An Open Letter to Building Departments
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BUILD expresses concerns on the building permit process.
Dear Building Departments,
We like working with you, really we do. You protect the community, promote public safety, educate architects and homeowners, promote social benefit, and foster a healthy environment. That’s a big job, and hitting all of those categories is challenging for any of us on the best of days. You provide a necessary function to society and we admire what you must go through in order to uphold critical community values. But here’s the deal: you’re making things way too complicated.
A couple of years ago, we noticed a significant escalation in the amount of paperwork, legwork, red tape, consultants, and fees required to obtain a building permit for a single family residence (SFR). We understand that the commercial projects that engage the general public require much scrutiny, input from the community, etc. This open letter isn’t about those projects. It’s about the exponential rise in complexity when obtaining permits for SFRs.
A recent SFR project was the tipping point for us. We are still steeped in the laborious process of obtaining a building permit for a jurisdiction outside of Seattle, but it’s a truly awesome example that approaches two frightening realities: administrative paralysis and financial exclusion. In short, we feel compelled to acknowledge the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
If we continue on this path, the permitting process will lead to one (or more) of the following:
- Only wealthy individuals with an abundance of time and financial resources will be able to afford the building permit process for a single family residence.
- Speculative developers will increase the production rate of thoughtless tract housing via bulk permitting to offer still very expensive, still very soulless housing.
- The bottom 95% of the wage earners who desire a reasonable quality of life will be forced to circumvent the process by living in inefficient older homes and renovating guerilla-style (on the sly to avoid all the red tape).
Lately, we’ve been in coordination with a building department (which shall remain nameless) for the permitting of an SFR with a detached guest suite. The process became so complicated, that we were forced to sift through a daunting amount of ‘fee schedules,’ internet resources, personal phone calls, professional emails, etc. to determine the required processes and the related fees. It became a project that consumed somewhere around a week’s worth of time all on its own. We ended up creating our own fee spreadsheet (below) to help clarify the critical path of submittal requirements. This spreadsheet includes everything necessary to submit a permit set to the building department, including the required consultants and a breakdown of fees.
We don’t consider ourselves all that clever. We’ve generally relied more on tenacity, and was that ever needed here. Looking at that spreadsheet, we can’t help but wonder if NASA’s Apollo missions had a similar matrix to land a man on the moon.
This is concerning and has caused us to sound the alarm once again. The sheer complexity of the individual fees to the building department make it impossible to accurately predict the total permit cost or explain the process rationally to a client. (Not to mention that each line item has its own variables and is subject to change.) Add to that the population of required consultants with their own subsequent fees, and you end up with a permit submittal cost that is astronomically out of proportion with a house of this size. Keep in mind that this figure of $45,000 doesn’t include the architectural fee. That $45,000 is all building department fees and consultant fees. All for a Single Family Residence.
Now, we didn’t write an open letter just to rant. In fact, we took on this post as part of our recent New Year’s Resolution. Heck, we’re architects, which means we’re problem solvers by nature. And we’re all for sensible regulation from building departments (emphasis on sensible). So, as the built environment for SFRs moves precariously closer to imploding on itself, we’re taking the opportunity to present what we see as the five greatest building permit obstructions, and some possible solutions.
1. Most Architects Don’t Want to Be Specialists
It used to be (not so long ago, actually,) that architects completed a wide range of design related tasks on a project — more than just what the project looks like and getting the permit. Such tasks included energy calculations, storm water drainage design, and sometimes even beam sizing. What were once considered rudimentary design items tackled by technically knowledgeable architects now require robust reports compiled by specialized consultants and drawing sheets filled to the borders with bureaucratic notes and overly technical formalities. These changes have put the single family residential permit on par with commercial projects and they have significantly driven up design, permitting, and construction costs. Not to mention that architects do better work when they’re generalists because they take more into consideration when designing a project.
Building departments need to allow architects to be the generalists they once were (and are still perfectly capable of being). If an architect can design a storm water drainage system to meet the requirements of the building department, it should be greenlighted without requiring a licensed engineer. Our civil engineering friends have even acknowledged that they would rather work on meaty commercial projects than SFRs. In the event an architect doesn’t know how to design a storm water drainage system, run energy calculations, or size a beam, then, of course, a licensed consultant should be engaged. But penalizing the competent, well-rounded architects is pushing the system in the wrong direction.
2. Extreme Permit Requirements and Corrections
Building departments used to review a residential permit set for a handful of basic requirements, which included life safety, fire prevention, energy, and a cursory review of the structural system. The corrections that architects would receive back from the building department were sensible, useful and manageable. These corrections would then be integrated with the construction documents and we were all on our way.
Today, a current list of permit requirements and corrections for any given project is so long and detailed that architects have no choice but to become what we jokingly refer to as “permit technicians.” Building department reviews now debate every last detail from the type of temporary fencing required to protect a tree during construction to a calculation for the air circulation rate of a bathroom fan. The drawing set to satisfy the permit corrections has now become so embellished and abstract that they bear little resemblance to construction documents (sometimes they’re even a set unto themselves).
Architects are liable to many groups on any given project including the homeowners, the homeowners’ insurers, the homeowners’ bank (if a construction loan is used), community groups, the architect’s insurers, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, and Labor & Industries — and this is just the design side. Add the list of construction-related groups and the total is overwhelming. The consequences for errors and omissions pertaining to the design regulated by these groups are real and costly. While the building departments aim to protect everyone’s best interest, this situation creates an abundance of overlapping liability. Excessive permit requirements and corrections shift focus from solving the actual problem to gaming the process. Building departments could rely more on the regulatory groups above, thereby lightening their own workloads. Another possible solution involves the educational and licensure processes. If incompetent architects, unable to produce proficient documents, are entering the profession, might we suggest that more scrutiny be placed on the academic rigor and licensure exams. The enforcement and possible revoking of one’s professional license could also be amplified.
3. Overreach by Third Party Inspectors
This post mainly focuses on the requirements of obtaining a permit, but there is another costly outcome during construction. The proliferation of additional requirements has led to some more responsible building practices, no doubt. But it has also led to a sharp increase in the amount of third party inspectors — that is, professional service companies that are required to perform inspections that often duplicate building department inspections. This became alarming when we realized that many of these redundant inspections were costing more than the work at hand. Yes, you are reading that correctly: it cost more to pay people to watch the work than to perform the work.
Similar to #2 above, contractors carry a number of different liability policies. If there is a proliferation of poor contractor practices that have caused the rise to third party inspections, we recommend that a simple step be added to the requirements for a contractor gaining their registration. We’re not advocating more bureaucracy, just a step to ensure that contractors taking on SFRs are capable of completing the work responsibly. That, coupled with the typical inspection process and general oversight by the architect should be adequate to ensure compliance with permit related documents.
4. Conflicting Requirements
With the additional permit requirements, added consultants, third party inspectors, and the numerous city departments scrutinizing the SFR project, conflicting requirements are becoming more frequent. We recently found ourselves trying to mediate contradictory requests on an SFR project from the building department on one side and the parks department on the other. In a conundrum like this, two thirds of the groups involved will lose (at best). As architects, we typically make it our mission to satisfy all jurisdictional entities, but this scenario makes it nearly impossible to do so.
We should all be working toward the same goal: a healthy, responsible, and enjoyable built environment. Open lines of communication and the ability to get people on the phone or out to the project site to problem solve is key. Ambiguity of accountability, sidestepping responsibility, and passing the buck are all strategies working against us (whether you’re on the design, construction, or regulation side of the equation).
There are intelligent, sensible individuals at all levels of city, county, and state regulation. They should be given the latitude to interpret challenging situations, make tough decisions, and cooperate with other departments as needed to problem solve. Coming to sensible solutions needs to hold more value than defending irrelevant codes or protecting individual departments at the risk of all others.
5. Excessive and Unpredictable Costs
As the spreadsheet above illustrates, the architecture and construction professions are getting blindsided by all of the sub-categories of fees, inspection fees, administration fees, and fees we didn’t even know to ask about. (A school impact mitigation fee? Seriously?) And it gets even more tangled when you consider permit fees are divided and controlled by various jurisdictional departments who can increase or subdivide the fees even further. Several moving targets are much more difficult to keep track of than one moving target, and architects are struggling to communicate up-to-date permit fee information to their SFR clients. Tracking all of these fees down becomes a research project — and one that must be re-performed on each project as the information changes too rapidly to track from one project to the next. At the rate permit fees are increasing to build or remodel a single family residence, a home will soon be (if not already) a luxury item, on par with buying a yacht or a membership at a country club.
The complexity of permitting fees needs to be eliminated and replaced by a straight percentage. The permit fee can be a percentage of average construction costs per square foot multiplied by the square feet of the project, a percentage of the declared value of the project, or whatever works best for the building department. A straight percentage holds the building department more accountable for the total permit fee, rather than the total permit fee simply being an addition of overly complicated, inflated fees from disparate departments. Nobody wins when the permit fee structure looks like the spreadsheet above.
*We’ve deliberately called our ideas “A Solution” and not “The Solution.” If you’ve got ideas, we’re all ears. But without taking action on some real world solutions, we’re all heading to Ridiculousville.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
Cheers from Team BUILD