By Lacey Sikora
Steven Cutaia's office is full of books. A lot of books. Cutaia, chief building official, permit processing manager and ADA coordinator for the village of Oak Park, says it's all just a part of the job.
In his three-year tenure with the village, he has worked to streamline the permit process, putting as much online as possible. But the books, which include municipal and national codes both current and historic, take up a lot of space.
While he has made it possible for Oak Park residents and their contractors can get through the permit process without cracking open a book or stepping foot inside village hall, Cutaia says the books are important references to every aspect of building in the village.
Cutaia, who has worked in building permits in the Chicago area for 22 years, says the backbone of all these regulations is safety.
"In the past 100 years as we've developed these codes, everything evolved because we're learning from our mistakes," Cutaia said. "We learned that building tall buildings out of wood created a fire hazard. We learned that connecting a wide range of appliances to a limited number of outlets in a kitchen creates a fire hazard."
He says the codes are meant to provide standards in building with the aim of making homes and commercial buildings safe. Testing by the Underwriters Laboratory helps ensure that materials and methods are up to those standards. From fire codes to plumbing codes, he says that regulations that may seem arbitrary are not.
"With window size, they've done tests on how much space a fireman with a tank needs to enter a window," Cutaia said. "With window height, they consider toddler height so that a toddler can get out during a fire, but that's not so low a toddler can fall out. Consistency in stair height and the grip size of the handrail are considered to deter falls."
He states that codes are not static.
"Codes evolve because of the newest and latest technology," he said.
He points out that old-growth oak is stronger than pine, so using pine in construction calls for different sizes of floor joists. The depletion of forests has led to more wood composites being used in construction, which calls for new standards.
The entire permitting process is meant to result in safer homes for people to live in, and Cutaia says that is what he and his co-workers strive for.
"The whole system is a check-and-balance system," he said. "We rely on the homeowner to use a knowledgeable architect, on the plan reviewer to review in depth, on you to hire a contractor to do the construction drawings, and on our field inspector to inspect. There should be at least three to five sets of eyes reviewing your project."
Since taking the reins in Oak Park three years ago, Cutaia has worked to streamline a permitting process that could seem slow and disorganized. He points to a photograph from that time of a room filled with drawings of construction plans and says it could take hours for the right plans to be located for review.
Today, that room is used for office space and the drawings are submitted electronically.
"Everything is digitized," Cutaia said. "Everything is at everyone's fingertips at a moment's notice."
In order to get a permit, a homeowner or contractor goes to the portal on the village website (villageview.oak-park.us/CityViewPortal) and proceed through a series of nine steps, no paper needed.
Drawings are uploaded, and the system automatically flags any department that needs to review the permit, including forestry, parking, zoning, fire department or historic reviews.
Cutaia says the online system makes the permit application process much easier for everyone.
"When I came here, it took five applications just to do a small bathroom remodel," he said. "We condensed everything to one single application. We wanted to streamline it for customers. Today, we have one full-time person reviewing drawings, and the review is done in a timely manner because time is money. Our permit review time has been cut drastically."
The reviewer can add notes for minor changes directly to the drawings online so that small changes don't trigger a denial of the permit. Once a permit is approved and Cutaia signs off on it, a customer is issued a permit number and pays online.
"You don't even have to come into village hall anymore," Cutaia said.
If you do go to village hall, you can even teach yourself how to avoid such trips in the future at a kiosk, which explains how to use the online permit portal, right next to the building department reception desk.
"The kiosk is to teach the applicants that they can obtain a permit without leaving their living room or office," Cutaia said.
He points out the now-empty rows of file cabinets in village hall and says the move to the online system has changed the way the office operates. The permit processing staff now consists of three permit technicians, one permit supervisor, one building inspector, and other jobs are outsourced to consultants.
Cutaia says this allows the office to operate more efficiently. During the busy building season, they can ramp up their work and slow down in the depths of winter when there are fewer projects to review.
"We're head and shoulders ahead of most municipalities in terms of technology," Cutaia said. "We're able to do an inspection within 24 to 48 hours. In a lot of places, it can take more than a week."
A complete list of building permit requirements is on the village website (www.oak-park.us/village-services/permits-processing-division) and Cutaia stresses that permits should be taken seriously.
"In a built environment, you're so close to your neighbor, you don't want anyone taking chances," he said.
He notes that there are plenty of people who try to do work without permits.
"Unfortunately, we do find that a lot of homeowners do work without a permit. We don't do a search warrant. We're a complaint-driven department," he said, adding that typically, neighbors will complain if they think that non-permitted work is occurring. He says that when the department receives a complaint, they will investigate.
"When we get a complaint, we communicate with the homeowner. If there's a contractor onsite, they get a ticket. The permit fee is doubled for starting work without a permit, and we can fine up to $800 a day per violation."
However, those fines are rare.
"We're not out for money, we're out for compliance," Cutaia said. "We're out for a perfect product for you to live in. That's what we strive for."
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