The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired considerable innovation in the Canadian construction sector. In White Rock, B.C. building inspectors have piloted a program designed to investigate the effectiveness of conducting some inspections remotely, using smart phones.
Trevor Welsh, manager of building and bylaw enforcement, City of White Rock notes that inspections of occupied homes, whether individual homes or units in multi-family buildings, represented a health concern for both inspectors and residents.
“Our inspectors were still making site visits to projects that were under construction,” he says. “We would just ask that the workers remove themselves from the site while the inspector conducted the inspection. But with the pandemic, people had concerns about somebody from outside the family’s bubble coming into their occupied homes and you didn’t want to tell the residents they had to leave.”
As pandemic shutdowns commenced in March, Welsh says he began to look at different options to deliver inspection services to occupied buildings without entering them. With encouragement from the city, he began to look at outside resources for remote virtual inspections, including guidelines developed by the U.S.-based National Fire Protection Association for the inspection of sprinkler systems.
White Rock first tested Microsoft Teams software it was already using, to determine if it would function adequately for the task.
“In conjunction with our manager of information and technology we wanted to determine if the streaming would come through if a person were connected to Wi-Fi, or if an LTE connection was good enough,” says Welsh. “We also wanted to try it with a phone that didn’t have all of the apps we had activated on our work phones, using just a link to the video connection. I actually asked my wife to conduct a ‘test inspection’ of the top floor of our house while were both working at home.”
Of the dozen virtual inspection requests received since the service was first offered in mid-April, the most common request has been for multi-residential buildings where a bathtub had been removed and replaced with a walk-in shower.
To request a virtual inspection, contractors forward an email specifying a preferred date and time. White Rock then returns an Outlook invitation for the inspection, including an embedded video inspection link. In some cases, the contractor arranges with the owner to help conduct the virtual inspection on their smart device. Customers who need help turning on their camera and microphone are talked through the instructions by the inspector.
“When you’re conducting in-person inspections, you’re not usually telling the customer what you’re doing,” says Welsh. “In a remote virtual inspection, we provide verbal instructions as to where we want the camera to be pointed. I’m asking them, for example, to pan up or down so I can find a tempered glass marking on the glazing of the shower enclosure. In a way, it’s providing an educational opportunity for the contractor as to what the inspector is looking for.”
Once an inspection is completed, the contractor receives a copy of the inspection report.
So far, inspectors have found that remote virtual inspections have saved them the time involved in driving, finding parking and gaining access to a building. Some contractors liked the more precise timing of inspections, instead of being told that an inspector would arrive at an undetermined time in the morning or afternoon.
White Rock will continue to evaluate the program to see if it will form a permanent part of the city’s inspection services following the pandemic.
“We’re seeing an appetite for it,” says Welsh. “But, we also note that in-person visits are better for tasks such as inspecting the framing of a house. Part of that inspection is walking up and down the stairs. Your muscle memory helps to determine if they’ve met the appropriate rise and run because you can feel it. Remote virtual inspections have their place, but I don’t think they will ever be a complete replacement for in-person inspections.”