Navigating the Building Permit Process


Building permits are required for both residential and commercial construction projects in most areas of the United States.  In 2020, the building permit rate decreased in March and April and then steadily rose to near record highs by year end.  Building permits and the process required to receive an approved permit allows jurisdictions to verify that construction will produce buildings that meet local and national building codes, as well as fire, life and safety requirements for occupants.

Today we will focus on commercial building permits and what you need to be aware of before pursuing one.

The graphic above demonstrates the commercial building permit rate across the United States

What Projects Require Building Permits?

The need for a building permit will vary between jurisdictions. What one requires may not be the same as the next.  However, a good rule of thumb is that if the work impacts any of the following systems, a building or trade permit at minimum will be required:

  • Fire protection
  • Mechanical systems
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical
  • Low voltage
  • Structural repairs or upgrades
  • Demolition, installation or relocation of walls, doors or windows
  • Roofing replacements

Jurisdictions are generally concerned with fire, life and safety – in short, making sure that building occupants will be able to safely exit in the event of a building emergency. 

Projects that likely will not require a building permit would be items such as replacing carpet, re-painting or replacing cabinets at the interior of a space. Essentially, if the work is only involving cosmetics, it’s unlikely to need a building permit.  However, it’s always a good idea to verify this with your local jurisdiction before making this assumption.

What Must be Submitted for a Building Permit?

Of course, this answer to what needs to be submitted for a building isn’t a simple one, as the requirements will vary from project to project and between jurisdictions. The best method of determining what will be necessary is to discuss it with your local jurisdiction.  Depending on the size and complexity of the work, this may be as simple as a phone call or in-person visit to discuss with a plans examiner.  However, it may require a more extensive pre-application meeting where the owner and/or designer meets with all of the city officials that will have involvement in the permit review and approval process.

For new construction or significant remodels, there are several levels of jurisdictional review that must take place before a building permit can be issued:

Depending on the complexity of the project, here are some of the items that that are commonly required for submission to the local jurisdiction in order to receive a building permit:

  • Floor plan and fire/life/safety evaluation
  • Structural plans and specifications
  • Civil plans and specifications
  • Landscape plans and specifications
  • Architectural plans and specifications
  • Mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection design drawings and specifications

Additional items that may be required for review and approval of permits include:

  • Racking plans
  • Hazardous Materials Storage
  • Stormwater review
  • Dewatering plans

How Long Does It Take to Get a Building Permit?

Perhaps you have noticed the following theme related to building permits: all of the factors in place to achieve one depend highly on the jurisdiction that you are working with and the complexity of the work. Discussions must take place with the specific jurisdiction to determine this answer. 

Some locations will issue what are known as ‘over the counter’ permits.  Generally, these are for simple projects that do not involve any structural modifications, and they can be given to the applicant on the same day. For new construction projects, it’s not uncommon for the permit process to take two to three years for final issuance. 

For all construction projects, the timeline to achieve a permit will be based on a variety of factors, including:

  • Is it new construction or a remodel?
  • How busy is the building permit department?
  • How quickly does the design team or owner respond to permit review comments?
  • How complete are the permit documents when submitted to the jurisdiction?

Final permits won’t be issued until the building team or owner pays the fees required.

The process of permit issuance usually requires some communication between the design or ownership teams and permit review office.  A quick response to any questions will help move the process forward.  Other contributing factors to a timely permit issuance include:

  • Complete drawings that conform to local codes and zoning.
  • Correct engineering calculations.
  • Frequent check-ins with the building officials to verify status of review.

The design, building and ownership teams would be wise to assign one liaison to work with the permit department to track progress and respond to comments. 

Fast Track Permit Programs

Some jurisdictions have created programs to streamline the building permit process for specific types of work. The City of Portland, for example, has a Facility Permit Program that is designed to assist building owners who may regularly perform tenant improvement work in their buildings.  This program streamlines the review, approval and inspection program so that ongoing construction needs can better be addressed.  We have found this program to be particularly useful for multi-tenant buildings and food production or manufacturing spaces that regularly change equipment and/or space utilization.

If you anticipate the need for multiple building permits in a single year, we’d advise you to discuss these needs with your local jurisdiction to determine the most effective method of acquiring permits. 

COVID-19 Complications with the Permit Process

Jurisdictions across the country and world have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and have been forced to adjust their processes accordingly.  That said, many jurisdictions have faced challenges caused by the remote nature of work and may be experiencing longer than normal turnaround times for building permits.  

One benefit of the pandemic, however, is the forced transition to more paperless methods for permit submittal and issuance.  As our industry works towards additional sustainability, this change serves as an important step in reducing our impact to the environment, while doing our part in slowing the spread of the virus. 

Final Thoughts
The building permit process is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and each requires research, thoughtfulness, and diligence to attain.  Owners will be best served by engaging development, design and construction partners very early in the process that can help guide them in pursuing approvals for their work.  A great team of professionals with experience in the local jurisdiction will have the best opportunity to make the building permit process as efficient as possible. 

If you’re considering a construction project, our teams will be able to help advise you.  Give us a call at 503.624.2090 or contact us here for more information.