In 2016, among the most tower cranes of any city in North America, the city of Seattle was well positioned for innovative construction technology adoption, and Caelen Ball, the city’s new building plans examiner, knew just how to deliver it.
Ball had heard, however, that his new place of work, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), wasn’t using Bluebeam’s markup and digital collaboration software. Instead, the department was communicating plan corrections in a separate text editor document. He knew what needed to be done to better serve the built environment of his hometown.
From that day forward, Ball said he was committed to the ‘brick laying’ of convincing his new colleagues of the magic of Bluebeam, which he had grown accustomed to using in prior roles in his young engineering career.
Ball’s doggedness eventually paid off. Today, more than six years after Ball joined the city’s team for reviewing and approving all building and construction, Bluebeam is central to the 430-person department’s operation that permits about US$4 billion (AU$5.9 billion) worth of construction activity a year.
Transitioning from the siloed, letter-writing approach for plan review to Bluebeam’s streamlined, PDF markup and digital collaboration ecosystem didn’t happen overnight, however. Nor was it easy.
It was a years-long process that involved persistent levels of leadership persuasion and buy-in; an immersive expedition to Bluebeam’s 2018 user conference; a carefully crafted feasibility study; and a delicate, full-scale implementation and transition that Ball said is still ongoing.
Thrown into this incredible period of digital transformation for the city of Seattle was the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent all of its workers to work from home indefinitely in March of 2020.
What’s more, demand for construction plan approvals in Seattle unexpectedly soared in the pandemic’s initial aftermath, as residents took advantage of record low interest rates for home remodelling and renovation projects amid lockdowns, loading the department with reviews and approvals just as it was trying to make its Bluebeam transition.
The city got through it. And now Bluebeam is paying major dividends for Seattle, according to Ball, who is now the department’s electronic plan review product manager and served as a formal strategic advisor for the Bluebeam project’s implementation.
‘In the first six months of 2022, we approved 20% more complex construction permits than we did in the previous six months’ before the full Bluebeam implementation, Ball said. ‘The quality of communications was so high in our new system that we’re doing more volume – we are getting to ‘approved’ faster.’
Every construction project requires government approval to ensure that the proposed development meets structural standards and other local zoning codes and laws. Prior to the construction industry’s initial digital transformation, cities like Seattle would accept, manage and approve rolls of paper plan documents as part of this process.
Before electronic plans became predominant and required, each plan set would make its way through different divisions of approvals, resulting in a painstaking process of manual, hand-written markups and reviews to approve various building projects, from residential remodeling to commercial office buildings.
SDCI is responsible for reviewing and approving plan documents, and it operated under this paper-based paradigm until about 2016, according to Ball. ‘Up until then, if an applicant wanted to submit paper plans, they’d come in these big construction rolls’, Ball said. ‘We had people ferrying them around from desk to desk to desk. It was very inefficient, because you could only have one reviewer at a time reviewing that plan set on their desk.’
In early 2016, the department moved entirely to accepting only digital plan documents. Instead of reams of paper documents shuffling in and out of the department for reviews, plans now came in the form of digital PDFs stored in large data warehouses. ‘Then our reviewers were just individually downloading the plan sets one at a time’, Ball said. ‘And they would then take a text editor … and they would describe the problems in the drawings in the text editor.’
From that point on, Ball said a small element of automation would kick in after the reviewer was done entering comments in the text file – in the form of an email that would send the letter file as an attachment to the applicant. The file would also be stored in an electronic record of the permit.
Still, while an improvement over the prior, paper-based process, Ball said this digital plan review system left much to be desired, starting with its siloed nature and lack of efficiency created by having to relate one digital document (the submitted construction plan) to another (the separate, text-based corrections letter).
Ball knew there was a better way – because he had experienced it.
Before moving to work for the city of Seattle, Ball worked for a smaller jurisdiction that used Bluebeam for its plan review process. In Bluebeam, there is no need for a separate, text-based file; every comment and correction is entered right into the plan document in the form of a markup. ‘Bluebeam solves the problem’ of having to relate one digital document to the other, Ball said. ‘It keeps it all on one plan set and makes it so clear to the client.’
Ball said he was adamant since first joining SDCI about the virtues of Bluebeam, especially Studio Sessions in Revu, which allows multiple collaborators to review and mark up plan documents in real time. But the city department’s size and structure would make any technology transition and implementation a lengthy process.
Documents needed to be reviewed across four different divisions in the department, which at the time comprised 380 people, Ball said. Transitioning from its current letter-writing system to Bluebeam would be monumental not just from a technology standpoint but a change management one as well.
Ball said the department’s leaders seldom disagreed that Bluebeam was the superior way to facilitate plan document reviews. It was just a matter of finding the right opportunity and approach to introducing the technology without disrupting its day-to-day operation.
By 2018, after months of pushing the idea to department leaders, Ball said momentum to make the shift started to build. It was enough to get a small department contingent to make a trip to Austin, Texas, for Bluebeam’s annual user conference, XCON. There, Ball said his colleagues’ enthusiasm for what Bluebeam could do for the department peaked.
‘We saw at XCON all the really cool stuff that the private sector was doing with the software’, Ball said, ‘mostly on the construction side – utilising custom statuses, custom layers to better refine your summary reports and your deliverables and things like that.’
Despite XCON’s revelations, however, Seattle still wasn’t ready to move forward with its Bluebeam implementation. It wasn’t until December 2019 that the department took its next step in evaluating the possibility of a Bluebeam implementation.
The department’s leaders, according to Ball, decided to initiate a feasibility study by an outside consultant to get final validation and direction on how it could make the transformation.
The study confirmed by late spring 2020 what Ball said he knew all along: Bluebeam works, and works well. By the fall of 2020, the department was sold. It would begin its full Bluebeam implementation in early 2021.
Pushing through adversity
Just as the city of Seattle was about to dive headfirst into evaluating and implementing Bluebeam, it was thrown a major curveball: the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February 2020, the virus was just starting to make major news in the United States – especially in the Pacific Northwest, which recorded what was believed to be the first known death from COVID-19 in Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle. ‘Just a couple of days after that, nobody was sending their children to school and the whole city effectively shut down’, Ball said.
Ball and the rest of the department were sent to work from home for what they first thought would be one month. Suddenly, the challenge of having to institute a major technology and process overhaul didn’t seem as daunting, because Ball said he and his colleagues feared for their jobs as they predicted the pandemic would cause construction to dry up in the city.
As the initial months of the pandemic wore on, however, fear over job security completely reversed into a fear that the department would be unable to handle a shocking new challenge: soaring demand for new building and construction.
Instead of dissipating amid the early months of the pandemic, demand for construction surged. Stuck at home, more Seattle-area residents took the opportunity to initiate home remodels and renovations. Ball’s department was suddenly slammed. ‘We got hit with heaps of demand’, Ball said, ‘just heaps of demand.’
The trifecta of a pandemic, surging demand and a nearly 400-person department all working from home for a prolonged (and uncertain) period didn’t deter its leadership from moving forward with Bluebeam. What’s more, the department’s leaders made the decision to implement Bluebeam comprehensively across all its five divisions simultaneously. ‘We’re not going to do a phased approach where maybe one division or one review group starts getting Bluebeam’, Ball said. ‘It became a waterfall deployment.’
To make the complexity of such an enormous deployment more manageable, the department formed a committee of special advisers, including Ball, to lead the Bluebeam implementation. Each department division had its own special Bluebeam adviser.
Much of 2020 was spent purchasing Bluebeam licences and standardising the software’s features for the department’s new system – creating custom profiles, tool sets, etc., to suit the department’s ideal workflow and review standards. It also established communication channels via Microsoft Teams for each division specifically to manage the Bluebeam transition and field training enquiries.
Ball said instituting Bluebeam was intentionally slow at first. ‘Early on, we were trying to get folks to be a little more grassroots and start to get familiar with the PDF reader without fully using it’, he said. ‘We weren’t yet utilising the cloud and we were still typing letters, but we were always reviewing letters on a PDF reader.’ The department, meanwhile, also conducted a few simple pilot review projects with real clients to test and iterate on the new plan review process.
The strategic adviser committee then began asking department peers to start making Bluebeam their default PDF reader over Adobe. The committee also established lunch-and-learn sessions to initiate basic Bluebeam training. ‘We wanted to build up some experience before getting into the full training’, which eventually took place in the autumn and early winter of 2021, Ball said.
The department’s formal Bluebeam training was comprehensive.The adviser committee created an internal SharePoint resource, Bluebeam Central, which included hyperlinked resources, videos and guides for using the software with all the custom tools and features the department standardised.The department deployed Microsoft Forms with the Power Automate feature such that if someone had an issue they could submit it to the adviser committee for support.The committee also created extensive job aids.
‘We worked really hard to support our folks and measuring productions levels from the day after we went live’, Ball said.
The goal, Ball said, was for the department to be fully operational on Bluebeam in the final quarter of 2021, after all the advanced training was complete. After some modest delays due to review workload, the city of Seattle was operational on Bluebeam as of January 2022.
For Ball, 2022 has been a long time coming. Since joining the department, his vision for Bluebeam’s impact on the city of Seattle has been clear. And now that it has become reality, he and the rest of the transition committee have worked tirelessly to manage the inevitable hiccups that come following a major technology and workflow overhaul.
The department has spent much of 2022 continuing to ‘triage’, as Ball puts it, helping folks in the different divisions who are still conforming to the new Bluebeam plan review system, which by mid-2022 was now being used for all new review submissions in place of the previous, letter-writing system.
As the weeks became months after the transition, Ball said the investment started to show some profitable measures of success.
‘By April , you could see that our throughput was doing just fine and actually starting to increase’, Ball said. ‘And then by July , the numbers were starting to show things that felt really, really great.’
Now, each time there is a new set of plan documents submitted to the city for review and approval, the following takes place:
- Applicants submit plan documents to the city’s public-facing Accela online portal; then, those documents are stored in the city’s data warehouse.
- Once some initial screenings and fee collecting is complete, the applicant’s plan documents are copied into a Bluebeam Studio Session for the department’s series of reviews.
- Reviewers have Accela workflow tasks assigned each day that include a Sessions code for them to join to initiate their reviews, marking up drawings in real time with other reviewers.
According to Ball, Seattle is thriving with Bluebeam, completing reviews faster and more efficiently, and in a manner that has improved communication and relations with its applicants.
Nevertheless, the transition to Bluebeam is ongoing – and is likely to be a perpetual process, as the department continues to learn new features and innovate its review process as a result.Ball remains the sole strategic adviser administering support for the project, as updates to the workflow paradigm continue and users adjust to Bluebeam.
Now on the other side of a six-year journey, Ball said he is proud of the accomplishment. As a Seattle native, Ball is passionate about the city’s reputation as a bastion of modern technological thinking and innovation. The city, after all, is the birthplace of two of the most iconic technology companies of the past century, Amazon and Microsoft.
Ball said he sees the city’s implementation and use of Bluebeam as another point of pride in continuing that tradition of technological excellence.
‘Seattle has always been a foward-looking city’, Ball said. ‘It stems from the 1962 World’s Fair, which the theme was the 21st Century Exposition. And Bluebeam is that sort of 21st century technology that we need in our industry – not just in municipal plan review, but across the architecture, engineering and construction industry. Bluebeam helps us live our purpose statement: helping people build a safe, livable and inclusive Seattle.’