Chris Gash

They’re not quite singing “Kumbaya,” but some remodelers and permitting officials in the Chicago area have a new sense of mutual understanding and respect, resulting in faster issuing of building permits and more productive relationships between the private and public sectors.

The thaw commenced a year or so ago. Frustrated by permitting delays — a situation that remodelers in many parts of the country say worsened during the economic downturn — several builders’ groups invited local building officials to a series of lunch meetings.

“They welcomed us with open arms,” says Daryl Kemp of Blackberry Builders, in Elburn, Ill. By providing a neutral forum for a straightforward airing of concerns, both groups identified clogs in the system and agreed that each stood to benefit by eliminating them.

“We just didn’t understand their process, and they didn’t understand ours,” Kemp says. Besides unlocking paperwork mysteries, the two contingents found they could serve as sounding boards for emerging issues, such as incorporating new energy-efficiency codes into the permitting process. And, “now we’re not strangers when we walk into building departments,” he says. “They know we’re professionals” who want to work with the rules, not slip by them.

Finding Common Ground

The meetings in Illinois could “absolutely transfer elsewhere,” Kemp says. Between the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead paint rule and building code developments, such as those involving carbon dioxide detectors and sprinklers, government and remodeling are becoming increasingly intertwined. Better to reach out and seek common ground, some say, than to let antagonism deepen the divide.

How to start? Noting that most agencies have gatekeepers, Kemp suggests that remodelers join forces and delegate one person, such as the executive officer of their association chapter, to call agency heads directly, inviting them to meet for “a free exchange of ideas.

“After all, we’re their money base,” Kemp says. “It can be exciting to get some input into the governmental process.” Moreover, the gains can be measurable. “I have actually walked in and walked out with a permit within 20 minutes,” he says. More commonly, processes that once took many weeks now take days.

—Leah Thayer, senior editor, REMODELING.