Future Forward: Virtual Inspections Will Remain After COVID-19 Pandemic Passes
As aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic begin to improve in the United States and there seems to be a “light at the end of the tunnel” from an extremely difficult time period, leading industry experts are repeatedly examining which of the new COVID workflows, practices and technologies that almost-instantly became standard practice will remain part of the AEC workflow, and which will return to how they were done before the pandemic began.
One such technology is “virtual inspection,” and many in the industry, including Jared Utterback, believe most forms of offsite inspection and analysis will remain.
Overcoming Technology Inertia
“Our industry typically is slow to adopt new technologies and innovation,” admits Utterback, “but over the past 15 years, we have seen technology impact construction in many ways.”
He cites Building Information Modeling (BIM) and construction management software—particularly their ability to streamline processes—as crucial for moving the construction industry further toward technology adoption. For the last few years, contractors were moving steadily to adopt many of these technologies, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to move much faster than expected.
Since the pandemic was declared in early 2020, contractors had to implement new safety guidelines in the office and at projects, and a considerable amount of time was added to complete simple tasks.
“While most of our jobsites kept running, there was a certain degree of delay to various aspects such as material expediting, staffing and building department activities, including permitting and inspections,” notes Utterback. “Since building departments had limited access to their offices or shut their doors completely, it was difficult to secure permits and call for inspections.”
With “remote inspections,” professional inspectors can visually examine a wide variety of construction and engineering projects to grant approval for further development or stop a project in need of remediation before it gets too far along to easily and affordably make needed changes.
“Over the past few months [during the pandemic], remote virtual inspections allowed projects to continue almost without interruption,” says Utterback. “By working with cities, we have been able to satisfy the need for less interaction by having inspectors perform our inspections remotely.
“The scheduling aspect alone provided an increase in productivity,” adds Utterback. “Through the ability to narrow an inspection timeframe, we can focus on other tasks almost right up until the time of inspection, and then move on quickly to our next task.”
Is Virtual for Everyone?
Although “going virtual” has seen widespread adoption across many industries during the pandemic, after things have returned to “normal,” there are a few factors that will help decide if virtual inspection is best for individual contractors.
“Contractors should be contacting the jurisdiction where each project is located to inquire about virtual inspections,” explains Utterback. “Most jurisdictions are aware that inspections can be done virtually.”
The company he works for, Inspected, has been pleasantly surprised at the amount and types of virtual inspections that have been allowed and approved.
“We have had pool-piping, beam-reinforcement, water-heater, roofing, gas, electrical-service and HVAC inspections, among others, completed at our projects,” he adds. “As long as an inspection is visually based, under normal circumstances it can be performed virtually.”
Change That Will Last
Before the pandemic struck, Utterback saw a dramatic shift in contracting and construction from paper and handwritten notes to the use of technology. He believes permitting software for building departments was one of the initial drivers, because it allowed contractors to use internet-based products to schedule inspections, check results and pay permit fees.
He now feels that virtual inspections are the next step in the digital evolution of contracting, because they feature the same factors that allow any technology to become relevant and thrive: saving time and money while improving efficiencies and reducing delays.
“Virtual inspections are going to be a part of the normal course moving forward out of the pandemic, and contractors will need to be prepared to use them as part of their projects,” he adds.