With staff working from home, accepting applications online and using apps for visual inspections, there is something of a perfect storm happening right now in council offices right around the country.
The cliché of paper-intensive, overly-bureaucratic council processes is being smashed as more agile and digitally enabled systems are proving their worth during the Covid-19 Lockdown. The councils that have made the tech investment in recent years continuing most processes online, despite the physical-distancing limitations.
“Honestly, I'm not sure where we'd be without that,” says Ian McCormick of Auckland Council.
“We're still able to work effectively now on our digital channel, pretty much as we'd be doing if we were in the office.
“Obviously there were a few challenges getting the system optimized to have the entire workforce working from home, but for example, even over the weekend they managed to get 30 consents out. That's really, really good,” he said.
Auckland is one of the trailblazing councils that made the digital leap a few years ago and that continues to set the pace in use of apps and video for resource consents and building consents.
McCormick says the public has gravitated to the Auckland Council digital channel for applications and consents, rather than using the old hard-copy channel.
“I think there was probably an 80/20% split, before we entered Lockdown. The good thing about this time, if there's anything good about it, is that we're probably going to end up with almost 100 per cent of the industry on that digital channel when we come out of Lockdown,” he says.
Shifting the paperwork online streamlines the process for all parties, but the real advantages come if the project can be inspected and recorded online, saving the need for an inspector to leave their desk at all.
Auckland Council worked closely with BRANZ on an application called Artisan - a quality assurance tool for residential builders. It supports builders to better manage the quality of work on their own site, so there's less need to rely on building inspectors to do that. They also use ZYTE, a software that share camera and video feeds to assist remote inspections.
Two months before the lockdown, Auckland Council trained all of their building inspectors to do digital inspections. They also provided training to high volume industry participants so they understood how to use Artisan and also use the ZYTE application, so that they could use these tools to perform remote inspections.
A similar tool, Conqa is used for managing quality assurance processes and audits of commercial projects and modular works in factories offshore. Over the last two years with the rise in use of prefabrication, Council staff have been required to visit manufacturing plants in China, Asia, and greater Asia, confirming prototypes are as per the plans being submitted for approval.
“Effectively, I was having a staff member offshore every six weeks in one place or another,” says McCormick.
“It was really disruptive and let's face it, it's hardly a holiday. They end up going for three days to somewhere like Mongolia. I think one of the trips there was a minus 25 degrees. It's tough, and people aren't keen to do it. The idea of being able to do some of those visits by using these remote tools, is pretty exciting. We've done that once, and it seemed to work quite well.
“Those manufacturing plants are currently shut down now as a result of lockdowns in their own respective countries. But once they start up again, I would imagine that we'll be using that technology very heavily,” Ian said.
The Lockdown hasn’t meant Council inspectors have had nothing to do, however. The team has continued to provide physical inspections of construction projects that meet the Government definition of essential services, including hospitals planned to provide more beds for Covid-19.
McCormick says that the team has taken great pride from continuing to serve during the Lockdown.
“We've always had that philosophy that it is our job to enable development in Auckland, so that's been our catch cry.
“I have three arms to my focus, the first is around ensuring that my people get through the lockdown in the best possible shape. And second is to enable our industry and the community over this period across our digital channels. And finally, when we come out of this Lockdown, to ensure that we hit the ground running so we can support all of those construction projects that will kick off again.
“We're just going to make sure we're not a handbrake to that and we can cope with what I imagine could be quite a heavy construction industry acceleration, as soon as we come out of lockdown,” he said.
Wellington was very busy with construction and infrastructure projects prior to Covid-19. So, when Level 4 was enacted, Wellington Council rapidly moved its planning, consenting and compliance teams to work from home.
They’re continuing to process resource consent and building consent applications via the Council’s existing IT networks but are also using the likes of Teams, Zoom and Skype, where necessary, to communicate with applicants, architects, engineers and other relevant parties.
As far as resource consents are concerned, City Consenting and Compliance Manager, Mark Pattemore reported that they are still accepting and processing applications, “although they’re not flying through the floor, more like trickling”, he said.
"The only impediment we have is the inability to currently undertake site visits and so the team are making decisions on whether they can continue to process on a case-by-case basis.
“We are still having meetings via Teams or Zoom. Last week we also had an objection hearing via Teams,” he said.
Pattemore said at the time of interview, the team had processed 40 building consents over the previous four days (averaging 10 per day). Of those, 15 were for commercial consents, so averaging an approx. 60:40 Residential/Commercial split - about average with their pre Covid-19 ratio.
“Our officers are still reviewing information and documentation sent in by builders and developers to close off outstanding inspection items on a daily basis.
"And in special cases, officers are available to assess and attend essential service inspections or respond to building or plumbing related complaints or incidents where health and safety could be an issue. The Council has undertaken 3-4 of these essential inspections since Lockdown."
Code Compliance Certificates (CCC) also continue to be processed where inspections have been completed prior to Covid-19 lock down or for essential service work. Approximately 30 CCCs were issued in the last week also.
Does the Wellington team believe that changes made now are temporary, or do they herald changes to the way we do consenting into the future?
“Like all other councils and other organisations, we’ll be watching and analysing our temporary work changes closely – and seriously considering how we can take permanent advantage of the success stories. This particularly relates to ‘remote’ work,” Pattemore said. Virtual inspections aren’t yet on the radar.
And the Wellington team are confident they can cope with the aftermath of the lockdown.
“It is not yet clear whether there will be a construction ‘surge’ – we believe the sector will take some months to get back to pre-lockdown activity levels given that there were capacity issues beforehand and there may, for example, be delays in the production and delivery of materials,” he said.
In Christchurch, Robert Wright, Head of Buildings Consenting for Christchurch City Council says that skills learned during the earthquakes assisted their team to move to remote management of consents and inspections during the level four Lockdown.
“I think there's a direct correlation here to how we had to learn to work after the earthquake. This is the first time it's been tested with everyone out of the building. And I'm pleased to say that to date it seems to be coping pretty well,” says Wright.
Wright says he’s learned from discussion with Metro colleagues (Metro councils are larger councils throughout the country), some of them had only had 50% of their processing staff up and operating, so he’s pleased to be operating at near optimum.
“I'm just absolutely stoked at how our crew are able to focus on looking after each other and looking after the customer. We've had some real positive feedback, that people are getting great service. So, who wouldn't be happy to hear that?” he says.
While the emphasis for some may have moved to technology solutions, the Christchurch team still starts each project with a system called ‘Phone First’.
“We try and ensure that we're having voice-coms with people wherever possible, rather than purely by email. It's a process that we've had in place for a couple of years now, and we get great feedback from that.”
But then, like in Auckland, the technology assistance kicks in.
“We have converted our pre-application meeting process - this is when the design team want to come in and discuss their plans with the planning staff, the building staff, and the Council - that is now available through Skype,” Wright says.
“And when a person is processing a building application, they can share what they’re seeing on screen with the caller. That’s another Skype function.
“The Council has also been doing some virtual inspections through a provider, Goget, for log burner consents for example.
And also for critical sites like the hospital that have had clearance to do work through the Lockdown, the Council has utilised virtual inspections for those as well.
“One project that hasn’t stopped is the hospital. We’ve got a team of people working on that project and they’ve just continued to work together remotely. Rather than having face to face meetings, they’re having Skype meetings. Fortunately that job is far enough through that the work they need approved is pretty easy to do via virtual inspection. And also, they’ve got their full construction crew available on site, so that hasn’t proved to be too much of a challenge given the amount of skin in the game and knowledge we’ve already got about that job.”
Wright says that prior to the Covid-19 crisis, the Christchurch team had been looking at how Auckland is utilising virtual inspection technology, with apps like Artisan and Zyte and expects there will be more developments in that space soon.
So, is working remotely going to become a natural part of their business going forward?
“I can’t see why people won’t demand of us that we use virtual inspections for more of the simple work in future – that’s not an unreasonable expectation now. There certainly needs to be some change at National level on how we deal with things across the country – the Government has made some really rapid improvements and changes to the system in this lockdown and people are going to have an expectation that can happen in normal times too.”
So, are the Councils expecting a mad rush of applications and requests for inspections soon after the lockdown is lifted? Or will it be more of a gradual return?
Wright says that he anticipates differences between the two main parts to the sector: the residential and the commercial.
"I think that a lot of our residential builders will be using the Lockdown time to get fairly well organized. So I'm expecting to see a bit of a spike on inspection requests probably after the first seven days because they'll be back on those sites. I'm pretty confident we've got the capacity to deal with that.
“In the commercial projects already under way, we'll probably be in a similar situation in terms of taking stock of what are they needing. The design community is possibly a little bit different. What I'm hearing from there is a lot of the projects in the pipeline may not come out of the pipeline.”
Wright says that some of those gaps might be filled by Government looking to accelerate what they classify as ‘shovel ready’ projects.
“I'm expecting to see quite a bit of focus on that and perhaps a bit of a migration from the construction sector to above ground to those sort of projects,” Wright says.
“So our focus is to be there to support the construction sector as much as we can. And also keeping the intel lines open with our stakeholders, so we get a gauge of what we need to plan for.
“And the planning needs to be really agile to fully comprehend the shift in the way we'll do our work in future,” Wright said.