How to Fit Innovation Into a Structured Permit Process
When Meritage executives set out to participate in the 2018 BUILDER Concept Home, they had a clear, ambitious goal in mind: to change the industry by reimagining what renewable and resilient mean in home building.
With that lofty goal and a floor plan in mind, the team started the project. One key to the process was working with suppliers on cutting-edge products that would elevate this home’s chances of meeting its objectives.
Joe Kathman, director of operations at Meritage Homes, points out that as a production builder, Meritage has disciplined processes it follows for permitting. It has a unique set of options and products that local inspectors are familiar with, and that make the process as efficient as possible every single time.
However, that changed with the reNEWable Living Home project. Steve Johnson, production manager at Meritage, says the company selected new and different products to reach its goals for this concept home. With that decision, the assembly line approach that Kathman describes goes out the window. Typically, Meritage uses the same products and the same manufacturers so it can operate at complete efficiency. In order to do that it has stacks of the necessary documents and can pull the product approval off the shelf to go to permit.
In the case of the reNEWable Living Home, some products, such as the wall system HercuWall, haven’t been used by the company before, and it has to be approved by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Product Approval.
Kathman explains that it isn’t necessary to have all the product approval in place during the permitting, but it’s a matter of efficiency. If the team doesn’t have something when it gets out in the field, then construction could halt to a complete standstill.
Fortunately, technology and communication improvements have evolved this process considerably in the past few years. Meritage Homes can now submit all of its construction documents online. Once online, they are immediately visible to all other involved parties.
With this online interface, the surveyor, the AC vendor, and the truss manufacturer can all look at the plans online and respond within five business days. Without changes, Kathman says this process can be turned around in only one day. But when there are new plans and new options, he adds that it slows down the process by as much as 50%.
Meritage Homes has evaluated these changes and their impact on the process, and the builder continually looks at new ways to expedite the process. Johnson says Meritage currently offers up to 10 structural options to home buyers, which had to be limited for the sake of these efficiencies.
“It’s all about who you want to be,” said Patrick Recio, Meritage’s regional VP of purchasing, Florida. “Meritage wants to be a production builder, but at the same time you can’t be everything to everyone. We select the options based on what we have sold in the past in that geographical location. We can’t bog down the consumer on too many options to choose from.”
The Meritage team also pursued master filing at the county, which is a new process that would speed up the paperwork. However, it’s a difficult process and takes several months to complete. With master filing you have to submit every plan, option, and elevation; if you have several options and elevations, the process becomes more difficult and longer to obtain.
County Collaboration Is Key
After the online review by the vendors, the package is submitted to the county with two copies of everything and goes through a series of audits: zoning review to look at the plot plan, engineering review to look at finished plot and flood zone; and finally the building review that includes structural aspects, tie downs, and straps for Florida approval.
Kathman and his team closely monitor how the process moves through each department, so if there is a hiccup or a hold, they can contact the county directly.
Meritage says the time for the typical process in Florida’s Orange County fluctuates monthly, depending on the county’s workload. Right now the process can take from three to five weeks. Kathman points out that collaboration and viewing the county as a valuable partner is key to working together to overcome obstacles.
It’s a busy time for housing in the area. Hanley Wood’s Metrostudy shares that currently, starts and closings are high in southwest Orange County, nearly to their all-time high of more than 3,000 starts in 2004. And, inventory is leveling out for the first time since 2014. Of homes being built in the area, 35% fall into the $300,000 to $399,000 range. Another 25% are priced from $250,000 and $299,000, and 14% are priced from $400,000 to $499,000. The remaining 9% fall between $500 and $749, where the Meritage reNEWable Living Home price point will be.
This year, Meritage not only plans on sustaining that but it plans to change the future of home building with what it discovers in terms of resiliency and renewable features with the reNEWable Living Home. Stay tuned on the process of the project by visiting www.builderonline.com/renewable.