Before you begin building a house on purchased land, you have to get a Building Permit also known as Building Plan Approval. There are building permits for different types of structures and residential developments. Also building requirements may differ from one place to another within a country, region or district. In the United States, you will be required to comply with regulations across the administrative levels, from state to county/city codes. The scope and type of your construction project will be taken into account as well as other information like the site location, occupancy classification, construction area, estimated cost and environmental impact.
How to Get a Building Permit / USA Building Permit Application
To get a building permit, you must submit an application form to the local building authority along with applicable fees and building drawings. The Department of Building at your city municipality office is usually responsible for approving building plans. The following is a list of items that you should submit or fulfil:
- Building Drawings. (Make at least three copies but this depends on the Approval Department in your city) Depending on the requirements in your city, your drawings should be prepared by a registered architect or certified building designer.
- Application Form completed and signed by the Owner, Contractor and Architect/Building Designer. (Make at least three copies for reference) This form is available at the municipality office or you can download the form from the city website.
- Application Fees (Depends on State or City).
- Examination and Inspection Fees (Depends on State or City).
- Estimated Cost of Construction
- On the application form, information about the owner, building contractor and architect /designer including affidavits is required.
- To make the process easier and smooth, you have to hire a licensed designer or building surveyor who provides certification services. This will save you the hustle of making numerous revisions since the licensed certifier knows what is needed to comply with building regulations.
After a building permit is issued, the owner should post a notice of commencement on the construction site. This notice should be seen by the building inspector on the first visit to the site. The building inspector may want to verify your drawings on site, and therefore your approved drawings should be within reach. In case you want to make changes to the drawings after they have been approved, you should not begin construction until the changes have been reviewed and approved.
It is important to know that penalties may be applied if the owner proceeds with construction without notifying the Building Department of any changes to building plans. You may be required to take down the structure, a stop order may be issued and your building license may be suspended. In some cases, building violations may attract a huge fine, imprisonment and litigation.
During construction, the building official will visit the site to inspect the building elements. The number of inspections that need to be made for any type of project are indicated on the application form. As an example, inspections may be required upon the completion of each construction activity such as excavations, substructure, superstructure and roofing.
The owner has to notify the building officials to come for an inspection when a building phase is completed. When a project exceeds the required number of inspections, fees may be charged for additional inspections.
Classification of Construction Works
Depending on what you are planning to build or renovate, your application for a building permit should fall into one of the following categories:
Categorization by Type of Works
- New Building – This is a completely new construction, proposed works and design plans that have not yet been implemented on the site. The building only exists on drawings.
- Alterations – These are adjustments and modifications to elements of an existing building or structure. It might be a remodelling job, renovation or refurbishment. The building owner might want to upgrade the looks of the building or make changes to the building envelope, interior walls, partitions and finishes, exterior walls and finishes, floor finishes, ceilings, doors, windows, joinery and fittings. Alterations usually involve removal of existing items, shifting items to a new position, breaking down walls to make way for new windows and doors.
- Additions – These are additional structures built on the internal or external parts of an existing building. The new construction works may be adjoined to the building or built as separate free standing structures, for example garages, patios, backyard kitchens, braai spots and maid living quarters. Major works include additional storeys and extensions to the existing building. Minor works include new partitions to create extra rooms. Just like alterations, additions are usually done as part of a refurbishment or renovation project.
- Repairs – Repair works are done as part of a short-term or long-term maintenance plan. They are done to building parts which show signs of stress as well as parts which are broken, malfunctioning or performing poorly. Fixing is required for cracks, leaks, fractures including items which are chipped, scratched, disfigured, faded, stained and tainted. Depending on the part of the building which needs attention, repairs are done to walls, wall finishes, floor finishes, roof, ceilings, plumbing, joinery, fittings, windows and doors. The scope and nature of repair works is usually minor compared to alterations and additions.
- Change of Occupancy – Buildings are classified into categories based on their use, occupancy or purpose. If you are planning to build a house, one of the most important documents that you will need is a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) which approves your building for a specific use. The City authorities (i.e. Department of Building) will issue a CO once your building is inspected and approved. To get this certificate, you have to wait until the construction project is complete, before keys are handed to the owner. A building surveyor or inspector will visit your newly completed house to check compliance with occupancy requirements. If there is something that is not in compliance, you will be required to change it before a CO is issued. After some time, you might need to make changes to the building. When you need to make changes to the building (renovations) or when you want to change the use of the building for a different purpose, you will need to get a Change of Occupancy certificate which allows you to make the required changes.
Events which require a Change of Occupancy certificate:
- When you have a non-residential building (shop, office, factory, warehouse etc.) that you want to convert into a residential property.
- When you have a house or any residential property that you want to convert into a non-residential building.
- When you need to build additional storeys to an existing single storey house.
- When you are renovating or refurbishing your house.
- Temporary Structure – Temporary structures are built to provide accommodation or storage on a non-permanent basis. They are only there for the duration of an event or as an emergency requirement. Examples include pavilions at trade shows, modular housing for construction workers, low-income earners and people displaced by natural disasters. Automotive companies may build temporary garage shelters for vehicles during an auction. Wholesalers may build temporary warehouses to store inventory. Other types of temporary structures include greenhouses, workshops and camping houses.
- Demolition – If you intend to demolish an existing building to make way for a new replacement, you have to get a demolition permit. Even if you are not planning to build a new house on the site, you will need permission from the city authorities to conduct a demolition. The city has to assess the size of the structure and the extent of the demolitions that are required. A permit is usually required for bigger and more complex projects. You have to distinguish between demolitions and alterations. In alterations, a large portion of the building will remain while in demolitions, the whole house is destroyed. The right method of demolition has to be prescribed by the city codes if there is a possibility of affecting the surroundings or adjacent buildings.
A demolition permit can be obtained at the same with your building permit if you intend to replace the building.
- Deconstruction – An alternative to demolition is deconstruction. Both processes involve taking down and replacing the building. The difference is that deconstruction is a methodical way of taking down a building with the intent of salvaging building materials. The walls are carefully taken down, windows, doors, ceramic tiles, fittings, roofing material and other items are carefully taken out. Brick, concrete and asphalt debris is stored for re-use. If you intend to salvage and re-use building materials, you will be better served by getting a deconstruction permit in place of a demolition permit.
- Other – if your works cannot be classified in any of the above categories, they should be classified as other.
Categorization by Occupancy or Building Use
When you are filling the application forms for a building permit, you have to classify your building project according to its intended use or purpose. The following types of occupancies are available:
- Residential – Houses, apartments, condos and hotels etc.
- Commercial – Shops, supermarkets, shopping malls, merchants and retailers etc.
- Office – This includes most types of consultants – insurance, banks, law firms, pension funds, marketing, graphic design, travel agents, accountants, quantity surveyors, architects etc.
- Industrial – Factories, manufacturing plants, refineries, assembly lines, auto repair, construction, gas and oil industries etc.
- Educational – Schools, colleges, universities etc.
- Medical – Hospitals, clinics and surgeries etc.
- Assembly – Community halls, theatres, clubs, pubs, auditoriums, stadiums, amphitheatre and restaurants etc.
- Private Garage
- Storage – Warehouses, garages, containers etc.
- Hazardous – Buildings where toxic materials are produced or stored e.g. chemical plants.
- Technology – Laboratories, experimental facilities etc.
The exact building occupancy categories are outlined in the International Building Code (IBC).
Categorization by Trade
Depending on the state or city codes, you may be required to apply for additional permits in the following trades or works:
- HVAC/Mechanical Engineering Installations and Services
- Electrical Engineering Installations and Services
- Sprinkler System
- Industrialized Units
- Fire Alarm
- Gas Systems
Categorization by Land Zone
The land on which you want to build a house or structure may affect your application for a building permit. Land zoning is a regulatory practice used by Municipalities and Town Councils to divide land into areas designated for specific use and purposes. The land in the municipality is divided into zones for residential, commercial and industrial development. For each major zone, the municipality will create sub-zones or locations which have their own requirements. As an example, in a residential zone, you may find separate locations designated for low-cost housing, high class homes, middle class homes etc. There are restrictions on the type of dwellings that you can built, for example, the gross floor area, height and number of rooms may not exceed a given range. You have to choose the right zone for your development if you want to be successful in getting a construction permit.
Land zones are also applied to areas with special situations and environmental issues. These are listed below:
- Flood Zone – Areas at risk of flooding. Insurance is compulsory if you live in a high risk area. This includes developments on river banks, valleys and coastal areas.
- Fire Zone – Areas prone to bushfires and fire hazards.
- Landslide Area – Areas near the mountain side or sloping terrain are prone to slope instability, which causes a mass of loose rocks, soil or ice to slide down at rapid speed causing destruction along the way.
- Liquefaction Zone – Areas with loose ground and sandy soils.
- Access Affected by Construction in Progress.
- Ecological Zone – Areas of high ecological value whereby the ecosystems (wildlife and environment) are protected by the government.
- Cultural Zone – Areas of high cultural and historical significance which are usually protected by the government.
- Agricultural Zone – Areas for farming i.e. crop production and livestock rearing.
- Alquist Priolo Earthquake Fault Zone – Areas with seismic hazards. The areas are situated along the fault lines of an earthquake map.