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REGULATORY RANT: Finland well ahead of Ontario on building approvals through electronic permitting
August 21st, 2017 3:32 pm     A+ | a-

Michael de Lint / RESCON

Recently in this space, I wrote about Singapore’s world class e-permitting system called CORENET and how a similar system could transform Ontario’s plodding building approvals process.

Just last week, I received an email from Jarkko Turtiainen, chief operating officer with Evolta Ltd., a Finland-based IT firm specialized in e-permitting. He read the blog and wanted me to know about how his company was involved with e-permitting.



Jarkko Turtiainen, chief operating officer with Evolta Ltd. in Finland.


In 2013, Evolta’s sophisticated new Permit Point e-permitting system opened for service and, since then, 240 municipalities have started to use the system. Now, Evolta is one of three major international IT firms bidding on a project to improve and update Singapore’s much-praised e-permitting system.

Many countries are including e-permitting systems in their regulatory streamlining efforts. Over the past 10 years, in addition to my other work, I have been a part-time World Bank consultant specializing in building regulatory system streamlining and resilience. I have seen many e-permitting projects first hand.

In comparison with what I have seen around the globe, Finland’s e-permitting system is truly impressive. E-permitting is an international trend and Ontario is not yet at the leading edge – but that could change. So how did Finland, a country with a population of about 5.5 million, do this?

State, municipal government and industry worked together

Back in 2011, the Finnish Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Finance wanted to move municipalities in Finland toward e-permitting. Both Ministries provided some funding. Evolta won the contract, and also invested some money up front.

As in Ontario, municipalities in Finland have considerable autonomy under the constitution, so there was no way for the government to mandate the use of e-permitting. And yet, about 240 municipalities are now using fully functioning e-permitting systems.

Permit Point is an example of effective collaboration involving the state, municipalities and industry.

This is why going the paperless route makes sense for Ontario municipalities.



What does the Finnish e-permitting system do?

The system does almost everything a professional designer’s office and a municipal permit office requires.

100% paperless online submission: This includes: pre-application; application and plans submission; payment online; applicant tracking of the submission; arranging construction inspections; occupancy permits; archiving of permit documents.

Pre-application phase: With this, applicants can ask questions online, before the application is filed officially (of course, municipalities and agencies need to provide qualified staff resources at the pre-application stage, so that this capability can be realized).

Fully BIM enabled: 3-D digital building plans can be submitted to a building department for review and approval, rather than plans being printed on paper for them (although BIM is not currently used in Finland, the Evolta system is ready for it).

Digital comments/edits: The municipal building department’s plan reviewers can make comments on a plan without changing it – the comments are added as an electronic “layer” over the original plans prepared by the architect or engineer.

Ease of sharing: Applications are circulated online to other agencies(conservation authorities, transportation, environment, heritage, etc.) using a common data platform so that they are seamlessly linked in to the municipal building departments issuing building permits.

Real-time digital mapping: It’s linked into a GIS-based digital mapping that provides “real time,” map-based information including potentially cadastral (property boundaries), zoning, infrastructure location and capacity, site plan, and other geographically based information.

Digital zoning compliance: There is also a“planning application” feature which can be activated where an application requires compliance with zoning or minor variance – the system automatically notifies adjacent land owners who need to be consulted.

In addition, Evolta provides storage, maintenance and ongoing technical support. Data archiving and storage is cloud based with a backup system. The software is fully open source rather than proprietary, which means that the underlying code is accessible by others. This was a requirement of the Finnish Ministry of the Environment so that, for example, if the firm that developed and maintained the software goes bankrupt, another firm can step in.

Another key component of Finland’s e-permitting project was re-engineering of the approval processes, including elimination of both redundant data and application requirements among agencies. E-permitting provides an opportunity to shine a light on inefficiencies in the existing processes.

Can we quantify the benefits of e-permitting?

E-permitting technology is ever evolving but there are some large immediate and quantifiable benefits:  

Cost savings: It is paper-free like CORENET, generating printing cost savings of 72%, and a reduction in hardcopy storage savings of 54%. CORENET estimated manpower savings of 44% (Finland’s system would have similar impacts). Time savings for design firms was estimated at 65% for the CORENET system. Evolta estimated time savings of 50% for regulatory agencies.

Other benefits: Better quality applications, and extremely high user satisfaction.




Finland will introduced BIM to their e-permitting platform in the coming months.


I turned to Dr. Arash Shahi for his opinion on e-permitting and BIM. Shahi is the associate director of the Building Tall Research Centre at the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto, and is working with RESCON on research to assess the current state of e-permitting across Ontario municipalities.

“E-permitting systems that are BIM enabled can be the key to modernizing the building approval process, speeding up approvals, improving compliance, reducing construction errors and even improving building operation efficiency,” Shahi said.

Future of e-permitting and the building approvals process?

One of the really interesting future goals for e-permitting is the potential for “code checking” both by the designer and the regulatory authority. This means that the BIM design can be checked against the building code for many if not all the relevant building code requirements.

This has the potential to further improve the quality of building permit applications submitted to building departments, and speed up any building department review, thereby accelerating the approval process and building innovation.

Enhancing the role of private sector professionals in code compliance

E-permitting helps to pave the way for other modernization reforms.

With more transparency regarding regulatory requirements and procedures, with easier pre-consultation protocols along with faster and easier communication, industry professionals are better able to certify compliance with regulatory agency requirements. This applies not only to technical building plans but also to the array of prior approvals from various “applicable law agencies.” Compliance certification by qualified professionals has the potential to substantially streamline the approval process by allowing regulatory agencies to rely much more on qualified professionals, which can significantly reduce the need for government checks, audits and verification.

Finland is exploring the idea of relying more on professional certification to indicate regulatory compliance.





How far advanced is Ontario in adopting e-permitting?

We don’t know exactly. That’s why RESCON and the University of Toronto’s Building Tall Research Centre are working together. This information will be useful to help chart a course forward, and you will read all about those results on this website and future blogs.  

Based on discussions with municipalities as part of RESCON’s joint study with Ryerson University on the building approval process, some Ontario municipalities are making significant improvements to their existing e-permitting systems. Others are just beginning the transition from a paper-based to an e-permitting system. For example, while some municipal building departments accept building permit applications online, the “applicable law” agencies still require paper documents.

Ontario has quite a long way to go before most Ontario municipalities have fully BIM enabled e-permitting systems that interconnect with all relevant provincial agencies on a common data platform.

Where does Ontario go from here?

We can learn something from the Finnish approach. An Ontario strategy could involve:

Pilot project: The province could work with several municipalities to spread out the cost (this could include municipalities with existing legacy systems who want to upgrade, and municipalities new to e-permitting).

Provincial funding: Given e-permitting’s contribution to modernizing Ontario’s building approval system and reducing delays, the province could cover some of the cost and perhaps surplus municipal building permit reserve funds (estimated at well over $100 million in the GTHA alone), could also cover some of the cost.

Business process re-engineering: This would precede the pilot to eliminate redundant information and procedures and streamline the building approval processes.

“Moving to a fully functioning e-permitting and BIM system will fundamentally transform the way Ontario manages building permits – making the system far more efficient,” said Richard Lyall, RESCON president.

It will be transformative not only because of the technology involved but because it will force more streamlining and transparency in the underlying building permit approval process. This will make it easier to enhance the role of qualified industry professionals in regulatory compliance, which also improves efficiency.

 

Michael de Lint is RESCON’s director of building regulatory reform and technical standards, and the chair of the association’s technical council. Contact him at: delint@rescon.com

Comments:
John Este
#1
August 24th, 2017 4:54 pm
Hello Michael de Lint - how much does the software cost (per seat? per year?) (in Finland)? Is it provided by a "sole source" "for profit" software vendor? If yes, what is the incentive to keep software costs bearable?

enhance the role of qualified industry professionals - What? In Ontario the system works great due to qualified professional people. Most of the challenges arise for the people who "got their skills" on the internet.
Dave Potter
#2
August 25th, 2017 8:45 am
It sounds like a great system. Although the regulatory framework of the Building Code is the same across the province, the administration and information technology is often influenced by other divisions or branches at the local level. Unless this can be incorporated as an add-on to an existing system we may have to wait until enforcement of the Regulations resides with the province before we are all on a common platform. Good luck tapping into that $100 Million reserve.
John Dorris
#3
August 25th, 2017 9:12 am
When it takes 6 months to 1 year plus to achieve Site Plan Approval and only 3 weeks to get a Building Permit, it would appear the target is misplaced - yet again (remember Bill 124 and the Constructors?)
Michael de Lint
#4
August 25th, 2017 9:57 am
Hello Mr. Este. Thanks for your comment. We will find out more about the software cost details when the Finns come to RESCON office on Sept. 6 (you are welcome to attend -- please send me a note at delint@rescon.com). If many municipalities collaborate on a single system, costs can be substantially reduced. Also, provision can be made for municipalities joining later to share the cost as well.

The Finnish software is not proprietary, rather it is open source -- which means that others including another vendor can have access to the underlying source code. This was a requirement of the Finnish Ministry of the Environment.

The reference to an enhanced role for professionals in the blog pertains specifically to qualified professionals in building design and also in building approvals (e.g., planners or other persons with demonstrated qualifications in that area).
Michael de Lint
#5
August 25th, 2017 11:17 am
Hello Dave. Good to hear from you.

According to Evolta, the system provides for some flexibility on how it connects with existing systems. For example, where a provincial applicable law agency has an existing (legacy) e-permitting system, Evolta's system can apparently create an interface between that agency system and the municipal e-permitting system in order to streamline online communication.
Michael de Lint
#6
August 25th, 2017 12:08 pm
Hello Mr. Doris.

Yes it is true that routine "planning approvals" such as site plan control and prior approvals (MTO, conservation authorities, Environment, Heritage, etc.) do take a long time and those approvals need to speed up (a joint RESCON-Ryerson report makes such a recommendation).

The e-permitting system in Finland links municipalities electronically to these agencies, and that will help speed up the building permit approval process. To the extent that an e-permitting system and associated transparency initiatives, assists an applicant (developer) to undertake pre-consultation with various planning agencies, such a system can further speed up the process.

I would also mention that as part of the e-permitting implementation process, Evolta was involved in "business process" re-engineering which includes among other things, eliminating duplicate information/data requirements among agencies.
Sam Bruno. Carrera
#7
August 31st, 2017 10:00 am
Is there a cost associated with the RESCON presentation on September 6th in Vaughan Ontario ?
Aonghus Kealy
#8
August 31st, 2017 10:46 am
Hi, Sam. No cost for this event. Please email resconnotice@rescon.com or kealy@rescon.com if you would like to attend.
Boulos Gad
#9
August 31st, 2017 11:05 am
Is it possible to be posted live, please?
some towns are 8 hrs. far in Northern Ontario.
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