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Sarah Chilcott, MD at Planning Portal, discusses the future of Approved Documents in an increasingly digital landscape

by on April 6, 2017

Sarah Chilcott Planning Portal MDFollowing the recent review by the Department for Communities and Local Government, we were asked by PBC Today for our views on the future of Approved Documents. We have republished the interview below.

The Planning Portal has recently launched an online application service for building control. Is publishing Approved Documents also part of the new service?

In fact, we’ve been publishing the current and previous versions of Approved Documents on the Planning Portal site since they were first made freely available online in April 2010. We continue to publish them today because it is critical for our professional users – they know and trust that the information they see on our site will be up to date and accurate and they often come back to check that they are working with the latest versions.

What improvements could be made to Approved Documents to help ensure they keep pace with an increasingly digitised industry?

We welcome the Department for Communities and Local Government review and the proposed changes to the Approved Documents. Some are potentially quite simple though vital improvements; for example, the ability to copy, cut and paste, when creating documents will save a lot of time and frustration.

Others, such as the standardisation and improved clarity of information, are potentially more difficult to achieve. This is especially true if you look at the range of different audiences for the Approved Documents.  At the Planning Portal, we have always worked hard to ensure that we use plain language throughout all our communications, and appreciate the challenges a broad customer base can present.

Since our launch in 2002, we’ve been committed to simplifying the planning process and continue to introduce products and services to enhance this. The interactive house is a prime example of where a lot of content that is potentially difficult to understand, is clarified when supported by images. The house, and the other interactive guides, also provide specific information relevant to different developments and further links to planning and building advice.

What are your thoughts relating to the review findings on design and accessibility?

We know that the digital world moves quickly, so it’s not surprising that a number of the review recommendations focus on ease of use and accessibility: better navigation, improvements to search functionality and the ability to access via mobile devices. In our own case, design which responds to different screen sizes was an important element of our website redesign last year, and since the launch we’ve seen that mobile traffic now accounts for over a third of all visits to the Planning Portal.

I was also pleased to see a recommendation for HTML versions of the Approved Documents, which will help users search within and across documents more efficiently. Ultimately, all service users want to ensure their applications are right first time and that they are compliant. Adding context to guidance, clearer information and improved accessibility, whether Approved Documents are accessed online or downloaded and kept offline, should benefit all user groups.

What are the main challenges for these sectors to keep up with, and embrace, technological advances?

I do believe that technology has an opportunity to truly transform the planning and building sectors. It’s something that the Planning Portal has always led on and we continue to do so. There can be barriers such as cost of purchasing equipment, but many of the challenges come from changing the processes and practices of those involved in delivery. Following the recent launch of our building control application service, which caters for both local authorities and Approved Inspectors, we want to work with the industry to consider how it might help to transform other areas such as initial notices or certifications by competent persons, improving collaboration and efficiency and resulting in better delivery for customers.

Application volumes and engagement in general with the Planning Portal building control service have been very encouraging so far and, as always, we welcome feedback on how we can further develop and improve the service to meet the changing needs of the industry and its service users.

This article first appeared in PBC Today.

5 Comments
  1. Miles Forsyth permalink

    Thank you for sharing Sarah.

    I’d mostly agree (as a user of the ADs) with what you’ve said – HTML would sometimes be useful, as well as a ‘Ray Tricker’ approach – where all regs relating to specific elements (walls, windows, roofs etc.) are combined so one can easily check different criteria (fire, structure, thermal, acoustic for example) all in one ‘place’, by that element.

    The ‘problem’ the ADs have is that they are inevitably a compromise, trying to be all things to quite a wide range of users – from householders and small businesses to those working on much larger, more complex projects. Some just need an ‘answer’ – how thick ? What U-value ? What fire rating ? Although sometimes tough to navigate they do still do this, mostly, quite well.

    Where the ADs fail is that they’re sometimes a step beyond (and additionally seen as prescriptive, which the ADs are not) what the actual regulation requires. In some instances, where needing to ‘go outside the box’ a little it would be useful to have performance specs for elements – guidance offered is a bit ‘one size fits all’ – assuming every project is a new build – leading to a reliance on (and then delivery of) standardised approaches. I once had an issue to do with a stairs and it wasn’t until one drilled down into past and current British Standards that one could actually find out exactly why they sometimes need to be the specific dimensions they’re required to be. And, in reality, in some instances, they don’t always need to be ! If designers are to be able to ‘design’ they should easily be able to find out the reasons why and how the guidance figure has been arrived at, in order to enable them to be truly appropriate to the specific context. I’m sure this sounds too ‘pernickety’ to many, but it would be useful to know for those times one needs to ‘push’ things slightly further.

  2. Chris Dixon permalink

    The Approved Documents need ‘parameterizing’ to some extent. That is, as well as a plain English description, we need parameters + acceptable values. This is the only way the building regs can work digitally with BIM. If the Approved Docs were parameterized then compliance checks can be automated.

    • Miles Forsyth permalink

      That’s interesting Chris

      I’m not a BIM’er – mostly because I’m a one person practice, limited resources (time. money) and until my clients ask it of me I’m unlikely to make the leap. But, I understand the principles in terms of data enhanced cad elements within a ‘drawing’. You’re suggesting then, I guess, that each window I insert as a manufacturer’s ‘block’ has attached data on its thermal performance, area, total watts/degree difference lost perhaps ? Extract rate for a fan perhaps ? Fire integrity of a door ?
      I agree, it sounds excellent, but doesn’t this allow BIM to further polarize the design to construction culture ?

      At one end, for large projects, buyers and contractors are no doubt following the spec and drawings to the letter. Ordering from the BIM enabled schedule.

      At the ‘small’ end of the market it’s somewhat unusual if the building ends up entirely like that drawn !! Clients intervene and ‘tinker about’ with the build (often without reference to the designer – very typical in residential extensions) and contractors source component elements on ‘what the merchant I usually use has in stock’, generally.

      Personally I’d be with you Chris. Designer’s feel a need to control the end result to a significant extent – otherwise why use a designer ? Contractors want the job done as quickly and as easily as possible – maybe switching specified elements saving cost or simply being expedient – without realising the component’s specific functional criteria. Building Inspectors are somehow stuck in the middle, trying to relate proposed performance at plan checking against that that they see in built reality. How does the Inspector on site then relate actual to designed, other than via an iPad perhaps ? It’s entirely possible I guess, once we’re all singing from the same CAD system. Your comment is therefore very interesting and maps the future no doubt.

      • Miles, you’re right that some small practices are being left behind with BIM and it will probably polarise the industry. Trust me that contractor’s not working to your drawings is something that happens even on major projects! In many ways, digitisation will put an end to this, as every product will have a barcode or RFID with it’s serial number that can be scanned – instead of using the naked eye to check the installed product is correct.

  3. colin jones permalink

    I used the PP in Jan 16 & found it easy, informative & user friendly. Now (06/05/17) I am trying to use it for my daughters extension & find it very confusing & unusable by the layman ( a very savvy layman, if I may say), which is made worse by my local council’s planning office to take phone calls & e-mails unanswered in 1 month.

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