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Coronavirus pandemic creates challenges for building departments

As we inch closer to a hurricane season, many local building departments don't have the means to conduct inspections remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

5 min read


Coronavirus pandemic creates challenges for building departments


In a world consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, it could be easy to forget that hurricane season for the Atlantic basin is just around the corner. Colorado State University researchers recently predicted this season will bring eight hurricanes, four of which will be Category 3 or higher. That spells trouble for buildings that don’t meet resilience standards.

“Those hurricanes aren’t going to stop because there’s a pandemic,” says Judy Zakreski, vice president of global services at ICC. “Having an underlying strong building code system that’s effectively enforced will allow society to focus on the pandemic while not having to worry about the effect of a hurricane.”

Every May, the International Code Council promotes an international campaign to promote building safety. The goal is to emphasize the need to adopt modern, frequently updated building codes, and help individuals, families and businesses understand what it takes to create safe and sustainable structures.

Currently, ICC is working with regulators and code developers in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to address the resilience of buildings to increasingly severe bush fires, wildfires, flooding and high-wind events. They are hoping to make progress this year on a draft of set of international resilience guidelines. The pandemic could throw a wrench in those plans, but the need for strong building codes and inspection resources is urgent, Zakreski says.

In addition to ensuring resilience, building code officials and inspectors help ensure facilities are adequate for safe handwashing and sanitary plumbing systems that mitigate the spread of contagions. And as the US construction industry continues to help convert structures to medical facilities, building officials need to be able to quickly address issues regarding air quality and structural integrity. Technological advances make it possible for building officials to conduct plan reviews virtually, but ICC says many underfunded building departments are struggling.

According to a recent ICC member survey of more than 1,100 building departments, 93% are still performing inspections but 40% do not have the capability to do electronic or remote plan reviews and 30% do not have the capability to do any aspect of electronic or remote permitting. More than 60% are unable to conduct remote inspections. Two-thirds of jurisdictions use a combination of electronic and hard copy versions of building safety codes, while only 7% of jurisdictions are using all-electronic versions. This could create challenges during situations where hard copies are shared and departments do not have enough hard copies for each remote employee that needs them, ICC says.

Without additional resources from the government, the safety of building code officials, inspectors and the general public is put at risk, says Gabe Maser, vice president of government relations and national strategy at ICC.

“If you can’t do your job virtually, that forces risky social interaction,” says Maser. He adds that the potential for a larger disruption in work, from unwell workers or delayed permitting and inspections, is a threat to the overall economy.

According to ISO/Verisk, which provides information about property and casualty insurance risk and evaluates the effectiveness of building code implementation in close to 28,000 communities across the US, communities with ratings in the top quarter are investing three times more per capita in their building departments. Communities with ratings in the bottom eighth have allocated a quarter of the national average investment per capita in their building departments and one-sixth of what the top quarter of communities are investing. ISO/Verisk says well-resourced, higher performing, departments tend to be the same departments with the most sophisticated virtual capabilities, while departments with fewer resources tend to have no or limited virtual capabilities.

For departments that can conduct inspections virtually, ICC has published a series of recommendations, starting with creating a list of project types that can be virtually inspected. For example, Los Angeles County, Calif., has identified the following as eligible for virtual inspections:

  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
  • Photovoltaic systems
  • Electrical panel changeouts
  • Water heaters
  • HVAC changeouts
  • Sewer connections
  • Temporary power poles
  • Demolitions
  • Window replacements
  • Pad footings
  • Gas lines
  • Patios/decks
  • Re-roofs.

The next step is determining which live video applications to use, such as Google Duo, Apple FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp and WebEx. Contractors should make sure devices are fully charged and notifications are turned off to ensure the best possible video inspection. ICC recommends avoiding virtual private networks, which can reduce video quality.

It’s also important to consider how the inspection and final results will be captured. ICC recommends retaining screen captures or limited video clips of essential steps in the inspection process. Some contractors are also coming up with creative solutions for this by repurposing existing tools. For example, a 360-degree camera used for progress photos came in handy for contractor DPR Construction when a pandemic shutdown in Nashville, Tenn., threatened to delay inspection of a WeWork project. DPR put the camera to work on the inspection, and the results satisfied the fire marshal.