Getting your building plans approved is a moment to celebrate as a home owner. It means construction can now start.
The client expects their architect to secure the building permits from the city so that the general contractor has a green light to build. There's an ever-increasing amount of generated bills, laws, codes and ordinances that the architect needs to be aware of on their client’s behalf. The approval process is a constantly shifting activity that can bog a project down unless the architect knows:
• that every city and county varies in their submittal requirements and in administering the California Building Codes, laws and zoning ordinances
• no ‘template’ or ‘standardization’ exists to apply to a project in getting the plans approved.
I’ve submitted all types of new home, addition and remodeling construction projects. Below are a few tips that work best whether the Planning Department is in Los Gatos, Los Altos, Saratoga, Mountain View, San Jose, Campbell, Santa Clara, Aptos, Monterrey, Carmel, Oakland or anywhere my project may be in California.
1. I always start a project by going into the Planning Department to speak to a planner. The planner will look up the property in the city’s own database and give me the basic ordinances as they apply to the property location. I might even get a ‘heads-up’ from the planner on anything sensitive to the neighborhood that wouldn’t be stated in the codes.
2. Departments are handling high volume with few staff. The precious few minutes I have of their attention will save me tons of time if they’re interested enough in my project to give me the pertinent information I need. Showing common courtesy, friendliness and staying calm (despite reasons not to) has paid off for me in the long run.
3. Once I have a sketch of the Site Plan illustrating the basic idea of the project, I return to the Planning Dept. and get more specific and detailed feedback from the planner rather than relying on the generalizations of the Zoning Ordinance.
4. The in-take counter person knows not to accept incomplete Planning Applications. When ready to submit the plans every drawing, detail, calculation, tabulation, measurement, description, report, etc., needs to be in the submittal package. I make sure of 100% completeness in providing all the required documentation asked for in the Planning Application.
Because the city’s handout information isn’t always up-to-date, a call beforehand to ask, ‘How many sets of plans are required?’ prevents being caught short a set of plans and wasting time.
5. When the planning documents are submitted for review, a Planner is assigned to the project. It’s good to find out right away who that person is and open an email dialogue. I simply introduce myself as the contact person and very briefly describe the project I recently submitted. This step has more than once greased the wheels on the project review step.
Read More in Getting Planning Approval - Part Two
Los Gatos Architect
To keep a project moving through the Planning Department process the architect needs to stay connected with the planner and department staff. Once the Planning Department receives their initial planning fee you become a serious customer in the city’s viewpoint. Attention and service can step up, particularly when calling the department with questions.
In addition to the 5 points in Planning Approval - Part One, here are a few more about the procedure.
6. It isn't widely known to most applicants that a Planning Dept has 30 days max to respond to the initial application. Why? The Permit Streamlining Act (Govt Code Chap 4.5 of Title 7) was enacted in 1977 to expedite the processing of permits for development projects. If the Planning Department fails to either approve or disapprove the permit within the 30 days the application is ‘deemed approved’. This is an unspoken motivation for the Planning Dept to get back to you in a timely fashion. The Permit Streamlining Act clock does not start until the applicant submits a completed permit application.
7. When a planner returns a letter stating the application is ‘complete’ it just means everything has been submitted for the planner to start their review of the application. During the review the planner will itemize a list of questions, clarifications, possible corrections etc., and send these back. It is always best to send a Response Letter as quickly as possible so as to stay in the queue and keep the project fresh in the planner's work scope. You want to be persistent in communicating with the planner particularly when there are any questions about what they need.
8. When submitting the Response Letter always provide the answers to the exact questions or clarifications being asked for but try to be brief and to the point. Getting a second letter from the planner with the same comments or questions can really add time to the approval process.
9. A careful read through of the official project document called Conditions of Approval can be a lot of dry reading of standard text. But I look for specific project requirements that must be met before the final project approval is granted after construction is completed. And always attach the Conditions of Approval to the cover sheet of the Constructions Documents given to the General Contractor so that they are aware of these additional specific requirements.
10. After Planning Department approval the plans go the Building Department. It is important to know that once the Building Dept. stamps and approves the plans, any changes/revisions or alterations must be resubmitted to the Planning Dept. for new review and approval.
It is always best when the client knows some basic architecture terminology. For example "plans" can refer to different documents depending on who is using the term and the purpose of the plans.
I will be posting explanations of these terms soon. Hopefully it will help home owners as they maneuver through the planning and building process with their architect.
Los Gatos Architect
Home remodel projects (like this one) usually start out simple: the homeowner wanted to: 1) enlarge their living room, 2) add a small bathroom for guests, and 3) add a dedicated entry space.
The front of the home before remodel.
But what made this project complex was the home’s ranch-style architecture and the fact that it didn’t match well with the client’s request for a design with a “contemporary look” both inside and out.
The key to solving this? Skillful and careful planning. Based on the premise “if you can show it in two dimensions, you can build it”, we rendered the floor plan and elevation design that clearly showed the use of:
- styled window configurations
- stucco walls with stone accents
- a gentle blending of the new roof form to the old
Above: Added living space after remodel.
With the proper use of form and materials, the result was a contemporary home addition that melded into the existing ranch house design, while providing precisely what the homeowner had envisioned: additional functional living space and a beautiful updated look.
Thanks for reading. I'm here to solve your architectural problems with bright ideas and creative solutions.
Los Gatos Architect