Construction Permitting – What to Know about Commercial Building Permits


It’s well known that permits are required to complete construction work across all jurisdictions in the United States. However, the nuances of this general rule are lesser-known.

Identifying what specific permits are needed for a given building project is highly dependent on the jurisdiction where the work is taking place. Those permits may be subject to city, county, state or federal guidelines and are often a combination of them. To make the task even more challenging, each of these entities may require the permits for a given project to be issued in various ways; for instance, you may need a building permit and separate but still acquainted trade permits. And to make matters complex, the timeline to achieve issuance of these permits varies significantly between jurisdictions and the scope of the work.

Does this sound overwhelming? Indeed, the permit process can be confusing, daunting and time-consuming. With eyes wide open, however, building teams can help guide the permitting process to ensure that they utilize the most cost-effective and efficient means of obtaining them. As we approach this topic, we are going to be speaking in generalities, since each jurisdiction has slightly different requirements.

When is a Building Permit Required?

Commercial construction projects require permits any time the work is more substantial than simple interior finish upgrades, such as replacing carpet or paint. Depending on the jurisdiction, exterior painting or façade upgrades may require some kind of jurisdictional review if the color patterns are different from the existing program.

Common small changes such as demolishing a single wall to combine two offices into one or moving the location of an exterior entrance door are items that will require a building permit. Indeed, even repairs to an exterior from instances such as damage due to a vehicle or a storm will require a permit.  Likewise, depending on their size, adding canopies or lean-to’s will similarly require permits.

New construction or expansions to existing buildings will always require permits.

If you’re uncertain, it’s best to contact your local building department, explain the work taking place, and ask what the permit requirements will be.

Why are Building Permits Necessary?

It is common for an owner to feel like a building permit should not be necessary. Indeed, it can be a challenge to manage the permit and inspection processes. However, building permits serve multiple larger, important purposes. These include:

  • Protecting life safety of building occupants by enforcing codes for structural integrity.
  • Protecting life safety by establishing standards for exiting, setbacks, fire protection, emergency response access.
  • Recording building plans for future reference in the event that the owner, contractor or design team are not available to provide them.
  • Encouraging equality for disabled persons to access spaces via ramps, elevators, automatically opening doors, wider aisle widths, wheelchair accessible restroom stalls and other accessibility requirements.
  • Lessening the environmental impact of real estate with sustainability measures built into the code, including, but not limited to:
    • Insulation requirements to reduce heating and air conditioning loads
    • Stormwater management systems to prevent contamination of local water sources
    • Low flow toilets to reduce water consumption

Building codes are developed primarily to protect human life, with local jurisdictions adding their own rules for sustainability, disabled access or other social goals. While these requirements can sometimes feel burdensome to a building owner, the over-arching contributions of building codes to saving lives during events such as fires, flooding, earthquakes or other natural disasters have been proven time and again.

What is the Difference Between Building Permits and Trade Permits?    

Building permits are typically the over-arching permit that puts the project on the local jurisdiction’s radar. Building permits can be applied for by an owner, contractor or a design team, with approval from the property owner.

In contrast, trade permits are those related to specific items, typically mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection and low voltage. These trade permits are pulled directly by the trade contractor performing the work. For instance, if an electrician replaces a breaker or installs a new light fixture, the electrician will apply for a permit to complete that work and coordinate with an electrical inspector to achieve approval for the completed installation.

In new construction, if a building permit is pulled from the jurisdiction, trade permits will be pulled separately but will be connected to the building permit. In order to close out the building permit signifying that the work is complete, the individual trade permits must be completed first.

How to Pull a Building Permit

The short answer to how to pull a building permit is: it depends. Unfortunately, all jurisdictions have their own permit process and requirements, and those can differ depending on the project type. Here are some general rules to follow to help with the process, no matter which jurisdiction you’re working with:

  • Provide complete documentation. Most jurisdictions will have a website that lists requirements that must be submitted to acquire a permit.
  • Provide professional design drawings completed by an architect or engineer that is familiar with the jurisdiction.
  • If possible, ask for a pre-permit review meeting with the jurisdiction where the various parties involved in reviewing and approving your documentation will help you understand the process and requirements.
  • Research and hire third-party consultants for research and report writing, with their findings available to submit with your permit documents.
  • Be prepared to pay the permit fees on time.

The more informed you can be prior to submitting your application, the smoother the process will be. Providing complete information will prevent a lot of back-and-forth communications between the permit office and your building team, streamlining the process and pace for approval.

How Long Do Permits Take?

Unfortunately, the timeline for approval is, again: it depends. If your project is very simple, it may be as easy as walking in or submitting an application online to the permit office for an ‘over-the-counter’ permit, which may be available in a matter of hours. More complex projects can take weeks, months, or even years to achieve. It’s best to discuss the complexities of your project directly with the local jurisdiction to get a sense of their timeline. An experienced building team that is familiar with that area of work will also be able to help provide you with guidance, and in many cases, complete the permitting application process for you.

Final Thoughts

Building and trade permits are a necessary part of the construction framework and help to keep people safe and provide record keeping of our physical infrastructure. The process can be daunting! However, with great building and design teams on board, it can be optimally navigated.

If you are considering a building project, we encourage you to contact us today. Our teams will be happy to discuss your project and the permits that may be required.