In the July issue of REMODELING, we ran a story detailing how remodelers can make the permitting process--notoriously a thorn in their collective sides--easier. Hopefully, you got some good ideas from it, but even if you did, you probably were still left with something of an unsatisfying feeling. After all, it takes two to tango, and it takes two to get a permit approved. Shouldn't the building department bear some responsibility for keeping everything running smoothly?

It's starting to happen. Trends both inside and outside the industry--along with the overall rate of technological advancement--suggest that permitting will become increasingly easier.

Modern Convenience

When you book an airplane ticket, how do you do it? If you're like many, you log on to a Web site, search for flights at the times and days you are traveling, pick your travel itinerary, enter your credit card information, and voila!--you've reserved your seat. A confirmation notice is sent to you via e-mail, and you get a reminder e-mail a few days in advance of your trip. When you arrive at the airport, all you need to do is swipe your credit card or enter your confirmation number at the self check-in kiosk, and you're off, boarding pass in hand, to stand in line (barefoot, of course, with all liquids and gels in tiny bottles inside a clear plastic bag) at security.

"It's an entirely paperless online experience," says Maury Blackman, who uses this example to illustrate a trend in private industry toward more "self-service." Blackman, CEO of Accela (, a San Ramon, Calif.-based company that makes software for governments, says that people want that same experience when dealing with the public sector. "They are becoming impatient, starting to demand more," he says.

To meet that demand, Accela has developed a number of products, including Citizen Access, a program that automates certain counter services to the Web. Blackman estimates that between 60 and 70 agencies currently use this product, mainly for trade permits, which require no submittal of plans--or, if they do, no review. "It's a huge success story," Blackman says, adding that what once could take as long as two or three weeks now takes just two or three minutes--contractors can log onto an agency's Web site, and, with just a few clicks, print out the permit they need.

What's Next?

Although current uses of the product are limited to the most basic of permits, Blackman says the software is capable of much more. "There's no reason you can't submit plans online," he says. "The challenge is getting the agencies to review them online. We've found that they aren't quite ready to implement that yet." There are legitimate reasons for this--the technology required to make plan review feasible on a computer screen is not inexpensive--and many feel that convincing the "old guard" of plan reviewers and building inspectors to change their ways may take time.

If it does come to fruition, of course, it's not an immediate fix-all. You'll still have to wait for a review, and it won't inspire building departments to increase the size of their staff, or push plan reviewers to pick up the pace of their work. It will, however, save you from driving to and from the permit office--only to wait in line. Even if you get to wear your shoes, that's time better spent somewhere else. -- H.A.