Nowadays, it’s routine to pay bills, transfer funds or buy stock solely by electronic media. Both faxed and electronic signatures are widely accepted as valid. Yet in the midst of such digital expedients, submitting plans for a building permit remains a process right out of the Middle Ages. 

Granted, the architectural profession is known for embracing change with all the speed of dripping molasses, but architects are not to blame in this case. Rather, the trouble lies in the bureaucratic inertia of civic building departments, most of which still insist on the sort of paper plans that have been used for centuries.

Since the vast majority of architects now use computers to design and draft, and since their work is already in a digital format, you might suppose that plans could be submitted to building departments electronically, and be reviewed, revised and resubmitted without ever leaving the digital domain. 

That’s not how it works, though: Most building departments will accept plans submitted in hard copy only. Paradoxically, this involves taking electronic files and printing them out onto huge unwieldy sheets, curling them into rolls and hand-carrying multiple copies to the building official. For large projects, this kind of submittal can run into hundreds of pounds of paper. What’s more, the entire package is usually discarded in a matter of weeks, only to be completely reprinted again with whatever amendments the building official deems necessary.

The continuing demand for hard copies rather than digital ones isn’t the only outmoded aspect of submitting building plans, though. In an age where electronic signatures are deemed adequate for all kinds of weighty transactions, architects and engineers are still required to physically validate every single sheet of their work by the Dickensian means of a rubber-stamp seal undersigned in ink. This so-called “wet stamp and signature” remains the standard in building departments across the country.

The glacial pace of change among bureaucracies is nothing new, of course. As little as a dozen years ago, I submitted a set of Xeroxed building plans to a major metropolitan building department only to have them flat out rejected. When I asked the building official why, he handed me a sheet of submittal requirements that forbade plans from being submitted in any form other than the customary diazo whiteprint. This was a slow and noxious method of reproduction — even then well on its way to oblivion — that required a special chemical-coated paper to be first exposed to strong ultraviolet light and then to ammonia vapor. The end product was, at best, a drawing with fuzzy blue lines on a white background. When I pointed out that my plans were easier to read, more durable and didn’t reek of ammonia, the building official just shrugged and handed my plans back to me. The rules were the rules. 

Today, photocopied plans are the standard of the industry, though it took some building departments years to accept them. Hopefully, the inevitable switch to paperless plans won’t get snared in the same old red tape.

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