From an owner's perspective, often the most challenging aspect of a construction project is getting the building permit. Building on your property without obtaining a permit is asking for trouble. Big trouble. Anything you build without a permit can be ordered torn down by the city. It is difficult to sell your property if there are "bootleg" structures on on it. Obtaining a construction loan without a permit will be difficult or impossible. Prior to construction, authorities review proposed construction for safety and zoning compliance. During construction, building inspectors make sure the construction is in compliance with codes. Even something as simple as a new deck or a gazebo might require a building permit.
The following is a rough outline of the typical permitting process a private owner or developer can expect to go through. Be aware that this process is highly variable, and depends on far too many factors to fully cover here.
1) Find out which governmental authority has jurisdiction.
This requires a little research. Generally, the city your project is located in will have authority. Unincorporated locations usually go through a County permitting process. Most building departments have websites. Check these carefully for jurisdiction boundaries. Sometimes the State of California gets involved. Development within 1000 yards (1/2 mile) of the coast in requires California Coastal Commission approval. There are other State and Federal agencies that might also have jurisdiction. Property owners are ultimately responsible for complying with all regulations when building or altering a structure. Failure to do so can have dire legal and financial consequences.
2) Determine if a permit is required:
Interior projects don't require permitting in most jurisdictions. This applies as long as they deal exclusively with furnishings and finishes. Even here you can run into issues however. Existing asbestos tile flooring in older homes requires permitting and hiring of specially silenced contractors for abatement. Something as simple as replacing a toilet might require a permit. Be aware that interior decorators and designers are not licensed professionals. Most lack formal training, and may overlook potential hazards like lead paint or asbestos. Code compliance is not their specialty. Once you start modifying the structural, electrical, or plumbing systems of a building, you will need to obtain a permit. This is for safety, energy efficiency, and environmental reasons. California has some of the strictest energy efficiency codes in the nation. Some cities in Los Angeles County have even stricter codes. For example: Santa Monica requires fire sprinklers in single family residential structures. Its crazy, but true! Assume that any exterior construction requires permitting. This applies even for cosmetic work like new windows or an awning.
3) Satisfy local planning and zoning ordinances.
Local building departments usually have two main divisions. These are the Planning and Zoning Department and the Building and Safety Department. There may be more. Many more. It all depends. The City of Los Angeles is notorious for its insanely complex and bureaucratic building department. Building projects in Los Angeles can require dozens of approvals from various agencies and departments at City Hall.
For this essay, I'll stick with the basics:
Planning and Zoning and Building and Safety departments often require separate applications and fees. Be aware that they might not communicate at all with each other. Assume they don't. This can lead to contradictory requirements. In general, your project must satisfy planning and zoning requirements before going through the building and safety review process. If you design a structure in violation of zoning laws, you wont be allowed to build it, even if it satisfies building and safety codes. Don't count on getting a "variance" from the city for anything, ever. Going through any variance process is an expensive, complex and risky proposition. It is a last resort, usually because some mistake was made early in the design process.
Planing and Zoning departments are primarily concerned with issues like land use. They try to preserve the character of existing neighborhoods. They might also encourage re-development of blighted areas. Planning and Zoning codes cover building set-backs from property lines, lot coverage, and building heights and a minimum. The allowable use of a structure or addition is of central importance. So is parking. Allowable square footage is usually related to parking requirements. Upscale cities often have Architectural review boards. These boards might regulate architectural styles, materials, colors, and even plants for a given project.
The requirements for planning and zoning should be spelled out in the city's General Plan. There may be districts within the city that have special requirements. These so-called “Specific Plans” are overlaid on the General Plan. Some cities have special requirements for buildings designated as Historic. Then there may be specific architectural requirements for various districts. Sometimes an Architectural Review board holds public hearings before approving projects.
Research all building codes.
As the name implies, Building and Safety departments are concerned primarily with safety. Your project must satisfy all structural codes, electrical codes, fire codes, plumbing codes, Heating ventilation and air conditioning codes (HVAC) and energy efficiency codes. Energy efficiency and environmental sustainability codes may apply. commercial projects must meet federal handicap accessibility laws (ADA). Remember that Building codes are minimums, and it usually pays to exceed them.
5) Design your building so that it satisfies all building codes.
This is the really tricky part! Building codes are dense and written in legalese. Buildings themselves are very complex, and the codes that regulate them reflect this. The key is to understand the intent of the code, and to satisfy it. You have to do this without compromising other code sections, or your budget, or the aesthetics of the building.
6) Submit your design in the proper format.
Building departments require submitting drawings and calculations in specific formats. Architectural drawings are used to apply for building permits. They are also used to obtain estimates and bids for construction. You'll need a site plan, floor plans, elevations, sections, and details. You may need to submit structural calculations and Title 24 energy calculations. You may have to provide specifications for the materials and equipment you plan to use.
7) Pull your permit.
Once all the codes and satisfied and plans are approved, you or your contractor can get your permit! The fee for the permit may be included in your plan check fees, or there may be a separate fee. It will be based on the cost of your project. You or your contractor will need to post a copy of the permit at your job site for the building inspector.
As you can see, getting a building permit can be a very complicated process! Project location, size, type and scope are the main factors that determine this complexity. Consulting with a local architect at the outset is always good idea. Licensed architects are one of the most affordable professionals you can work with in the building process. They add value to your project and help you avoid all sorts of problems down the road. Working with an architect can help you design your building so it avoids common pitfalls. They can develop designs that meet your budget and objectives. Licensed architects have a minimum of 16,000 hours of combined education and professional experience under a licensed architect to practice. To get an idea of how tough this is, General Contractors are only required to have 8,000 hours of work experience. The California architecture license exam itself is one of the toughest professional exams in the world. It reflects the complexity and difficulty of architectural practice. Rest assured that any professional that has satisfied these requirements knows their stuff.
MY PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY:
While I help clients obtain building permits, I consider that the easy part of architectural practice. I am deeply concerned with the aesthetics of buildings. I view architecture as both an art and science. I work with clients who want to create buildings that are both functional and beautiful. The real challenge is to meet all regulatory requirements and still produce buildings that inspire and delight my clients. I always work to produce them on time and under budget. My first consultation with clients is always free of charge. The same is true of any reputable architect. I can't help everyone. I evaluate projects to see if I can help charging anything. I am selective because I want my clients to be happy. Naturally, I hope that you will hire me if you decide you need professional assistance, but there is no obligation. Again, The same is true of any reputable architect.
I hope you find this information helpful when planning your next building project.
City of Redondo Beach Planning and Zoning Information:
City of Redondo Beach Building Permit Application Information:
California Coastal Commission:
California Building Codes:
California Energy Code (Title 24):
Federal Accessibility Guidelines: