Buildings and development plans
| | Duncan Lord

Digitising Building and Development records (BA’s & DA’s) for Local Councils

Historical building and development approvals (BA’s & DA’s) have always played a vital role in ensuring the safety, integrity, and regulatory compliance of construction projects. These records encompass critical information such as sewer lines, easements, plumbing, structure and more.

In Australia, almost every local council maintains a physical repository of Building Approvals and Development Approval records as a mandatory practice. But, what happens when the physical storage space or the cost to store these documents and plans becomes inadequate and costly to accommodate the growing volume?

I spoke with Meryl Bourke, Records Management Program Leader at Logan City Council about digitising BA’s & DA’s and how she leveraged the document digitisation services from Avantix to overcome a multitude of challenges.

 

Importance of building and development records

Building and development approval records serve as a vital reference not only during the construction phase but also long after, aiding in renovations, maintenance, and potential demolitions.

Councils across Australia understand the intrinsic value of retaining these documents. Even in the event of a building’s demolition, certain aspects of the old building approvals must be preserved indefinitely. This is primarily to address OHS concerns and to keep records on potentially hazardous building materials.

For instance, when dealing with a damaged sewage pipe, quick access to historical building and plumbing records can be the difference between a swift repair and prolonged inconvenience.

 

Logan City Council’s challenges of managing building and development records

Over the years, City and Town boundaries have been subject to change due to amalgamations, triggering a cascade of challenges regarding the acceptance and management of records. These amalgamations bring forth an influx of records, often unforeseen, necessitating accommodation strategies that were not factored into initial budgetary considerations.

For instance, in the wake of the 2008 Queensland Local Government Reform and amalgamation, Logan City Council found themselves inheriting a staggering 5000 plus boxes of records from a neighbouring council, a situation that demanded immediate attention and a viable storage solution.

The unexpected and substantial influx of records triggered by amalgamations, coupled with the lack of prior budgetary planning, underscored the pivotal role of digitising the archival documents.

1. The costs of maintaining paper building and development documents

One of the primary challenges associated with historical building and development approval records is the traditional, paper-based storage system and the costs of accessing the documents when needed. Maintaining and managing paper documents and records over time can be an expensive endeavour.

The costs are not just confined to the storage itself but extend to the long-term preservation, maintenance, and ongoing retrieval requests of these documents. Local councils, especially in some of the major cities and regional councils, have dedicated archive facilities with massive footprints solely for housing these documents.

Meryl stated that Logan City Council faced the challenge of storing the multitude of documents transferred during and following the amalgamations. The City of Logan tripled in size (both area and population) and further building growth and development led to an ever-increasing number of physical records, eventually outstripping available storage space.

2. User experience and service delivery

Retrieving documents from archive facilities or offsite storage providers can be a laborious, costly and time-consuming process.

For ratepayers, the struggle is two-fold. Accessing these historical building and development records can take days as the Council must first process the request, retrieve them from the archive or storage provider and then present them to the requesting party. This delay can result in inconvenience and, in some cases, damage or injury.

Meryl highlighted that the public requesting building and plumbing documentation is extremely common. Consider the scenario of a damaged sewage pipe or an illegal structure; if immediate access to records is unavailable, it could lead to a prolonged and potentially hazardous situation.

3. Locating building and development records during council amalgamation

Meryl also underscored the impact the council amalgamations had on records and information management. The amalgamations were aimed at streamlining governance but caused significant disruption of existing records management practices, particularly where each individual council used different record keeping practices and solutions.

During the transitional phase, locating records can become a daunting task. Records may be stored across various locations, and in diverse formats, further complicating the process.

4. Inefficient records management

Meryl highlighted that the Logan City Council, like many other local authorities, grappled with the impracticality of managing extensive paper records in multiple locations.

The documents were scattered and in some instances, more unstructured than desired, making them difficult to locate, access, and maintain. This inefficiency not only poses operational challenges but also incurs higher long-term costs.

Storing, managing, and safeguarding paper documents over extended periods is far costlier than adopting digital alternatives. She highlighted the wasted time and resources became a drain on the records management department’s core function.

It was also identified that a number of the BA and DA records were stored on microfilm or microfiche. With outdated microfilm reading equipment, accessing these records efficiently was becoming a real challenge.

5. Documents being found years (even decades) later

Perhaps one of the most revealing issues Meryl touched on, was the fact that records from the neighbouring councils were still being discovered years after the amalgamation. Whilst a memorandum of understanding was developed for the transferring of records discovered after amalgamations, the consequences and impact of this effected the council’s goal of providing efficient and timely services to residents and the community. It also impacted the council’s ability to mitigate risk by making all necessary documents available when needed.

 

Logan City Council’s approach to digitising building and development records

The sheer volume of records posed a logistical conundrum for Logan City Council, especially considering the absence of prior budget allocation. Yet, through the lens of real-life problem-solving, digitising building and development records emerged as the tangible solution to this overwhelming challenge.

By embracing digitisation, Logan City Council navigated the uncharted territory of amalgamation-induced record inundation. Document scanning mitigated the strain on physical storage space, presenting a cost-effective and space-efficient alternative.

Meryl Bourke, who has played a pivotal role in this endeavour, highlighted her key lessons:

Proactive digitisation

Logan City Council started their digitisation efforts back in 2000, making a strategic decision to move to an electronic records management system and digitise all records from that date forward. There was budget allocation for any back scanning of paper/physical records at this time, however, this proactive approach paved the way for a smoother transition and business case in the years to come.

In 2017, the Logan City Council Building and Development Department approached Meryl and her team about a joint project to digitise and back scan as many BA and DA records as possible. A joint business plan project was submitted to the Executive Leadership Team to digitise these records from budget savings and revenue created by the Building and Development Department. This was approved; however this only saw around half of the records digitised, so a budget service enhancement was submitted to Council the following financial year and was approved. The budget was approved due to the enhancement and business case being able to easily identify and list a number of key benefits and savings associated with the digitisation of these record types.

Meryl highlighted that while the Information custodians and business executives are critical in setting the strategic focus, business need and the funding for a digitisation project of this nature, it is important that the project is run and managed by the records and information team. The key reason for this is that the records team are the subject matter experts, manage the storage of the physical records and know first hand what the digitisation requirements are. They also have the business relationships with the storage providers and the vendors offering digitisation services.

Scan-on-demand approach

A scan-on-demand process was implemented for paper records, enabling quick digital access for specific requests. This strategy reduced the reliance on physical document retrieval and storage and was implemented for both the council owned archive facility and the offsite storage providers.

Collaboration with third-party providers

In cases where certain records, like microfilm and microfiche, were not feasible to handle in-house, outsourcing to third-party providers like Avantix proved to be a cost-effective and efficient solution.

Continuous improvement

The digitisation journey was an ongoing process, with Logan City Council continually looking for ways to optimise their operations and enhance service delivery.

 

The ultimate solution: Digitising building and development records

The solution to their archival and storage challenges was surprisingly simple: scanning. Embracing digital technology can revolutionise the management, preservation, and accessibility of historical building and development approval records. Digitising building and development records provides several benefits:

Cost-efficiency:

Digital storage is far more cost-effective than maintaining vast warehouses for paper documents. It reduces ongoing storage expenses and minimises the need for physical space.

Quick and easy access:

Digital records can be accessed in seconds, eliminating the need for lengthy retrieval processes. This not only saves time but also reduces the chances of damage or injury due to delayed access.

Enhanced data preservation:

Digital records can be easily backed up and preserved for the long term, ensuring their safety and accessibility.

Environmental benefits:

Transitioning to digital records is environmentally friendly, reducing paper consumption and the carbon footprint associated with document storage.

The importance of BA’s & DA’s cannot be overstated, as they are indispensable for ensuring the safety and compliance of structures. However, the challenges posed by traditional paper-based storage systems are significant.

Digitising building and development records as the solution offers a practical and efficient way to preserve, manage, and access these vital documents, benefiting both local councils and ratepayers alike. By making this transition (like Logan City Council did), local councils can not only streamline their operations but also contribute to a more sustainable and efficient future.