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Jeff Myhre: Use architects, engineers to review permits

Portland Business Journal

October 22nd 2012

For decades I've listened to complaints from people about the duration of time that it takes for the city of Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS) to issue a building permit.

Many people believe that the three- to five-months it typically takes to receive a building permit for an average medium-sized commercial, multi-family, or mixed-use building through BDS is excessive and unreasonable.

However, as with many places of employment, the workload at BDS ebbs and flows. Therefore, it is a difficult task for city leaders to balance the constantly fluctuating workload with the needs of the taxpayers to not employ BDS workers who are idle during slow times. Thus, the city maintains a smaller staff than is needed during the busy times, resulting in delays and longer building permitting durations.

What BDS really needs is an alternative permitting process that includes a labor force of experienced design professionals that could quickly and efficiently review and process building permits as a supplemental permitting process to the City's standard process.

If BDS had this type of alternative permitting process in place, it could significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to issue a building permit cod.

Ironically, this labor force already exists and is in place. It is comprised of the hundreds of registered architects and engineers here in Portland who spend their time every day designing the actual buildings for which the building permits are being sought.

These people thoroughly understand the local code requirements, including but not limited to, energy, building envelope and moisture intrusion issues, structural, accessibility, fire and life safety concerns, and the many other aspects of the building permit requirements and permit review process. They should, because as Oregon registered architects and engineers, that's specifically what they've been educated for, and licensed by the State of Oregon to understand and practice as industry experts and professionals.

Imagine if BDS implemented an alternative building permitting process, where local registered architects and engineers, who were interested in participating in a program like this, became certified consulting plans examiners to BDS.

They could be authorized by BDS on a case-by-case basis to review and approve the work of their peers and competitors within very specific timelines, for specific fees, and based on the same codes and jurisdictional requirements that all licensed professionals are required to understand, and for which they take professional and legal responsibility.

Furthermore, through this type of alternative permitting program, the registered architects and engineers performing the reviews of the Construction Document on behalf of BDS could be held liable for their work as consulting registered architects and engineers. This could add a layer of insurance and legal responsibility to the building permit approval process.

In addition, through the traditional client-consultant relationship that would inevitably be created between BDS and its consulting registered architects and engineers, the competitive free-market relationship that inspires people in the private sector to strive to exceed expectations and constantly improve would be put into place, where one does not exist today.

This does not mean that the people at BDS don't work hard or try their very best to exceed expectations. But, it's much harder to do within a government agency like BDS, where following the rules, process, and procedures is far more important than increased speed and efficiency.

With the many talented and very capable registered architects and engineers here in Portland, finding interested and well-qualified candidates for an alternative building permitting program like this should be quite easy. It's merely a question of political will to make something like this happen.

Now imagine submitting for a building permit for an average medium-sized commercial, multi-family, or mixed-use building through BDS. Instead of taking the traditional three-to-five months to receive your building permit, it takes only a matter of weeks.

That could create a minor economic stimulus for Portland, as time represents money for all real estate developers and investors. Maybe it would help encourage more outside investment in real estate in Portland.

Maybe it would help create more projects, growth, and jobs. If we care about efficiency and our local economic health, why don't we implement this kind of change?

Myhre Group Architecture is a Portland firm specializing in mixed use residential and hospitality projects.