Know Building Permit Process -Permits, Approvals, Plan Checks

Are you planning a construction project and dreading the inevitable paperwork? Getting permits and approvals for your project may sure seem like a tedious and convoluted process. That said, knowing what it entails can take an enormous weight off your shoulders and help you navigate permitting efficiently.

First, what exactly is a permit?

A “building permit” is an authorization to perform a specified type of construction work, granted by a local building department. Separate permits may be required for demolition, building, plumbing, electrical, and mechanical work, depending on the scope of the project and the jurisdiction.

The primary aim of the permitting process is to ensure safety. To this end, building officials review applications and approve them once they’re satisfied that the project’s plans, calculations, and specifications comply with local adaptations of relevant codes.

A Typical Permitting Process

The permitting process usually starts at the building department, where the clerk will accept your application and verify that all required documents are included. Typically, a permit application for new construction will have to include the following supporting documents:

  • Site plan and/or grading plan
  • Demolition Drawings
  • Structural Drawings and Calculations
  • Architectural Floor Plans
  • Building Elevations
  • Mechanical Drawings
  • Electrical Drawings
  • Plumbing Line Drawings
  • Technical Specifications
  • Title 24 Compliance Forms
  • Title 24 Disabilities Access Compliance

Permit applications for remodeling or renovation projects will require drawings and calculations related to the planned work.

In most cases, the drawings and calculations you submit for plan check need the signature and wet stamp of a licensed engineer, or a registered architect. This requirement applies to most projects, except:

  • single-family dwellings not more than two stories and a basement in height,
  • dwelling with less than four units and not more than two stories and a basement in height,
  • accessory structures to single-family dwellings or multiple dwellings not more than two stories and a basement in height,
  • agricultural buildings not deemed a risk to public health and safety,
  • nonstructural storefronts, interior alterations, cabinetwork, fixtures, furniture and equipment, and their installation, as long as the work has no effect on the structure, or otherwise endanger the health and safety of occupants,

Upon confirming completion, the building department clerk will forward your application to relevant officials, who will then perform the plan check. This procedure typically entails a review of drawings and an assessment of the calculations used in structural design.

Depending on the scope of your project and the types of permits you apply for, building officials may check whether your plans and specifications comply with applicable sections of the following codes:

  • California Building Code
  • California Residential Building Code
  • California Plumbing Code
  • California Electrical Code
  • California Mechanical Code
  • California Energy Code
  • California Existing Building Code
  • California Green Building Standards Code

In California, these codes are adopted every 3 years, with the next version scheduled to take effect on January 1st, 2020. They provide the minimum requirements that local jurisdictions must implement in their ordinances. In other words, your city, town, or county’s adaptation of the code may be more onerous than the one promulgated by the state. To ensure a smooth plan check, your architects and engineers must design your project to meet the local code requirements.

Structural calculations play an equally important role in the plan check process. They justify the structural design and help officials understand how your engineers arrived at their structural drawings. Submitting accurate calculations will facilitate and expedite the plan check process.

If the building officials order revisions to the drawings or calculations, they will return the application with a list of their required corrections and feedback. Your engineers will review and respond to the feedback and implement the required changes. If the officials are satisfied with the revisions, they may issue the requested permits.

Most permits have a required completion date meaning that once you have your permit, it’s your responsibility to make sure that work can commence while your permit is valid.

Online/Over-the-Counter Permits

Not all permit applications need a plan check. If your project involves certain, minor construction activities, you may be able to get an online or over-the-counter permit. These activities vary depending on the jurisdiction, but some examples include:

  • window and door change out in residential buildings
  • non-structural residential kitchen/bathroom remodels
  • some exterior siding repairs for single-family dwellings
  • re-roofing certain types of roof
  • minor changes or repairs to the HVAC system
  • replacement of plumbing fixtures
  • activities using the local authority’s pre-approved plan sets

To find out whether your project qualifies for an online or over-the-counter permit, visit your local building department’s website.


Besides permits, most construction projects need various approvals before work can legally proceed. Depending on the project and its location, approvals may be needed from local, state, and federal agencies, such as:

  • Planning Department
  • Fire Department
  • Police Department
  • Public Works Department
  • Department of Water and Power
  • Health Department
  • Air Quality Management District
  • Coastal Commission
  • Office of Historic Preservation
  • Environmental Protection Agency

Like the permit process, approval reviews typically involve a plan check to determine a project’s adherence to relevant statutes. Unfortunately, determining which agencies to seek approval from is not always intuitive and one or more may be mistakenly left out. This can become devastating to your project when caught by surprise as some agencies may impose hefty fines or a stop-work order until the matter is corrected. This is another reason why it is very important to hire an engineer/architect whose expert knowledge can guide you and your project through this process.

Unlike permits, however, approvals may be contingent on a public endorsement of the project, as planning departments often mandate hearings that let community members voice their opinions and concerns about developments in the neighborhood. A clean and professionally prepared project presentation at said public hearing will help put the community’s mind at ease knowing that their interests are not being compromised. It is important to be prepared for all of the community questions that might arise at the public hearing as well.

How can we help?

Getting all the permits and approvals needed for your project can take a while. You may have little say in how long the local bureaucracy takes to process your application. With that said, you can do your part to expedite the process. By hiring an expert design team to work on your drawings and calculations, you reduce the risk of error and shorten the revision cycles your application has to endure.

Our engineers at Design Everest have worked on over 3,000 projects in California over the past 14 years. We know what it takes to get a project permitted fast. Our team is dedicated to furnishing you with accurate, code-compliant drawings and specifications; as an added service, our licensed engineers can wet-stamp and sign your documents.

Contact us now and we will provide you a FREE Consultation with a quote. We also provide virtual on-sites and virtual consultations.

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