Outsourcing Code Plan Review Is Another Hidden Runaway Cost

Cities and Counties may think they’re saving money, but in the end, it’s just a shell game.

Simply put, cities and counties are no longer using in-house staff to review structural drawings, and in fact, the current trend is to outsource the architectural and public works review also. I’m a little worried that the fire departments are also going to outsource considering the success in pushing off the cost onto applicants. This severely changes the dynamic for how costs for development are distributed. The theory seems reasonable until you see how the execution is. So I can understand why so many cities adopt the method. However, it does two things that have an outrageously bad result.

1) This concept puts the power of assessing increasingly large fees in the hands of staff who have no direct responsibility to the citizen but instead answer to the city or county manager, who in result is more concerned with just cost, not reasonable enforcement, efficiency, undue burden, or prompt and timely review. This can be quite infuriating to clients because there is no redress in the system currently for these fees. Additionally, there is an inherent risk to complaining because such complaints can be associated with a project under review and possibly jeopardize a favorable review and approval of application. Thus the fox is watching the henhouse and homeowners and business owners simmer with anger and indignation, jumping through the hoops, until approval of their project. Upon completion, they walk away with the feeling that they just want to escape the whole mess and avoid further frustration of complaining. Thus the system stays in place.

2) Outsourcing code compliance has quickly turned into a serious profit industry that produces oversight concerned with generating longer and longer lists of review issues that reflect more hours of time spent by the reviewer to produce and respond to.  There are two major ways that outsource reviewers bloat review comments:

A) Revise notes, drawings and methods to reflect an interpretation of the code that differs from one reviewer to the next rather than simply based on the uniform International code and California code.

B) There is a trend that is not talked about yet exists: The effort to ‘educate’ contractors on ‘new’ code changes. This issue can be especially egregious since there is no legal method for telling a code reviewer that such a request is unreasonable or excessive. The result is that the drawings frequently have notes added only because of a pet peeve that the reviewer has or the reviewing firm feels they apparently need to expound on, none of which is predictable. These requests frequently ignore the overarching concept that the purpose of a uniform code that is adopted by all jurisdictions is that contractors are expected to know and keep up to date on the CBC, plumbing code and such regulation. That’s precisely why there is such a thing as standardized code. To then include long quotes from this code is to ask applicants to issue redundant information to contractors.

C) Reviewer will request that notes are shown in multiple places rather than using the convention ‘typical’. This is clearly a dumbing down of the business. There are conventions we use to make the drawings more efficient, clean, readable and convey the information well. Repetition of notes is overly officious and typically does not help the contractor. Architects and engineers and designers are expected to repeat comments when they deem it is necessary due to whom they are working with and the type of project.

D) Include requests for change possibly based on mistakes made by other architects, but not made on the drawings being actually reviewed (thus our response is that we do actually comply, and here is why). The reason I say this, is that I have frequently found comments that only roughly relate to my drawings and are quite obviously cut and pasted from the review of another project. It’s just plain sloppy work, which is what these companies are supposed to curtail, not demonstrate!

On top of it all, the cities and counties pass the cost of these reviewers on to the applicant. They remove themselves from the process and increase the cost and frustration of review. This in turns adds to the cost for engineers, designers and architects. There is also less accountability.

I think its time that we scale back the outsourcing and bring the costs down by having the reviewers change the motivating theory and remove peculiarities that I have listed above.

Written on July 30, 2012 and it’s still relevant. At the time I was way too angry to post this, but I realize that nothing has changed and it still needs to be said. Take a look at this article by the guys at Build LLC in Seattle.