4 Insights into Permitting with Heidi Richardson

We had a brief chat about permitting with Heidi Richardson, a professional architect based in the San Francisco Bay Area and a New Avenue Design Professional. The goal was to get some insight into her experience with permitting and working with cities.

1. What permits are required?

There are two kinds: zoning permits and building permits.

Zoning permits primarily cover the exterior elements of a project and how the project fits into the community: what the project can look like, where it can be, and how it would interact with its surroundings. For example, this would address setbacks, use, height, and parking requirements.

Building permits are concerned with safety. They ensure that projects are constructed with appropriate standards and are safe for whatever its intended use is.

2. How would I go about obtaining these permits?

Anyone can apply for these permits, but most people get a service professional to put the necessary documents and drawings together.

The smartest thing to do is call for some general information, send an email and bring a rough drawing or sketch to discuss your project. It is critical to sit with the planning desk and talk about what you can and can’t do as they have the final interpretation and say in everything. Also, they will provide you with a fee schedule.

3. What’s the difference between an accessory dwelling an accessory structure?

An accessory structure is anything: tool shed, art studio, garage.

An accessory dwelling has a kitchen, a bathroom, and a place to sleep. Note that third requirement. A kitchen is not enough to qualify something as an accessory dwelling. A pool kitchen, for example, does not fall into this category.

4. Should I do this on my own?

Homeowners should get a professional to interface with building officials. The process and the codes used to be more straightforward, but, whether on purpose or by consequence by politics and bureaucracy, the requirements and the amount of information to obtain permits have become more demanding. Building permits, for example, used to be issued in a reasonable amount of time. Now there are pages and pages of comments and clarifications and they cost a lot more. Permitting is not a transparent process.


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