Wikipedia succinctly addresses the general question of what a building permit is:
A construction permit or building permit is a permit required in most jurisdictions for new construction, or adding on to pre-existing structures, and in some cases for major renovations. Generally, the new construction must be inspected during construction and after completion to ensure compliance with national, regional, and local building codes. Failure to obtain a permit can result in significant fines and penalties, and even demolition of unauthorized construction if it cannot be made to meet code.
While requirements vary by location, if you’re planning to build something in the U.S., chances are you will need to get a permit. There is a common misconception that building departments are nothing but a pain in the neck.
As a child I remember hearing my Dad complain about the inefficiencies of our city workers while trying to build a second story deck that covered a sizable area just outside of our walkout basement. As it turned out, he had been red-flagged by the city (basically an order to cease work) for failing to obtain a building permit, and when he went down to the city offices to find out what he needed to do to fix the situation, they were, of course, as they always are, on their lunch break.
Whether it’s an inconvenient lunch break, long lines, fees, plan check delays, or whatever, there’s plenty for people to complain about. Just remember, complaining never got anyone anywhere. Or as one of my favorite sayings goes, which, ironically, also came from my Dad: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”
I have heard many negative stories about building departments, but in my career I have generally found building departments to be well intentioned, helpful and good at what they do. Viewing them as a barrier to your success is counterproductive and, in my opinion, usually inaccurate.
Building departments exist as a safeguard to protect unnecessary loss of human life. Essentially, they make sure that citizens aren’t building anything unsafe in their communities and that design professionals aren’t overlooking anything in their designs. Design professionals, such as architects and engineers, make building codes a lifelong study to ensure that their designs conform with current best practices. Best practices are an accumulation of knowledge obtained from past failures.
“But it’s my property,” you say. “It’s none of their business, I can build it however I want!” Not really. Unless you’re never going to have guests over and plan to tear it all down when you move, it is the city’s business and should be of concern to all of us as well.
In most cases, when you buy a home, you want to be confident that everything has been built according to code. How safe would you feel living in San Francisco knowing that your neighborhood was rebuilt according to the fire codes of 1906? Or in the case of our deck (which was eventually built with a permit) how safe would you feel walking under the part of it that had a hot tub resting on it? (It was eventually built so that an elephant could have probably walked on it.)
The point is, we live in a developed country with time-tested building codes — codes that protect us. We often take for granted walking over foot bridges or driving on highways or gathering in large stadiums. We just assume that “it’s been taken care of.” And if the proper building code procedure has been adhered to, we can — and we should be thankful for that!
I’ll never forget the thoughts and feelings that I experienced as a 12 year old after I ran out of my junior high school basketball gymnasium during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I had watched the hanging lights sway and heard the bleachers creaking. I couldn’t believe how much movement there was in the building. But thankfully, the building’s structural members held up and allowed us to exit safely. Sadly, many in less developed countries do not fare as well during natural calamities.
The reason I bring all this up is that just a couple weeks ago I prepared a set of calculations and construction drawings for a contractor who had been issued a “cease work” after knocking out a bearing wall in a 60s ranch home. Fortunately, he had employed adequate shoring, but this is not always the case, and the results could have been devastating. With the proper documentation in hand, this contractor was able to go down to the city, obtain his permit and complete his work with the confidence of the city and public.
I’ll agree that there’s an unhealthy level of bureaucracy in this country. But when it comes to building things right, I am a full supporter of the positive role that building departments and design professionals play. President Obama’s recent State of the Union included a line that resonated with me. It applied to our democratic system of government generally, but I think it can apply to our building departments as as well.
And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy [or building departments] can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.