Paper or PDF: Which One is Winning the Permit Submission War?

Paper or PDF: Which One is Winning the Permit Submission War?

The COVID-19 shutdown caught many by surprise in 2020. That includes state and local governments.

One impact of the shutdown on the construction industry was the slowing down of permitting. Some cities and counties sprinkled throughout the United States had already launched an online process for accepting new building permit applications, but the majority of building departments were simply not prepared for this type of change.

Some building departments closed for months at the beginning of COVID while others facilitated a continued arrangement for paper permits for submission and renewal while they got online processes up and running.

Government agencies - local, state and federal - were forced to take a better look at their online capabilities.

Suddenly, the ability to apply for and accept permits online was more demanding than ever before. Digital payment was a whole other issue.

You may be asking yourself why this matters now? Good question. Here is the explanation.

Road Sign With Arrows Pointing Two Different Directions

In 2024, most building departments are willing to accept permit applications and construction drawings via email, using a linking system such as Dropbox, Google Cloud or Microsoft Onedrive, or by utilizing digital files that were converted from design programs such as Auto Desk.

DWF, DWG and DWF/DWFs files can simply be converted to PDF files by downloading free conversion software. This quick fix helped keep projects for review on schedule during the pandemic but now is an everyday process.

Did most people in 2020 outside of the architectural and engineering world know this was available? Not likely. How about permit expeditors? It’s a toss-up.

Still, despite the simplicity of online submittals, they made the early days of electronic permit review process more cumbersome than before. Emails not being opened or going directly into spam or junk folders was part of the norm. So were emails accidentally being deleted or getting lost en route.

File transfer sizes and the inability to open zip files increased frustrations. Unless a jurisdiction uses some type of organized or internal routing software (i.e., ProjectDox, Accela) or less complicated versions (i.e., My Government) or something more localized (i.e., My Building Permit), the online submittal process just created more backlogs and wait times for projects to be reviewed and approved.

And, in some cases, it still is.

Other building departments were - and still are - experiencing technical issues such as system crashes and system overloads.

Houston experienced a system crash in 2023 that closed down its online permitting system for more than a week. With paper submittals already eliminated, frustrated property management firms and general contractors were overloaded with aggravation, especially when they all had paper drawings, applications and even payment in hand.

Instead, the permit world in Houston came to a complete stop.

Some cities, such as Greenwich, Connecticut, still require in-person paper submittals. The city does outline information on its website of the submittal requirements, and a few simple applications (in PDF format) are available for download along with directions on how to apply in person.

Greenwich requires two sets of stamped, raised wet-seal plans to scale. No digital files are required even for a backup or for physical storage purposes.

Santa Maria, California, lists counter hours on its website, giving the impression that permits are required to be submitted in person. But when you call and request an appointment, they inform you they no longer take paper plan submittals. Everything is conducted online through the “eTRAKiT” system.

Updating websites with submittal requirements is a whole other discussion! This is one of many reasons why hiring an experienced, professionally and corporately minded permit company would benefit – just in the due diligence aspect alone.

In Milwaukee, the permit office allows applications to be completed online but still requires plans to be submitted in paper format with one digital PDF copy to accompany on a flash drive for storage purposes.

The paper plans are dropped in a bin outside of the building department.

If you have a commercial tenant improvement project that is less than 5,000 square feet, you can request an in-person appointment (Qless) for potential same-day review and permit issuance. However, if the project is more than 5,000 square feet, applications and plans have to be left at the building department in paper form for a review process that can take up to six to eight weeks.

Phoenix accepts plans and applications in paper form. However it is “highly encouraged” to submit all projects in PDF format to the city’s “SHAPE PHX PORTAL” portal.

There is a well-explained and detailed permit submittal process step by step guide for Electronic Plan Review. Expedited internal view services are available for additional fees through the city’s plan review department.

You may be asking “Internal Expedited Review? I thought submitting everything online would speed up the review process?”

You are not alone.

In Columbus Ohio, the building department still accepts both online or paper submittals. The building department provides a drop box for simple paper submittals. Columbus also offers an internal expedited review process for a flat fee.

Most of the jurisdictions in New Jersey do not accept digital plans unless it is accompanied by a full set of paper applications and drawings. This also applies to St. Louis.

So, the lingering question is: Has the online submittal process sped up the review times of permit applications versus submitting everything in paper format?

We are starting to see more building departments “request” or “go back to” accepting applications and plans in paper form than in 2020-22.

The reasons are many, however “the simpler the better” seems to be playing out more and more.

Will this change as younger generations replace the soon to be retiring plans examiners? It may, but in many cases, technology is still years away from being able to replace the paper systems of old.

If you would like to talk through the best option for your area, please email us at or fill out our contact form. We're here for all of your commercial permitting questions.

Share this Post