Unable to conduct their building inspections, municipal building departments faced a problem at the pandemic’s beginning. Building inspectors had a backlog of inspections thanks to the COVID lockdowns and social distancing measures. So, many of them found a novel way of using technology as a solution: doing code inspections virtually. What started as a workaround during the pandemic has become a more permanent occurrence in the construction and property world. Several municipalities nationwide have continued to do virtual inspections, enabling them to get more done more efficiently, saving time and money. Virtual and remote building inspections are also helping building departments that are struggling with a lack of inspectors.
Municipalities use varying levels of technology for virtual inspections. For example, San Bernadino, California, has been offering remote inspections since 2015, using Zoom, FaceTime, and other tech to document permitting and approval processes. Some inspections are too complex for virtual, so it’s usually up to the inspector to decide whether they can pull it off remotely. During the height of the pandemic, many code inspectors would still travel to job sites to verify the permit address. Then the inspector would stay outside to maintain social distancing while the contractor walked through the building and broadcasted each area as it was surveyed.
A virtual code inspection process is usually facilitated by a contractor representative onsite. The onsite rep shows the inspector approved plans, takes simple measurements, and makes the project visible to the inspector on the other end of the connection. Some municipalities also accept photo documentation of site conditions as an alternative to video; 2D photos can be used in some instances, but video or 360-degree photos provide better context and information for code inspectors.
Incidentally, Florida made big news last year when it passed a state law that allowed authorities to conduct remote building code inspections. The Florida Building Codes Act went into effect on July 1, 2021, and requires local building code enforcement agencies to allow requests for assessments to be submitted electronically via e-mail, electronic form, or a mobile application.
Easy as Zoom calls?
While our standard video conferencing tools like Zoom, FaceTime, or Microsoft Teams can be enough to get virtual inspections done, more advanced solutions are available. Startups like VuSpex and Inspected.com provide full-fledged systems for remote inspections, with verification protocols to match a public record of issued permits. Both apps are interactive, enabling inspectors to snap still photos and download inspection content to municipality servers. Inspected.com also geolocates to an address, allowing code inspectors to work remotely at the office or home. The program doesn’t even turn on at the start of an inspection until the location is verified.
There has been a learning curve, sometimes a steep one, for non-tech savvy code inspectors using software for remote inspections. But Anthony Perera, CEO and Founder of Inspected.com, told me the software isn’t very complicated, even for older code inspectors. “If they can use FaceTime or Zoom to talk to their grandkids, they can use a video app for code inspections,” Perera said.
Typically, building officials do about 15 to 20 inspections per day, but they can do about three times that volume with a remote solution. Not having to leave home or the office means building departments save on transportation costs such as fuel, maintenance, and insurance. Various reports also point to a looming shortage of building code inspectors, so the ability to get reviews done virtually helps. Most code inspectors nationwide (85 percent) are over the age of 45, and 30 percent of inspectors plan to retire within the next five years as of 2017, according to a report by the International Code Council and National Institute of Building Sciences.
A notable endorsement
More building departments nationwide are doing virtual inspections, but not all of them. Before the pandemic, remote inspections were only available to about 4 percent of builders, according to a survey by the National Association of Home Builders. Since the pandemic started, about 20 percent of municipalities have introduced some form of virtual code inspection tech. That still leaves about 76 percent of builders who can’t get remote inspections. Delays in getting necessary inspections done at the start of the pandemic were a problem. Even though much of the residential construction work was considered an “essential industry,” social distancing and other local health measures slowed things down.
Virtual code inspections grew in popularity so much in 2020 that the International Code Council (ICC) drafted guidelines for conducting them and when they should be considered. ICC’s guidance includes an endorsement of remote code inspections, saying, “The advantages are so great that it will likely become a popular and routine tool for the foreseeable future.”
Remote inspections helped some code departments overcome their backlogs. For example, Arlington County, Virginia, launched virtual inspections in March 2020. In less than a month, Arlington inspectors completed 4,000 remote inspections. That number is only half the usual workload in that time frame, but it was enough to keep projects moving while pandemic restrictions were in place.
Before Florida’s new law got enacted, building contractors petitioned the state’s government to include virtual inspections in its state building code as far back as 2018. And in response to the pandemic, multiple cities and municipalities have established remote code inspections. Cities and counties in Arizona, California, Maryland, New Jersey, and other states allow virtual code inspections to varying degrees.
New tech, new liability concerns
Virtual building code inspections don’t come without challenges, though. Saving time and money is a significant benefit, but some builders have expressed hesitancy. “There are things you can miss in the eye of a camera that you wouldn’t miss in person,” Drew Smith, chief operating officer for Two Trails, a Florida-based sustainable building consultancy, told Professional Remodeler. Smith said checking for air leakage around doors, windows, and HVAC units is more difficult to do remotely, and those factors are vital in determining a building’s overall efficiency. For these reasons, Smith’s building consultancy is not doing virtual code inspections for the time being.
Shifting to virtual inspections may expose some liability concerns. Many building developers and contractors rely on building inspections to ensure code compliance, but that confidence is misplaced. Virtual inspections could lead to more inspector errors as they adapt to growing pains. Even if a building passes its inspection, property owners are still free to pursue construction defect and code violation lawsuits. So, that learning-curve increase in code inspections errors could leave contractors and developers more vulnerable to lawsuits.
Developers and contractors should implement quality control procedures to mitigate risks during virtual inspections, according to Anthony S. Wong of Wood, Smith, Henning & Berman LLP, a Florida-based law firm. “Software developers of specialized software or applications may also be a target for lawsuits,” Wong wrote last year. “The main inquiry will revolve around whether there was a known limitation to the software that decreased the inspector’s ability to conduct a thorough inspection.”
Virtual building code inspections picked up steam during the pandemic because of social distancing, but they look likely to become more permanent in parts of the country. The availability of virtual inspections is at the discretion of building departments, so it’ll be up to each municipality when they can be done remotely. Some building departments will pick and choose when virtual inspections are done, while others may frequently use them. The cost savings of remote inspections can be significant for cash-strapped municipalities, and the tech could also be used for employee recruitment and retention, especially at a time when there’s a growing shortage of building code officials.
The International Code Council’s seal of approval for virtual building code inspections will help advance the practice. And state laws like the one passed in Florida that allow virtual inspections could become more common. Remote inspections come with challenges, but new technologies are seizing the opportunity to improve them. It’s easy to picture remote work for white-collar workers, but maybe not so much in the construction and building code fields. That could be changing, bringing a whole new host of benefits and challenges to the property industry.