in the current environment.

How has getting a Certificate of Occupancy changed during this time?

“Before COVID, there was a standard defined for what and when things had to happen for a Certificate of Occupancy to be issued,” said Ariane. “Now there’s a lot of additional due diligence required because everything has changed. State and local municipalities are working to figure out what to do because there wasn’t a system in place to deal with the current environment. Nothing has been business as usual, leading to more questions as we progress through this.”

Changes to state laws are being made because of COVID, affecting the way that architects perform certain Construction Administration duties like site observation. We’ve researched emergency ordinances and talked with enforcement agencies to determine current requirements and procedures. We’ve seen strategy vary widely in how each AHJ that requires site observation before issuing a Certificate of Occupancy is currently handling the requirements. Some have recognized that site observations may need to be pushed out due to travel restrictions, allowing grand openings to happen before the certificate is issued.

Some states or local municipalities still require an in-person visit by the architect, but in many cases, site observations can be done virtually. In those instances, we’re working more closely with the general contractors, having Zoom and FaceTime calls to “walk” through the project.

Another change we’ve seen is how inspections are being handled. Before the pandemic, there may have been several people on staff with the AHJ that would perform in-person inspections before grand opening. Just as with contractors and design professionals, we’re finding that many municipalities are allowing or requiring that their staff conduct inspections virtually. Due to capacity issues caused by budget cuts, many municipalities have started outsourcing inspections to third parties. In some cases, inspections are only happening on certain days or during specific times of the day. Again, increased and proactive communication is of paramount importance here to ensure timelines are not adversely affected.

What other changes have occurred because of the current situation?

While some of the changes we’ve seen are creating new and difficult challenges, others have proven to have positive results.

“The ability to digitally review, redline, and sign & seal documents no matter where I’m at has made remote work more of an option,” said Ariane. “As more and more jurisdictions accept digital plans, this will continue to add efficiency and flexibility to the permitting process.”

Owners, contractors, and design professionals are using other technology like EarthCam, OpenSpace, and OxBlue to monitor construction progress and resolve issues in real-time. The efficiencies can be real in terms of saved travel expenses, time, and results, but it can be even more important for the contractor and architect to work collaboratively than if the observation happened in-person.

With more intentional communication between all project stakeholders, stronger relationships are being forged. Hopefully, we’ve all developed a better understanding and more respect for the role each party has in obtaining permits and Certificates of Occupany. We’re all looking forward to when every building can be occupied safely at full capacity.