Why Is It So Hard To Get Building Permits?

When I first started taking Construction Documents to the Building Department, you heard of people putting their design ideas on a napkin and getting permits. Then it changed and you could draw up construction Documents and if it was a simple design, we would use Type 5 standard approved details from the building department. Back then, very few city planning issues created hearing requirements. At that time, all of the other city departments would usually check plans over the counter with a practical review rather than word-by-word. Then with the introduction of technology, those easy city department reviews became much more complicated. They now require systematic analysis for each box being checked off. In the last few years, even words have had their definition or meaning change throughout the design process. The plan checkers at all the city department counters have the most intensive perspective in reviewing almost all plan check situations. Everyone needs to protect their position in a legal and auditable fashion. This is true in most business situations now. Life in all business situations has changed.

Because of the added thoroughness of the plan check process, getting that building permit might take longer because of all the numerous government sign offs one needs. These can only happen after your plans are under review in plan check. Once you get the first plan check review returned you receive the sign off sheets and go to task. At the beginning of a project we go to each of the governmental department plan check counters that we assumed would be needed for sign off to verify requirements within the design. Once the Construction Documents are in plan check many of the answers we might get from the original counter review questions change. Some time for the better but usually a bit different, which effects the projects design. As Architects, we have to go with what the code says and the city interpretations of those issues discussed. One word and its interpretation can change all through the design process. I just received approval on a job where the word “each” was affecting building setbacks. My determination helped resolve that issue saving the client one year and a lot of money.

These types of issues have come up recently on a few projects. It’s making it very difficult to have a design that needs adjustment after the plan check corrections show up. Only a few years ago, when working on a project you would check the building codes and were pretty sure of what you designed and all the interpretations of the rules would stay consistent. Development guidelines keep changing. As Professionals, we have always worked with the past experience of governmental requirements in mind. Now, the rules change faster. City Planning, Engineering, Cal Trans, Sanitation, Green codes, Traffic Studies, Department of The State Architect (DSA), Government projects, and many other authorities have very specific requirements. They have to enforce the rules they must follow even if they agree that those rules and building codes seem a bit un-realistic for the situation being looked at. . Audits are the norm. If you have notes on the plans in one place, some reviewers require those notes in several places on the plans. This can be very frustrating because it’s not how Architects have been trained. In our schooling, we are taught that one set of details and notes is sufficient.

Waiting in plan check lines used to be done sitting in a chair awaiting your number to be called. Now it is automated and a computer is continuously calling numbers at all the city department counters. You really have to listen and pay attention to the numbers being called because if you miss your number you will have to reschedule your appointment, adding weeks to your project, possibly months. If you want to talk to a Supervisor because you need clarification of a code or just need to clarify a city rule, you cannot just email these individuals; you have to start your correspondence with the plan checker assigned to your project and wait while you go up the chain of command. It’s very difficult to expedite these issues. In the end once the question makes its way to a Supervisor, you get back the answer you expected, but needed documented to move forward with a building permit or certificate of occupancy. This process makes projects take much longer to complete. Unfortunately It is raising the cost of architectural services while all the costs of permits and construction are going up at a fast pace. The affordability of developing any project keeps getting father out of reach for most people. Now we are back to the 1% vs 99% kind of issues I have talked about before. Some level of common sense needs to be incorporated into plan check process at all government levels.

Many diverse parameters now involve many mathematical matrixes needing engineers input and approval of plans just for us, the Architect, to even start designing a project. From the height and setback to energy efficiency, water collections, and, deconstruction of the old buildings, there is an ever-expanding need for many engineers on a project. Sometimes the threshold of requirements is in a specific area, or it could be an addition over 500 square feet, or glazed openings over so many square feet, driveway widths and locations within the city street patterns, and an endless list of other issues. Smaller projects do not always make financial sense. The limitations imposed and additional cost incurred on smaller projects verses how the same cost benefit issues on a large project need to be addressed. The codes are mostly designed to affect larger projects for that is where the government spends most of its effort. Smaller projects do not have the higher level of design issues the cities are addressing at this time.

As I talk with other professionals, I hear the same type of stories. The architectural profession and all the design consultants have to deal with all these changes in the design processes. I truly fear when the next big disaster hits the city the red tape. Will greatly so down the rebuilding process. I hope the consistency of code enforcement will catch up with itself soon. We need a true path to move forward while in while the cities are struggling with code and interpretational changes, the inconsistent interpretations, and common sense applications of the governing rules. In Los Angeles could take up to four more years to clarify. Conflicting goals within the State, County and City is part of the issue. The documentation, auditability, and legal protection I believe are the primary roadblocks to a smoother design and permitting process.

At JHAI we fight for all our clients. My issues is that by attempting to design something that our client wants or they see next door we keep hitting the wall on many of the issues noted above. We spend the time needed to take issues all the way up the ladder and have still been very successful in getting what we believe is the true intent of the codes and clients goals approved and permitted. Then inspection is another issue I will talk about at another time.