Self-Certification: The Good and the Bad
In saving construction time, the lure of self-certification can often be a strong one. Bowing to industry calls for time efficiency, municipalities across the nation have begun experimenting with online submission tools to streamline the certification process, allowing for quick approval for the permit and plan review process.
Such “e-permit” capabilities are in keeping with a technology-based 21st century, and can shave months’ worth of time from design to build. However, unsavory practitioners also can misuse such applications. Availability of these streamlined options, and their tacit promise of savings in precious time, should never pose an invitation to cut corners.
Ever the leader in many areas of American life, New York City was an early proponent of such technology, its Department of Buildings launching a self-certification site in 1995. Quickly after its inception, architects and engineers availed themselves of the service, while authenticating their plans as being code-compliant. However, as with most endeavors, the initiative emerged as something of a Pandora’s Box. Without direct contact with city building officials, some users took advantage of the lax system of checks and balances inherent to the self-certification model.
One architect manipulated the data input into the system to circumvent height requirements, categorizing entire floors as mezzanines. His ruse exposed, a subsequent investigation revealed further transgressions that prompted city officials to shelve more than 50 of his projects. Digging further, city officials found that nearly 60 percent of all self-certified plans were actually out of compliance with local building codes. The city later moved to restrict repeat-offending architects from self-certification as a result of the scandal.
Why is it that in many endeavors it only takes a few rotten apples to spoil the entire crop? This is a philosophical question to be sure, but the reality highlights not only the potential for abuse, but also the real damage to reputation that results in succumbing to shortcuts.
Despite all of these transgressions, the news is not all bad, with the virtues of the electronic effort spotlighted elsewhere. Portland and Los Angeles have emerged as big self-certification practitioners with minimal disruptions due to fraud. In Hawaii, officials have inserted a third-party review to their own version as a safeguard against abuse.
For the ethical industry players, e-permit options truly make life easier in meeting crucial deadlines. Such programs allow architects to be issued permits within a week of submitting plans electronically, a process that would take months under old-school methods. As many readers of this blog are aware, these time savings are a welcome development in light of the dizzying number of city codes and ordinances to which one must adhere.
Rising from the ashes of such scandalous behavior, the city of Phoenix has emerged as another bright example of electronic self-certification done right. A February report in the Ahwatukee Foothills News cast a spotlight on the various e-certified success stories, detailing the measurable benefits to those opting for the electronic permitting route. Led by City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, the city long sought to help developers eliminate pesky red tape through self-certification options. So in 2009, the city assembled a committee to explore the idea of self-certification to allow architects to secure needed permits within one to five days of their submissions.
By all accounts, the process is a big success, free of scandal. One local businessman was quoted as saying self-certification allowed him to open his pizza shop 45 days faster than would have been accomplished with conventional methods. Another project would have taken 60 days were it not for self-certification, the newspaper reported.
In our industry, as in so many other areas of human endeavor, it’s a brave new world. With or without the simplicity and ease of technology, it’s still a jungle out there, what with deadlines and all. However, in doing the right thing, one might heed the words of Albert Camus: “A man [or woman] without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”