Sometimes I forget to step outside of our little bubble here and see how people use or in fact don’t use the Internet. When I get that chance I often wonder if anything I’m doing in my career actually matters to anyone.
Usually, however, I’m reminded that even though the Internet isn’t weaved into every aspect of everything, it has great potential in places you might not consider.
For example, I’ve been remodelling my house to make room for a new little roommate due to be delivered in September. I’m trying to do most of the work myself or with help from friends and neighbors. I’m trying to save money, but I also really enjoy it. It’s a fantastic way to reconnect with the things that matter…food, shelter, love and life.
Well, I made the mistake of working without permits fully aware that I probably should have them. It’s my natural inclination to run around bureaucracy whenever possible.
As luck would have it, just as the pile of demolition debris on the sidewalk outside my house was at its worst, a building inspector happened to drive by on his way to another job. He asked to see my permit to which I replied, “The boss isn’t here. Can you come back later?”
The building inspector just laughed. After pleading a bit and failing, I started making calls to get drawings and to sort out the permits.
It was at this moment I realized how much building planning and construction could benefit from the advances made in the Internet market the last few years. The part of construction that people hate most is the one that is perhaps the most important. And it is this part that the Internet is incredibly well-suited to improve.
Admittedly, the permit process was not actually that painful and relatively cheap, too. I have spent in total maybe 1 day dealing with permits and drawings, so far, with a bit more to come, I’m sure.
But the desired effect of permitting jobs is sorely underserved by its process.
At the end of the day what you want is the highest building quality possible. You want builders using proven methods with at least semi-predictable outcomes. You want to make sure nobody gets hurt. And you want incentives for people to share expertise and information.
Rather than be a gatekeeper, the city needs to be an enabler.
One of the brochures I read called “How to Obtain a Permit” includes a whitelist of project types. I’m apparently allowed to put down carpets and hang things on my walls without a permit. Glad to know that.
Strangely, after explaining all the ways the city asserts itself into the process, on the very last page of the brochure it then says, “Remember, we are here to assist you. If you have any questions about your project, please give us a call!” I didn’t meet one person in the 6 queues I waded through the first morning who wanted to help me. They were mostly bored out of their brains.
Instead, the city should be putting that brainpower to work finding ways to lubricate conversation and collaboration around solving building problems. If the building community was in fact a community powered by thoughtful city-employed engineers, then I would be much more interested in working with them. I might even become dependent on them.
For example, if they helped me organize, store, print and even share my plans, then I’d be more than happy to let them keep my most current drawings, the actual plans I’m using to build with. If they could connect me to licensed contractors and certified service providers, I’d gladly give them my budget.
As it stands, my incentive is to avoid them and hide information whenever possible.
Imagine if I was able to submit a simple SketchUp plan to a construction service marketplace. I could then sit back and watch architects and interior designers bid for the planning work. My friends in the network could recommend contractors. Tools and parts suppliers could offer me discounts knowing exactly what I needed for the job. I could rate everything that happens and contribute to the reputation of any node in the ecosystem.
Imagine how much more value would be created in the home buying market if a potential buyer could see all this data on a house that was for sale. I might be able to sell my home for a higher price if my remodel was done using highly reputable providers. There would be a financial incentive for me to document everything and to get the right certifications on the work.
Imagine lenders knowing that I’m an excellent remodeller based on my reputation and sales track record. I might be able to negotiate better terms for a loan or even solicit competing bids for my mortgage on the next house I want to invest in.
At every step in the process, there is a role for the city government to add value and thus become more relevant. Then the more I contribute, the more it knows about what’s happening. The more it knows, the more effective it can be in driving better standards and improving safety and legislating where necessary.
My mind spins at the possibilities in such a world. Of course, when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. But it seems to me that the building permit and inspection business is broken in exactly the places that the Internet is more than capable of fixing.