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Constructing a more automated future for building control inspections

(Image credit: Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock)

With 2020 a tipping point for the digitalization of building control and other crucial infrastructure services, we’re seeing many organizations look to cloud technologies as a way to maintain service delivery whilst managing risk. Local councils, public sector organizations, builders, and those working in the construction industry are having to find ways of adapting and operating in a whole new way. To accommodate restrictions on usual activity and follow rules like social distancing.

Under the Government coronavirus guidelines, building control bodies are being urged to continue checking any building work that’s being carried out, which is understandable as not doing so could have dire consequences. The Ministry for Housing, Local Government and Communities (MHCLG) said in an update on the application of Building Regulations that:

“Building Control Bodies may wish to consider the use of alternative methods of checking compliance to supplement physical inspections, for example using digital photographs and video or other remote means of checking compliance.”  

Although most building control inspectors are most probably used to travelling around sites, meeting people face-to-face and making decisions on the ground, lots of these processes are out of the question for the time being. Instead, building control services need to figure out a way to address these new challenges, providing solutions for the short-term but more importantly looking at how they can drive decision-making and value in the future. It’s important for everyone from every sector to consider where we go from here, thinking about how any changes we make can be maintained in the months and maybe years to come.

Flexible hours of operation and inspection requests

As part of the Government's bid to restart the economy, we’re seeing building sites with longer hours of operation. Local authorities can now permit requests for longer site opening times, allowing for more flexible working to help builders maintain social distancing measures.

This is a great example of a practice which is ready for digitalization. It’s an opportunity to aid the recovery of the sector, something that we’ve already taken up, by providing fully automated application forms to help planners, site managers and local authorities to manage this process.

Automating the whole application process and using online forms can help local authorities to record decisions and issue permits, quickly and simply. It mirrors the digitization already happening for planning applications and no major delays have been reported during the last few months – with applications still being decided within the permitted time frame in many cases. It’s never been as important to deploy these solutions quickly, and I think this new prioritization of speed is something we’ll see carrying on well into the future, as well as increased take-up of automated processes.

Moving inspection forms online, removes the need for someone in an office to search for the case and update the record. It also saves the builder from having to wait until the day of the inspection to try and ring the service, hope that they can get through, and find out whether the permit has been granted. By eliminating the time-consuming application processes, sites will be able to take advantage of the new opening hours at a faster pace.

Digital compliance

Inspection requests aren’t the only area of building control that can benefit from automation. As the MHCLG guidance suggests, we’re also seeing changes to the way physical inspections are being carried out and cloud-based build control applications have a part to play here too. Here’s how it could work:

Where a physical visit is not required and may be substituted with photos or videos, an instructional email may be sent to the relevant party.   This may include the requirement of what to capture, for example, ‘padstones under an RSJ’.  The builder then replies to the email and these are directly updated into the correct area of the solution. Removing the need to download, upload and index images.

While it might not sound like much, automating a new process at the point of inception gives far more adoption to change than putting in a workaround to an already busy department. Cloud-based applications are well placed to give local authority building control services an effective way to manage operations. Not only does this approach join up processes but it also means that data is secure and accessible to staff and citizens when they need it.

Simply put, people want to know what’s going on. This is a good way of bringing information together and giving local authorities greater transparency and control of sites and cases. This sort of digitization has already been taken up in places like Anglesey, where software has recently been implemented that allows the building control team to communicate electronically with citizens and stakeholders, and manage inspection dates in one place. Research and reporting has become easier with the elimination of paper trails, and using the cloud means that working remotely during the pandemic has been painless.

Final thoughts

The digitization of building control is part of the wider transformation taking place across the bricks and mortar industry, and it greatly benefits councils and the public sector at large. If there is one thing the last few months have shown us – it’s now or never. Those who were already running cloud-based applications and automating applications have been better equipped to respond to the restrictions that have been applied.

Automating building control gives organizations an extra layer of resilience. With details of inspections, decisions and notes all in one place, the technology can help local authorities to stay on top of building regulation applications and other building control queries now and in the future.

Robin Barber, Product Owner of Built Environment, Arcus Global

Robin Barber is Product Owner of Built Environment at cloud services provider Arcus Global.