Articles Managing in the Complex Built Environment

by Christine Becker

This article was published in the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) PM Magazine in October 2011.   

Today’s commitment to sustainability and energy efficiency in the built environment is placing increased demands on the local government departments that oversee new construction and renovation of existing buildings. Energy conservation codes, green building codes, stretch codes, smart rehab codes, and LEED rating systems, for example, require broad technical expertise to ensure code-compliant, safe, and energy-efficient construction that also meets economic development goals.

The development of the International Energy Conservation Code and the International Green Construction Code provide model language for state and local codes designed to ensure safe, energy-efficient, and sustainable construction. They also create a need for education and information as well as new approaches to local enforcement that link traditional building codes with the priorities of energy efficiency and green construction practices

Among the challenges local government managers face in the increasingly complex built environment are:

  • Ensuring that the building regulatory system promotes, supports, and sustains economic development while incorporating sustainability and energy efficiency goals.
  • Keeping policymakers informed about and engaged in emerging code options and requirements, including understanding the difference between legally binding codes and voluntary rating systems.
  • Ensuring that staff know about all the technical dimensions of code enforcement, energy efficiency, building system performance, and building safety.
  • Creating an organizational infrastructure that maximizes collaboration among the various departments involved in all phases of construction, from initial concept through certificate of occupancy.
  • Training staff to be partners, problem solvers, and advisers to the public and the construction and development community while still ensuring compliance with all municipal codes.

The building boom of the early 2000s led many local governments to streamline their building and code enforcement operations to keep up with service demands. As goals and expectations for construction and renovation change, it is important for local government managers to assess the mission, philosophy, structure, and culture of the departments that support construction and renovation to ensure that they are ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

This article highlights strategies that local governments have used to improve building services operations and staff performance in recent years. These practices can be effective in dealing with today’s changing environment.

Maximizing Building and Economic Development Success 

In Carrollton, Texas, a reorganized division, Development Services, combines building inspection, planning, and transit-oriented development around the mission of managing the ebbs and flows of the building process has become one of the city’s biggest challenges “Today, we are competing for every development so you need to set yourself apart from the competition in order to be successful,” said Carrollton City Manager Leonard Martin. “You can’t go out and recruit new development and then have them tied up for a year in a traditional siloed organization.”

Carrollton’s director of Development Services, Ravi Shah, believes that centralization of regulatory functions into a faster, friendlier, and flatter department is essential in today’s tough economy “where governmental efficiency is measured by the ability of its regulatory departments to innovate and function cohesively as a single unit.”

In addition to structural changes, Carrollton emphasized these new performance expectations:

  • Making sure all staff members are aware of the city’s economic development vision and plans.
  • Assigning one point of contact—a project champion—to provide coordinated responses and ensure timely completion.
  • Using checklists to define roles and responsibilities among departments and establish an institutional memory for every project even when various staff members are involved.
  • Taking city hall to the client whenever possible, such as providing on-site plan reviews.
  • Promoting an orchestrated permitting process that maximizes collaboration, consistency, and efficiency.

Carrollton advertises its permitting efficiency as one of the top five reasons to locate in the city. It guarantees a turnaround of 10 days or less on building permits, including review of all codes and ordinances related to private development and associated public infrastructure.

“Predictability and consistency are essential to producing safe and sustainable building projects,” Martin added. “The building official’s primary job is to promote development within the code, not hinder development.”

Fast, Predictable 

Bellevue, Washington, reorganized its building and development operations to keep up with a massive construction boom in the early 2000s. City Manager Steve Sarkozy said the effort was designed both to ensure that code compliance services supported economic development and to change the mind-set of building staff from regulators to partners with the development community.

The city used three guiding principles—quick response time, predictability, and seamless and collaborative processes that presented “one city”—to shape its new operation, and it established performance metrics for all departments involved in construction on the basis of these three principles. Those metrics emphasize that city staff work closely with developers in order to encourage, not squelch, successful development.

During Bellevue’s construction boom, a 900,000-square-foot, $1 billion retail, residential, hotel, and office complex requested on-site inspection and approval within 20 minutes of request. “As long as the developer is willing to pay for that level of service, the city must be prepared to respond,” Sarkozy said.

With a significant drop in new construction in recent years, Sarkozy said that managing the ebbs and flows of the building process has become one of the city’s biggest challenges. Because building development services are designed to be self-supporting through fees, slow building periods create financial challenges in maintaining top-quality staff who understand and are committed to the city’s development philosophy.

“It is important to put enough money aside during the boom times to retain the best building and development staff during the ebbs,” Sarkozy said. “The economic climate will change, and the city has to be ready to deal with the next boom and changing development expectations.”

Problem Solvers and Trusted Advisors 

As the regulatory environment becomes more complex, building officials need to see themselves as problem solvers and trusted advisers more than enforcers. The new role of facilitator requires a different set of skills, a different mind-set, and constant reinforcement:

  • Ensure that staff members are well schooled in all required codes, advisory standards, and energy rating systems.
  • Provide training on how to work effectively with developers as partners and customers; focus particularly on listening and problem-solving skills.
  • Work with builders and developers to incorporate codes into their plans from the outset to eliminate potential violations before they occur.
  • Emphasize collaboration as the local government’s approach to managing the built environment.
  • Reward employees for solving problems rather than issuing citations.

“It requires a long-term philosophy that balances protecting the city from risk and liability while facilitating efficient development,” said Ed Daley, city manager of Hopewell, Virginia. “Code enforcement can be both a public protector and a facilitator of economic development—but that is a cultural change for many building officials.”

Technology Improves Operations 

Technology and e-government services support efficiency and effectiveness in the built environment, particularly as new codes and rating systems broaden development requirements and expand the breadth of inspection and review processes. A pilot project in “smart permitting” in California’s Silicon Valley in the late 1990s focused on linking technology, standardized regional processes, and well-trained employees.

Launched on the front end of the e-government movement, the project emphasized “smart technologies, smart people, and smart process.” It also predicted that regional collaboration—several local governments working together to achieve a common goal—would be the foundation of smart permitting and efficient building department operations in the future.1

Regional collaboration is an important component of the e-government alliance among 11 cities and one county in the Puget Sound region. The alliance provides a selection of portals for cross-jurisdictional service delivery, including Sarkozy said standardization of processes among the participating jurisdictions has produced a good business climate for contractors and suppliers.

“The alliance has helped the region attract and nurture a lot of really good contractors because they can get work done more efficiently here,” Sarkozy said. “It has also helped a group of suburbs provide a sophisticated level of building services that they couldn’t do on their own. And that is particularly important in today’s environment.”

Continued advancements in technology are essential to ensuring responsive and effective local building and development services. Technology-based field inspection tools, for example, accelerate development decisions, support problem solving, and promote consistency in carrying out inspections. The field inspection technology of the Institute for Building Technology and Safety makes use of a handheld tablet with a Windows-based inspection system to provide efficient data collection and management.

Forms on the tablet are pre-populated with applicant information, site data, and digital photos to eliminate guesswork. Objective questions, inspection guides, checklists, and decision trees facilitate on-site action and transmit inspection results in real time for immediate processing, eliminating the need for dual entry of inspection data or written follow-up reports.

Challenges Ahead   

The commitment to sustainability and environmentally responsible building practices will continue to broaden the expectations of local departments responsible for supporting economic development and ensuring code compliance. Building officials play an important role in enhancing safety, welfare, and quality of life by enforcing sound building practices, and they are also part of a much larger context dealing with the community’s long-term economic, social, and environmental health. Building services in today’s environment cannot be viewed as a technical responsibility best handled entirely by technical staff.

Important components of a successful approach to development services include:

  • An up-to-date and flexible organization structure that supports broad policy goals around economic development, green building practices, energy conservation, and sustainability.
  • The most current technology solutions to support efficient day-to-day operations and data management.
  • Standardization of processes and code requirements across jurisdictions whenever possible.
  • Well-trained and committed staff who understand the technical requirements of the built environment, the organization’s vision for sustainable development, and the important role they play as strategic partners with the development community.
For more information about the building environment, please contact Paul Hancher at 703-481-2009.

1 Liza Lowery et al., Smart Permit: A Blueprint for Success (Alexandria, Va.: Public Technology, Inc.; San Jose, Calif.: Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, 2001), pp. 13–15, 77–80.

Christine Becker is an association liaison for the Institute for Building Technology and Safety an ICMA Executive Level Strategic Partner.  Christine works and lives in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. 


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