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MBI Helps Kick-Start Stalled Plan Review Process

MBI worked with regional modular companies to get Washington State to use third-party reviewers.

A key advantage of modular construction is speed. So, when the process of getting modular buildings erected is reduced to a crawl for any reason, modular manufacturers and their clients are unhappy. That’s what was happening in Washington State last year when the plan review process stalled.

Alan Rasmussen is Vice President of Production at Modern Building Systems, which is headquartered in Oregon. Modern provides many buildings to clients in Washington. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has a Factory-Assembled Structures [FAS] program that reviews building plans for code compliance. Inspectors visit the factory in Oregon and, when the modules pass inspection, Washington State insignias are issued and affixed to each module.

Washington State's Department of Labor and Industries was worried about giving up control over their plan reviews. “But we shared the ANSI standard with them and explained how they could hold third parties accountable,” says Jon Hannah-Spacagna , MBI's government affairs director. “Using third parties doesn’t mean a loss of control. They’re just a resource that relieves employees’ stress and helps companies’ plans get reviewed more quickly. It’s a win-win.”

Staff Shortages

Lead times for plan approvals used to be around four weeks. But, Rasmussen says, “Over the past few years, they’ve had long-time plan reviewers retire, and they’ve had a hard time replacing them.”

Lead times began stretching into six, eight, even twelve weeks. “Over the summer of 2021, it was getting even longer than that,” Rasmussen says. “COVID and staff exoduses were also affecting review times. By the fall and winter of 2021, reviews were taking 24 weeks.”

"By the fall and winter of 2021, reviews were taking 24 weeks.”

Alan Rasmussen, VP of Production at Modern Building Systems

Other Factors

In addition to staff shortages, other factors contributed to the slowing pace. Rasmussen explains, “For a while, they were using third party reviewers as an expedited option, and we made use of that. However, they decided to stop allowing that, and the situation deteriorated further.” Although state rules allowed third party agency inspections, they were reluctant to use them, preferring the work to be done entirely inside the department.

The department’s paper-based system also contributed. In many states, plans are submitted electronically. But in Washington, multiple sets of the plans had to be printed and submitted by mail. “Because of COVID, everyone was working remotely, which added to the delays,” Rasmussen says. “An administrator would go into their office once a week to collect the mailed-in hard copies and distribute them.”

Unhappy Clients

Modern’s Washington clients needed the buildings they’d ordered — sometimes to provide extra space for physical distancing. Some of those clients were public agencies, such as school districts. “One of the school districts had ordered buildings in March 2021 to help with overcrowding. Normally, we would be building in June and installing in July,” Rasmussen explains. “But we still hadn’t got a plan review response by then.”

As well as school districts, other clients who’d ordered buildings included the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department, Native American tribes, and municipalities across the state. Rasmussen was desperate to get projects built and installed for his clients. “The situation got so bad, I was spending hours a day reshuffling the production order, fielding calls from affected clients, and trying to solve the problem. It was an ordeal.”

Teaming Up

Rasmussen got a call from Paetra Orueta at Blazer Industries, another modular manufacturing company in Oregon. She was experiencing the same problems, and the pair decided to work together. “We were both making phone calls, writing emails, and so on. We’d then talk about the answers we received. But it became unwieldy,” Rasmussen says. They decided they needed one point of communication, so they weren’t asking the same questions and making the department repeat themselves.

“But we’re both very busy running businesses in challenging times,” Rasmussen says. So he and Orueta came up with an alternative: “We asked Jon at MBI to help us out.”

Jon Hannah-Spacagna, MBI’s Government Affairs Director, would take a load off their shoulders, and they also thought it would be helpful to have a third party communicating with the state — someone with no commercial interests at stake.

As Hannah-Spacagna puts it, “The state department knows I don't have any skin in the game. I don't have millions of dollars of projects at risk, or a boss who’s pressuring me to push my company’s projects through. This allows me to approach them from a pragmatic, cordial position: There’s a problem, let’s work together to find a solution that’s good for everyone.”

Before Hannah-Spacagna got involved, the frustration, time investment, and stress from the impacts on his business had the potential to affect Rasmussen’s communications with the state. “I was getting a little snippy in my emails. So having Jon handle all that instead was nice.”

“The state department knows I don't have any skin in the game. I don't have millions of dollars of projects at risk, or a boss who’s pressuring me to push my company’s projects through. This allows me to approach them from a pragmatic, cordial position: There’s a problem, let’s work together to find a solution that’s good for everyone.”

Jon Hannah-Spacagna, Government Affairs Director for the Modular Building Institute

Solutions

“The state used to have seven full-time reviewers. They were down to one part-time reviewer by the end of 2021,” Hannah-Spacagna says. By this point, the backlog was massive, and the effect on clients was devastating. Because of this, the FAS program leadership discussed the issue with their public labor groups and agreed to institute a temporary ‘emergency rule’ to catch up on the backlog.

For 120 days — from December 20th, 2021 to mid-April, 2022 — the rule allows customers like Modern and Blazer to use approved third party reviewers. Part of the process to reach this point involved reassuring the state about the safety of using third parties, which is where Hannah-Spacagna’s industry connections proved invaluable. “I coordinated conference calls with other agencies that use third party reviewers. They shared their experiences and explained how it works.”

The department was worried about giving up control over their plan reviews. “But we shared the ANSI standard with them and explained how they could hold third parties accountable,” Hannah-Spacagna says. “Using third parties doesn’t mean a loss of control. They’re just a resource that relieves employees’ stress and helps companies’ plans get reviewed more quickly. It’s a win-win.”

For educational, medical, or institutional buildings, the state was legally required to do their own electrical reviews, so they initially said they couldn’t use third party reviewers on those buildings. But most of the buildings in the backlog fell into those categories!

A compromise was reached: Third parties would perform the structural, mechanical, plumbing, fire and life safety reviews and the state would do its own electrical review. These two reviews could happen simultaneously, which is much faster than doing one after the other.

Now and in the Future

Rasmussen says the state’s electrical reviews are now taking just a few weeks, and the third party reviews are taking only two to four weeks.

Furthermore, the state of Washington is “also allowing reviews to be done by state departments in Oregon and Idaho, with which they already had reciprocity agreements,” Hannah-Spacagna explains. And the final piece of the puzzle is that the FAS program is now accepting electronic submissions.

Hannah-Spacagna says, “We’re continuing to talk with the state of Washington, and we hope that allowing third party reviewers becomes permanent.”

About the Author: Zena Ryder is a freelance writer, specializing in writing about construction and for construction companies. You can find her at Zena, Freelance Writer or on LinkedIn.

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