How To Get a Building Permit for a Single-Family Project

What exactly happens when an architect applies for a building permit?
Answer: a series of events marked by stages of agony, boredom, terror, begging, negotiation, and finally, acceptance.

For most clients, the process is mysterious and invisible, and the project feels as if it’s dragging on forever. But for architects, this is a critical, and often nerve-wracking step in getting a project into real, tangible form.
For most single-family residential projects in Los Angeles, the typical sequence of activities follows a fairly standard, if tedious and effortful pattern.

Step 1. Project submittal.
The architect goes to an office of the Department of Building and Safety to submit the project for a building permit. The submittal package contains all the project’s architectural and structural engineering drawings, a thick book of engineering calculations, a property survey by a licensed surveyor, drawings showing environment-related details required by the Green division, and energy calculations for the project (also known as Title 24 energy calcs)–all required by the City. The architect also brings a completed application form known as a B-Permit form.

First meeting with a permit official. At the Building Department office, the architect meets with a building official who confirms the project’s address and then checks the package to make sure that it is complete. Then the architect is sent to another official who accepts the submittal package, registers the permit application in the computer system, and calculates the permit fee. And finally the applicant pays for the plan-check portion of the building permit fee, and leaves, receipt and tracking number in hand.

If the stars are aligned, the office empty of applicants and the employees all present, a typical submittal can take as little as 45 minutes. More often a submittal takes about two hours. And if the office is filled with people waiting to meet with plan-check officials, as it has lately, the wait to see an official can take four hours or more. Once I waited six hours.

Step 2. Project Review.
Now the Building Department assigns a plan-check engineer to review the drawings. If the owner agreed to pay the additional expedite fee, the building official will start reviewing the drawings in about a week, and will be ready with his or her corrections about a week later–so about two weeks for the first turn-around. Without the expedite fee, the plan-check engineer will start the review in 20-30 days, and will be ready one or two weeks later.

Step 3. Corrections.
Drawing corrections. The plan check engineer reviews all the information, marks up the drawings in red pen indicating corrections or changes that are needed, and provides a list of additional changes. Sometimes the redlined corrections highlight mistakes that need fixing. But often the corrections include items that are already shown on the drawings correctly–and often these notes are even placed right next to the offending (or rather, non-offending) item. This makes it easier to point them out during the next plan-check meeting.

Approvals by other agencies. The plan-check corrections will list other City agencies whose written approval, or “clearance” is needed for the permit. These may include the Grading Division, Public Works, the Green Division, the Fire Department (for projects located in a Severe Fire Hazard zone), and others. All of these require in-person meetings.

Sometimes these clearances require additional drawings or detail. For example, if a property is lower than the street, as sometimes happens in hilly areas of Los Angeles, the City will often demand that rainwater running off the roof be collected to a sump pump, and then pushed up to the street curb above. This sump pump needs approval from the Grading Division, which requires a mechanical engineer to prepare the pump’s engineering drawings. And then the City requires a notarized affidavit to be recorded at the County Recorder’s office, in which the owner promises to maintain the pump properly.

More approvals still. Other clearances may be needed if the property is in a methane seepage zone, which is surprisingly common in the Los Angeles area, or if the property is in a watershed protection area. And a Grading Preinspection is needed in most hilly areas of the city (a grading inspector is sent to the property prior to permit submittal, to determine the physical conditions that may impact the permit).

All of these procedures and approvals are obtained by the architect during the plan-check correction phase, and can take some time to complete.

Step 4. Review Meeting. After the architect and engineer correct the documents and drawings, and all the agencies have signed off on the clearances, a return appointment is made with the original plan-check engineer. The building official checks all the corrections, usually disputes a number of structural engineering items, and then–if all goes well–signs the “ready-to-issue” approval form. This approval form is the passport to the final, next step: the contractor or owner go to the Building Department, pay the final building permit fees and get the permit drawings stamped. Construction can proceed.

This is a short description of the process, with common, straightforward projects. In many cases additional steps are needed, such as minor variances that may be approved by the plan-check official, or–in more unusual cases–full-blown variances requiring hearings and rulings. And some areas of Los Angeles also require approval by local Design Review Boards before the City will issue a building permit.

The nature of the project itself, the physical aspects of the lot, the zoning in the area, the width of the street–all of these can have an impact on the amount of review, and review time needed for a permit, and require a great deal of the architect’s attention.