WINCHESTER — When COVID-19 started to slow down construction projects in the early stages of the pandemic, Winchester Building Official David Parker knew his team needed to find a way to keep building inspections going and keep the process moving amid social distancing requirements.
So his inspection staff added virtual inspections.
“Every time an inspection was requested, we had to go out onsite. Now, we have some flexibility,” Parker said. “It’s kind of nice because it’s given us some unexpected benefits. We now have a digital record of that inspection being completed, it minimizes travel, it’s environmentally friendly, it saves time and it saves money.”
The permitting process is exactly the same. An applicant submits all the necessary paperwork, then the staff reviews those and issues a permit. Once a permit is issued for new construction and the owner or the contractor requests an inspection, the inspector will coordinate with them to complete the virtual inspection through FaceTime, videos and photographs.
But not all inspections are done virtually. Parker said it’s a fluid situation and functions with both virtual and in-person inspections.
“It’s more of a hybrid approach. Sometimes they’re virtual, sometimes they’re in person. Those are based on the individual’s situation and the inspector’s discretion. A lot of times we’ll have stuff that we really need to go out and get eyes on it and have that interaction between a contractor and inspector to verify things are within compliance,” he said. “But there are some situations where video or FaceTime will suffice. Some things like plumbing, we can verify those through photographs. But if it’s something like natural gas, we’ll want to go out and inspect those things.”
Inspections of existing rental properties have gone all-virtual.
“We can still verify that the tenants are safe and all standards are being met, and we can also keep up on the ordinance requirements,” Parker said.
Parker said there wasn’t really a learning curve for his staff to implement virtual inspections, as working with digital aspects like photography was already part of the job. Little to no training was required, he said.
Going forward, Parker said he hopes to continue the hybrid inspection process.
“It won’t totally take the place of the inspector’s role to be in-person. You really need to be out there and have that interaction,” he said. “A lot of times, there’s a lot of judgement calls and reasoning that goes into this. I think we’ll use it in addition to (in-person inspections), and it’ll give us some more flexibility.”
Parker’s office handles inspections for building permits “from the footer to the foundation to the walls and the roof and everything in between,” including electrical work, the mechanical work and the plumbing work associated with the project as well as any natural gas. It also handles maintenance and complaints for existing rentals.