Virtual Site Inspections: A Temporary Solution or a New Best Practice?
There’s little debate that when we’re through the worst of COVID-19, we will have uncovered new and better ways to do things. Municipalities are adopting virtual technology to carry out site inspections so projects can continue to progress. But video inspections are just a jumping-off point. The technology behind 360° photo capture is at a point where it can simplify site inspections without compromising outcomes.
Using simple technology to bridge the gap
A recent International Code Council webinar shared that 93% of building departments are still performing some type of inspections. Most are using social distancing best practices and have modified their procedures to include only specific types of projects or exclusively exterior inspections. However, 60% of those surveyed said they don’t currently have the capability to accommodate remote inspections. To help move departments toward more virtual inspections, the International Code Council published suggested steps for municipalities to start using video for site inspections. They also spoke to the likelihood that the transition to virtual site inspections could be a best practice post-COVID-19.
It’s clear that the use of video inspections is growing. It’s been adopted in places like Ohio, Nevada, Florida, Atlanta, and in several other states and regions. Most municipalities are keeping things straightforward at this point. They’re using virtual meeting platforms like FaceTime, Skype, Microsoft Teams, or Google Duo and require the contractor to hold a phone or table to capture the video while one or more inspectors watch. Inspectors can instruct the contractor to move in closer, provide a different angle, or stop to take measurements.
There are some limitations, however. You need reliable Wi-Fi coverage and connectivity on the platform you’re using during the inspection. Construction Dive highlighted some other concerns in their recap of the International Code Council’s webinar citing the technological challenges for some inspectors and communication limitations about inspection requirements and scheduling. Recording the video and using it as a record of the inspection may pose a challenge for some, especially where paper and photo records were the standard.
As an alternative to video inspections, some municipalities are accepting photo documentation of site conditions. 2D photos are being used in some cases, but a 360° photo provides better context and information for the inspectors. It’s possible to embed your 360° photos into your PDF inspection reports so everything is in one place and easy for an inspector to manage.
Colliers Project Leaders and J.S. Held have both shared examples online of how they’re using their existing 360° photo capture workflow to extend to their inspection and follow-up inspection reports. The process is simple but gives inspectors the information they need in a format they’re familiar with and comfortable with. The report can include the floor plan with hyperlinks to the 360° view. Colliers refers to it as “Google Street View for construction projects.”
The possibility of a new best practice
Most of us are comfortable with virtual meetings and video site inspections are really just another version of that. It’s a good way for the industry to get inspections completed and avoid a backlog and a long list of project delays. However, it’s not a big leap to push this a bit further and make the entire site inspection process faster and more effective.
Technology can be a transformative tool for site inspections. Not only can it help streamline the process, but it could improve outcomes, increase the likelihood of a passed inspection, and minimize rework post-inspection.
If we take video inspections as the jumping-off point, here’s how the new workflow for site inspections could look:
1. Pre-inspection workflow
Efforts before the inspection can focus on being efficient with your and the inspector’s time. It’s also about being proactive and resolving any potential issues before the inspection takes place.
- Provide the inspector with a link to your floor plan so they can highlight areas they want to review during the inspection. With cloud-based solutions, it’s possible to give them access completely through a web browser allowing them to make notes and annotations directly into the floor plan without any apps or downloads before.
- Inspector notes could become permanent elements to your floor plan and instantly uploaded to working files for your team to review.
- An inspector could request photos for specific areas on the floor plan. With a tool like the JobWalk Planner in HoloBuilder, pre-planning of locations at which 360° photos should be captured for the inspection becomes a reality. After the 360° photos have been taken (and, if desired, videos have been embedded) you can send the inspector the updated URL.
- With access to both the floor plan and photos, an inspector gets an overview of existing conditions, can point out any obvious issues or deficiencies, and further highlight areas they want to review during the inspection. This can all happen digitally.
- Your team has time to resolve any issues prior to the inspection. New photos can be uploaded to document progress for the inspector.
2. During inspection
We probably won’t ever see the elimination of in-person inspections. Some projects and conditions will always require it. However, what we’re learning about modified inspections today can help us simplify down the road.
- Technology is available for live-streamed 360° virtual inspection that the inspector can control. At HoloBuilder we call this 360 SiteStream. After you’ve set up a 360° live stream at a certain location on-site, inspectors would be able to rotate and control the view of the camera to view different areas for the inspection. With camera locations highlighted on the floor plan in HoloBuilder, an inspector can simply click on the location and view the site conditions.
- You can also continue to use virtual meeting apps to capture video for the purpose of inspections. If you attach the video file to your 360° photos that you captured pre-inspection, you can make it easily accessible and interactive for the inspector via a web browser should they want to view it again.
- Taking notes in the field can happen digitally and within the context of the floor plan. Either the contractor or inspector could add notes from a phone or tablet as well as capture new 360° photos if required. It’s possible, with an app like the JobWalk App, to do everything digitally and make it immediately accessible in your existing workflow. While an official report may be required, field notes can be consolidated within the context of the floor plan for everyone to use — including the inspector to put together their report.
3. Post-inspection workflow
After an inspection, your focus is either on making necessary improvements or getting on with the next stage of the project. Either way, electronic records help make it all happen faster.
- When inspection notes are digital and added to working plans, there is no delay waiting for a report from an inspector. They’re immediately available to act on.
- Comments from the inspector can always be within the context of the existing site conditions. With everything connected to the floor plan, there is no question about which area or component the notes belong to.
- Uploading new 360° photos to the floor plan or even attaching videos to the photos to show progress on deficiencies or issues can help eliminate the need for a second in-person inspection.
- All photos, recorded videos and conversations, and annotations during the process can remain permanently within the job file. Inspectors, owners, and your team could go back to reference them within the context of the job progress at that point. They’re also within the context of the site’s progress so you can see what happened on the job after each stage of the inspection process.
Balancing efficiency with regulations
Site inspections serve a purpose. That purpose won’t and shouldn’t change. Whatever technology is (or isn’t) used to facilitate an inspection, it MUST be done in a way that contractors, owners, municipalities, and the public are confident with the outcomes. This likely means that it will take time to adopt these practices broadly. However, some of this workflow isn’t a big leap for certain types of inspections or projects.
Technology can minimize the number of trips an inspector needs to make to a job site. And, once they are there, their time can be used more wisely because contractors are prepared for their needs and resolved their issues in advance. Inspectors can be more productive and easily work with contractors on improving the chances of a passed inspection. They can also provide immediate feedback and instantly document it.
Contractors have instant access to an inspector’s notes, helping their team focus on what’s most important before and after the inspection. They also have permanent records of their communications with the inspector all within the context of the job progress. Photos and videos provide definitive proof of the conditions at the time should there be any disagreements or litigations.
If you could use technology to pass your site inspection, would you?
Even though the construction industry has traditionally been slow to adopt new technology, our current reality means we’re leaning on it more than ever to be efficient and remain productive. It’s not just site inspections that are changing. Municipalities are updating their process for permit application and e-procurement to accommodate new technology. In his recap of the Autodesk and FMI Project Restart Strategies for Getting Back to Work webinar, Eric Thomas, Content Marketing Program Manager at Autodesk Construction Solutions, said
“While there are many new challenges impacting projects’ schedules, many teams have started finding innovative ways to bridge the gaps between digital and physical workflows. With newly found encouragement to be creative, people are finding new ways to deal with the current reality.”
There is technology available to improve the way we do site inspections. It’s a way to bridge the gap today but it will also help us define a new workflow for the future.
What are your experiences with virtual inspections? Which workflows have you implemented and which technologies are you using? Let us know via email to email@example.com!
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