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Inspections are par for the course with health care construction projects. These include inspections for internal quality control and safety, as well as those conducted by the A/E team, local municipalities and the state. Work is thoroughly reviewed many times throughout the lifecycle of a project, and firms focused on technology leverage many tools along the way to make the process easier for the construction trades, design partners and themselves. 

However, regardless of other variables, the one given was that a person was physically present to conduct inspections. COVID-19 has changed all of that. Through lockdowns, travel bans, furloughs and social distancing, many of the people relied on for these required inspections are now unable to come onsite. To work around this constraint, the construction industry was forced to change rapidly—something that does not happen often—and the processes around building inspections began to evolve. 

Over these past few months, many contractors have begun to implement a variety of tools and technologies to achieve effective virtual inspections. They’ve discussed the process and perspectives with a variety of experts to find out what is in store for the future of health care facility inspections in a post-pandemic world. 

Live Streams Via Smartphones and Video Conferencing Tech

In late March, the most obvious way to continue the inspection process was over live video conferencing. Through the use of a smartphone or tablet, the individual onsite could live stream a walkthrough to inspectors (via applications such as Facetime, Skype or Zoom) and show the inspector all items in need of review. This method worked quite well and has accomplished what, in the past, could have taken hours of travel from many individuals to be onsite. 

But some challenges do exist. A solid internet connection, a fully charged device and good lighting are necessary. More significantly, it can be difficult for an inspector to see the big picture of the project while doing a virtual inspection. Rebecca Read, architectural review unit’s manager for Texas Health and Human Services Commission in the regulatory services division for health care regulations section, explains how inspectors gain a greater awareness of the project when visiting the site in person. 

“While the inspector will inspect a specific room, piece of equipment or area as defined by the project scope, the inspector is analyzing many things in an in-person walk-through, such as, ‘Are exit lights illuminated?’ or ‘Is there other work installed that should have been permitted?’ They are able to view the project holistically as opposed to in pieces,” Read says.

And it doesn’t end there. The in-person aspect allows for sharing of relevant information across the spectrum, from owner to general contractor to inspector.

“We also see our inspections as learning opportunities for everyone involved,” Read says. “For instance, we use the inspections to explain the code requirements to facility staff, so they can better understand the functionality of their space and its building systems. We also learn from the general contractors and subcontractors about how these systems work together from a constructability perspective. These collaborations are very difficult to achieve through a virtual visit.”

If a contractor is currently relying on live streaming for aspects of inspections, the International Code Council (ICC) is a great resource. Their document, “Considerations for Virtual and Remote Inspections,” which was created in response to “Maintaining Building Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” walks through: 

  • general considerations for remote inspections; 
  • setting up a virtual inspection process;
  • steps for conducting a virtual inspection;
  • what the contractor needs for virtual inspections; and
  • additional considerations.
360◦ Virtual Walkthrough Technology

Using a 360◦ camera (some good ones to consider include Ricoh Theta, Insta360 and the Garmin Virb 360) and cloud-based software, it’s possible to take clients, design teams and inspectors into construction spaces from the comfort and safety of their homes or offices. Products like StructionSite, HoloBuilder and OpenSpace allow inspectors to “walk” through the project, virtually, on their own time and at their own pace. 

An added bonus is that these programs also serve as documentation tools. Jeevan Kalanithi, CEO at OpenSpace, says, “When we started OpenSpace a couple of years ago, we saw how much time was wasted in our industry due to professionals having to literally be onsite, at the right time, with the right people for almost every problem. A picture is worth 1,000 words, so we scaled up that idea up and created a tool that creates a visual record of a site—tracked over time—to reduce that waste. The pandemic has hit the ‘fast-forward’ button for our platform because what made sense in 2019 is a necessity now. Our customer engagement metrics are up by 500% since March.” 

Interactive, Cloud-Based Inspection Software

Another digital tool to facilitate inspections is FreightTrain, a cloud-based construction quality management platform from HTS, Inc. that streamlines the workflow process of creating, reviewing and approving inspection requests. This is extremely useful by itself, but FreightTrain’s advantages don’t end there.

“A real benefit is that FreightTrain can allow inspectors, subcontractors and field staff to understand where their inspections stand and see their issues in real-time via the interactive floor plan feature,” says HTS’s CEO Tom Gaunt.  

FreightTrain’s inspection request module also provides project teams with a visual representation of the status of all inspections and reports out key quality control metrics, such as inspection success rates. All of these make the tool beneficial even when the inspection itself can’t be completed virtually. 

“Some, like members of project’s design team, may be able to attend inspections virtually, but California’s regulations still require our inspectors to have personal knowledge through in-person site inspection, even with COVID-19,” explains Tyler Bashlor, owner of Strategic Building Services, which provides health care inspection and quality assurance services throughout the state.

‘The Enemy of Art Is the Absence of Limitation.’—Orson Welles

So much of what’s ahead for AEC remains unclear and, as with most, the industry has been greatly impacted by COVID-19. But not all impacts are negative—constraints and barriers fuel innovations, ideas and workarounds. Chris Grossnicklaus, health care studio leader with Corgan Architects and Interior Designers, sees these progressions continuing to domino as we move ahead.

“Can we move early inspections to a virtual setting and keep in-person meetings for final inspections? Is there an effective hybrid solution, with a mix of in-person and virtual inspection teams being connected through a robust platform?” Grossnicklaus asks. “We don’t know the answers to these specific questions, but we can see more clearly the direction where we’re headed. Just as our workplaces have changed, so has the work of health care design and construction.

We’ve learned new ways to collaborate and work virtually to accomplish what used to be only face-to-face,” he continues. “This is a good time to take these lessons learned and focus on making our processes efficient, reducing the time wasted in travel and scheduled meetings. It will be fascinating to see what remains and how we evolve in the future.” 

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