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Permission to pass on permitting? Think again

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Roi Jossy

Thinking of sub-dividing or expanding your space on your own? Think it's just a matter of putting up a wall or tearing one down? Think you don't need a building permit? Think again. If you're doing more than carpet installation or painting, you need a building permit.

Keep your bases covered

Although a building permit is not required if you're just painting, the finishes you use must meet certain building code requirements. Periodically fire marshals and inspectors may walk the halls of a building unannounced. They have the authority to go through a space, analyze the materials that have been used, and ask to see the specifications and proof that they meet compliance ratings. A competent interior designer can help determine whether or not certain finishes are compliant.

For virtually all other types of renovations, though, a building permit is a must. Safety is the number one concern. If a natural catastrophe such as a fire or earthquake causes your building to collapse, and someone is injured or killed because building codes have not been met, you could be held personally accountable. It's crucial to get a building permit for the safety and protection of the public.

Another major concern is liability. Not having a permit makes you vulnerable and open to liability exposure. Sometimes building owners and even tenants make renovations that they simply don't realize need to meet certain compliance codes.

The bottom line is the same for building owners, managers and tenants: If you do not have a permit, and unapproved renovations take place in your suite or building, you face the risk of liability if someone is injured.

Overall long-term cost effectiveness is yet another factor to consider. Upfront expenses for obtaining a permit may seem a bit daunting. For a 15,000-square-foot space, a building permit ranges from $5,000 to $6,000; plus the time and cost of the space planner to draw up the construction documents and get the permit; plus the time for inspectors to show up and get the inspection done.

Currently it takes about eight weeks for the city of San Diego to complete a standard tenant improvement plan check. Depending on how busy the Planning and Development Department is, though, plan checks for smaller jobs could take only a day.

For larger buildings or jobs that require extensive structural calculations, it could take much longer.

Although the process to obtain a building permit is time-consuming and expensive, consider the flip side. If a fire marshal or city inspector conducts a standard building walkthrough and finds that you do not have a building permit, he or she could double your permit costs, make you tear out a wall for inspection, then put it back together and fine you severely. It's definitely something to consider.

Even with all these concerns, a shocking amount of unpermitted construction still occurs today. Most people really make an honest oversight when deciding they don't need a permit. For small renovation projects, it seems ridiculous to spend the time and money to get a permit; putting up or tearing down a wall is really not that big of a deal. As inspectors can't possibly check every single project (especially if they don't know about them), unpermitted projects sometimes can slip through the cracks.

The permitting process

Many people therefore rely on space planners to expedite the permitting process for them. An experienced planner usually has established a working relationship with the Planning and Development Department, understands the building codes and can draw up the necessary construction documents.

A typical building process works like this: A space planner obtains a signoff from the Planning and Development Department for a building permit, based on submitted and approved construction documents and drawings that account for exiting issues; construction begins, with ongoing inspections by city inspectors; final inspections are conducted by the fire marshal for safety an emergency standards; and finally, an occupancy permit is granted.

Adequate construction documents should include the following needed information: location, legal description, legend of abbreviations, a space plan with occupancy calculations, contact information for the building owners, notes for fire and safety issues, proof of Title 24 compliance, a partition plan, reflected ceiling plan, power/signal plan, finish plan, elevations and other details.

Of all these elements, a space plan is the most critical. Space plans should be taken to the building department for a preliminary check in order to avoid potential problems. By reviewing plan interpretations with building department officials at a preliminary stage in the project, a space planner can more easily accommodate any changes that need to be made. With most office spaces, the schedule for a new construction project is based on a tenant move-in date. A mistake or misinterpretation could severely affect cost and schedule.

The most important code consideration for a space plan is exiting. When people sub-divide space on their own, sometimes they just stick in a wall, which likely means they will end up with a dead-end corridor. A professional space planner can resolve exiting issues with the building department, tenant and building owner before they even start drawings.

In order to determine the number of exits a space should have, occupancy must be calculated. For a conference room, the total square footage should be divided by 15. For an office space, total square footage should be divided by 100. A 3,000-square-foot office space, for example, would have an approximate occupancy of 30 people. Add a small, 200-square-foot conference room, and suddenly you have an occupancy of 43 people. As the city of San Diego requires an exit for every 29 people, this space would need a minimum of two exits.

There are other methods for determining occupancy. The key is to find the most efficient method of exiting that will meet code requirements. For larger projects, senior plan checkers will make appointments to meet for a preliminary plan check. Occupancy calculations are needed for them to make interpretations.

The building process

Once preliminary checks are completed and construction documents are analyzed, a building permit will likely be approved and issued. Now construction can begin. Throughout the building process, a series of inspections are conducted to make sure that compliance is maintained. City field inspectors generally visit a project site 10 to 15 times during the course of construction, and have the authority to override the building department's initial approval. Occasionally, they will require modifications that potentially could increase construction costs and cause time delays.

Field inspectors must visit a jobsite to inspect both rough and finish plumbing and electrical, as well as final HVAC, framing, drywall, fire exits, structural systems and various other code-dictated aspects of construction. The key for this phase of the building is to have a qualified, reputable general contractor on board to minimize code violations.

Once the inspectors have given a final signoff, and the fire marshal has given a final inspection of all safety and emergency mechanisms, an occupancy permit is granted. Tenants finally can move into the space.

While the permitting process can seem overwhelming, it is a necessity for just about any new construction or renovation project. A building permit can give piece of mind that occupants are safe, as well as provide protection from liability exposure and thousands of dollars in fines.


Jossy is president of Jossy+Carrier Design Group, a full-service commercial interior design and space planning firm specializing in corporate office, retail, medical, educational and industrial facilities. Founded in 1989, the firm employs a staff of 10 in headquarters located at 110 West A St.

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