The world’s first building code came from Hammurabi, the ruler who established the world’s first metropolis — the nation-state of Babylon. His code was fairly simple, if perhaps a bit harsh:
If it collapses, the builder shall be put to death.
We’ve come a long way since Hammurabi — there are now thirteen different International building codes, not to mention related codes such as NEC, ASRAE, UL and many others. The process to review and validate compliance with these codes is very extensive and complicated.
Here are six things to keep in mind to make the permitting process go a little more smoothly:
Permit Purpose: Health, Safety & Welfare
Every city requires a building permit before construction begins, and the purpose of the permitting process is to review the content of the construction documents for compliance with building codes and municipal ordinances.
Depending on the city or county, the process can be lengthy and problematic or it could be efficient and smooth. Unfortunately, no two are alike.
The “Freedom of Information” Act allows anyone to view building permits, and some city websites have this information online. Building permit applications will have a phone number for the owner or a representative of the owner. In short, anyone with an opinion has the freedom and ability to share it with the builders.
Before undergoing the permitting process for the first time, it would be a good idea to call at least two people who are currently having something built, in order to get some advice.
Most cities welcome developers to a “pre-development conference” where the goals, concepts and schematic plans can be reviewed by the city plan reviewers. At a minimum, the owners should try to have the building code, fire marshal, zoning, transportation and utilities staff members present, as the results of this meeting will have great value in moving the project forward efficiently. The design team will receive meeting minutes and the amount of permit fees required.
Be sure to ask how long it takes to get a permit at this meeting, as this documentation will establish some level of predictability. As a project progresses, new developments and discoveries are likely to change how a city staff member reviews a project. A follow up meeting or meetings with city staff members can help minimize shakeups as a project moves closer to a building permit application.
In larger cities, there are consultants who specialize in permit expediting. These consultants cultivate relationships with the city staff reviewers, understand the internal flow of documents and usually know about current and upcoming changes. If they’re available, owners can consider hiring consultants to guide them through their first few permit applications.
Permit Changes: The Only Constant Is Change
There are any number of developments that could slow down a permit process, but one of the biggest is City Council turnover at election time. A change at the Council could have a positive or negative effect on a project, depending on the timing and the new member’s opinions. Getting involved and understanding the platforms of Council candidates is important and can affect a project at several stages, from permit review to inspection.
It is also important to know if the city where the project is located has “at large” places on Council or “single member districts” or a combination of both. Every City Council structure is unique.
The permit application will reference the construction documents, including plans, specifications, drainage studies, geotechnical reports, environmental reports, energy compliance forms, accessibility certification forms and other forms unique to a project. City staff members will be reviewing the documents and issue their comments, questions or reasons for denial. Then, the design team must respond with a letter addressing each issue with a narrative or supporting documents.
This exchange may repeat itself a few times or several times, but the pre-development conferences should minimize the back and forth before a permit is issued. Eventually, a permit will be issued, and hopefully the time table will fit the owner’s schedule.
Planning Technology: From Stone Tablets to Parametric Modeling
Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians used etched stone tablets and a lot of on-site imagination. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, architects sketched plans with pen and ink on paper, vellum or other media. In the 1950s, computer aided design (CAD) was in its early development, and it was introduced to architects and engineers in the 1980s. Most firms in the 1990s were using CAD exclusively.
The turn of the century introduced us to 3D CAD and Building Imaging Modeling (BIM). BIM is a software application combining all the elements of a building into one electronic file that is shared among multiple design professionals, with each contributing to the model to complete the necessary plans for permitting and construction.
The next big thing is a highly sophisticated software application known as “Parametric Design.” Parametric design is a process based on algorithmic thinking, whereby the relationship between elements is used to manipulate and inform complex geometrics and structures. Form finding is one of the strategies implemented through propagation-based systems. The idea behind form finding is to optimize certain design goals against a set of design constraints.
This is a total game changer for the design of future buildings — the only limitation will be the imagination of the designer. The parametric software algorithms that create the details or components of a building can be isolated and sent to fabricators to manufacture each component for individual installation.
The Future Of Permit Review
Cities are just now advancing to a more electronic means of document review by requiring PDFs in lieu of, or in addition to, 2D printouts. However, once this new technology becomes the primary application used by design professionals, city staffers should consider changing the way they review plans for a new building. They’ll be able to isolate and review each element inside the parametric model for code compliance. What’s more, cities will soon be able to insert BIM files into the Geographic Information Systems on their websites, allowing viewers to see the insides of buildings as well as the rooftops.
The permitting process for new construction is unpredictable and complex. But, if the dozens of cranes visible over our cities’ skylines are any indicator, it’s not slowing down Texas developers, and it shouldn’t be a deterrent to first-time builders, either.
John Moman, AIA, NCARB, served two, three year terms as a member of the Round Rock City Council and is a past Board Chair of the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce. John graduated from Texas Tech with a Bachelor of Architecture degree and has been a practicing architect for 39 years. firstname.lastname@example.org