CITY HALL — When John Youngman decided to build a spec home on 22nd Street at Georgina Avenue, he held nothing back.
The 11,000 square-foot house has a kitchen, butler’s pantry and adjoining dining room. The living room next to the kitchen is outfitted with a bar, and the walls will have built-in iPads to control the lighting and temperature either from the room or remotely.
In an attempt to embrace green building, Youngman capped the home with a solar system that produces 9 kilowatts of electricity, and installed a massive tank buried beneath the earth to capture excess rainwater for irrigation.
It was going well, at least until he and contractor Steve Bilson attempted to put in a greywater system and it entered the realm of ePlan.
ePlan, an “electronic plan check software” also called ProjectDox, is a web-based application that allows contractors and staff to access an online site through which building plans can be submitted, reviewed, checked and approved.
The City Council approved the $298,000 purchase of the software in November 2009, and it formally came online a year later.
Since, ePlan has had a mixed record of success between City Hall and the business people asked to use it.
Going digital was meant to save time, paper, gas and frustration, said Ron Takiguchi, chief code enforcement officer with City Hall.
Applicants for permits would come by with reams of paper rolled up into a cylinder the size of a tree trunk.
They would wait in line at Building and Safety, and then have to get back in their cars and drive the plans to other parts of the city for various approvals.
For one project, an architect — or more likely a lackey — would have to go to the Civic Center Parking Lot, the Public Safety Facility and even the City Yards on Michigan Avenue to get various approvals and checks.
“ePlan was for expediency,” Takiguchi said.
From City Hall’s point of view, the reduction in paper reinforced the eco-friendly message and produced a huge space savings — City Hall is required by law to keep plans in perpetuity, a task better accomplished using servers rather than physical files.
It also allowed different departments the ability to access the plans, and included an overlay feature that was supposed to help city employees keep track of changes made by departments.
“It helped make a streamlined time frame, and reduced plan check time,” Takiguchi said.
Builders, however, did not always see those benefits of the system.
Take Youngman’s greywater system, for example.
“Greywater” is a nice name for water captured from showers, sinks, washing machines, etc. that is too dirty to drink but not contaminated like “black” water, which tends to come from toilets.
Greywater can be used for irrigation purposes, the idea being that plants will not suffer from the minimal contamination in what would otherwise turn into wastewater.
Properly used, greywater systems can save thousands of gallons of potable drinking water, which can be reserved for people and animals.
In terms of accepted technologies, greywater is relatively new. A state code does exist, but not all city staff are familiar with it and it’s difficult to discern which departments need to weigh in on the plans.
In this case, Building and Safety reviewed the plumbing, the Office of Sustainability and the Environment had to make sure the system worked and Public Works had jurisdiction over urban runoff, to ensure that dirty water didn’t find its way back into the water supply.
But, as the different departments did their jobs, something went wrong.
Bilson, the contractor from Rewater who was hired to get the greywater system in place, described it this way:
“ePlans is fatally flawed,” he said.
Each department has its own file, much like a separate document on a word processor. As plans come in, checkers make comments and send them back to the applicant.
There’s no alert system when a comment has been made, so other staff have to check and coordinate comments and keep up with the process, Bilson said.
Also, ePlan requires that nothing move forward until each section of the plans has been signed off by the appropriate department, so if a simple item can be looked over in a day, it progresses forward at the same time as something that takes weeks to approve.
Another weakness is that ePlan only works on Internet Explorer, and can’t be accessed by any other web browser like Safari or Google Chrome.
Takiguchi is in talks with the developer to fix those aspects, and hopes that the changes will roll out in coming months.
What changes to ePlan might not be able to fix is the disconnection between designers and the staff they used to work with.
Josh Borris, owner of Core Development Group, misses the days he was able to call up a staff person and talk out problems that arose with plans.
“With ePlan, there’s no individuality,” Borris said.
The building community can always call, e-mail or come to the counter plan check in the Building and Safety Office, Takiguchi said.