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08.10.2012
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E-Permitting in Chicago fine-tuned as process becomes mandatory.
Screen view of Chicago's E-Plan system.
Courtesy City of Chicago

In an age when architects can video-conference with clients in China and inspect 3-D renderings on their phones, the old process for obtaining a building permit from the city of Chicago was rather old-fashioned. The city’s new “E-Plan” for electronic review became mandatory on July 2, replacing a system that required architects to schedule in-person appointments with several city departments and submit hard copies of building plans in triplicate for comment from each municipal office.

Now architects can submit plans electronically for review by multiple city departments simultaneously. The change is meant to streamline the approval process and spare designers billable hours spent waiting in line and scheduling appointments.

“Everybody complained about the archaic system,” said Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of AIA Chicago. “This was an area where a lot of our members expressed concern about the amount of red tape. This is a huge development.”

E-plan permitting has been available on a voluntary basis in Chicago since January. But for months the city required submissions to be dwf files, a format not compatible with Mac operating systems. Some architects with Apple equipment pointed out the new system could actually increase red tape for small firms by requiring them to buy PCs after July 2 or risk losing business with the city.

After soliciting feedback from the architectural community, the city announced they would accept pdf files as well, which could accommodate scans of hand drafts. Other components of the application, such as letters from contractors or letters from the Alderman, were already accepted as PDFs.

“We did reach out to hundreds of architects and got great ideas from them,” said Deputy Building Commissioner Matthew Beaudet. “There will be no disenfranchisement of any design professionals under this new system.”

Currently users have to use Internet Explorer to upload their documents, but Beaudet said Avolve, the Arizona-based software developer hired by the city to design the E-plan system, will work to expand the system’s compatibility with other web browsers. A representative from the Department of Buildings said the system will be fully Mac compatible by the end of the year.

Los Angeles embarked on a similar overhaul shortly after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Chicago’s E-plan program last fall. Houston and Miami also have electronic permit-approval processes.

“Permits are jobs. They put people to work,” Beaudet said. “Anything we can do to help us be a partner with the industry.”

But there is room for improvement, according to Burnham Nationwide’s Code Group director Christopher Chwedyk. For instance, Illinois licensing law accepts electronically produced seals, but not electronic signatures. For out-of-town firms who can’t easily drop off a hand-signed plan at city hall, he said, that could be a problem. The E-plan system also lacks an established provision for real-time web conferencing that could help architects clarify corrections noted by city officials.

“I don’t think they’re utilizing the technology to its fullest extent,” Chwedyk said. This could happen as part of the existing developer services program, which allows for third-party review of particularly large or complex projects.

The E-plan transition could be a good time to reevaluate the city’s rather idiosyncratic permitting system as a whole. Chwedyk notes that while the process may be faster now, Chicago still requires architects, not contractors, to shoulder the financial burden of the permit deposit, not to mention time spent in the application process, no minor consideration for sole proprietors or small firms.

“Everybody says we have to take small steps. It wasn’t that long ago these corrections were being done by hand, and you had to decipher handwriting,” Chwedyk said. “We’re way beyond that now.”

Christopher Bentley