More to it than a building permit
As an architect I deal with planning departments and building departments all the time. It’s sometimes easy to forget that homeowners aren’t familiar with what they do. Most people know they need a building permit to have work done on their house. So you just take blueprints and a check and visit the local building department, right? Yes, unless the project will change the outside of your house—even the slightest.
That is where the planning department comes in. They are concerned about how the proposed work affects your neighbors. So they carve the city up into zones and make regulations about what kinds of buildings can be in each zone. You, of course, just have a house, and plan on keeping it that way.
However, there are many additional rules for each zone. Rules about maximum size and height of houses, minimum distance to property lines, how many parking spaces and whether they are in a garage, and so on.
Many times I’ve talked to a homeowner who “knew” how far they could extend their house by looking at the neighbor’s. But it’s always best to call the local planning department and ask what the current regulations are. They may have been written after your neighbor’s house was built.
You will need to have the planning department approve your plans before you get a building permit. For additions and new homes it’s best to have your architect draw just enough for this review. So, if the city sees a need for changes, it will be easier to make them.
Many jurisdictions also have a design review as part of the planning approval process. This is their chance to pass judgement on the style of the addition you want. In some cities they even mandate what your replacement window’s frame is made of!
The building department’s function is to enforce the building code. This is not a local regulation. It’s the California Building Code and it’s used throughout the state. Actually, it’s an amended version of a building code now used in all fifty states. A few cities amend it even further, but unlike with zoning regulations, for the most part it’s the same throughout California.
The building code is all about safety and a little about livability. Make the house strong enough to stand up and resist earthquakes and not too quick to burn—those are the main goals. Some of the livability rules address minimum ceiling heights, room sizes, and stair tread sizes.
The permit drawings your architect produces must be approved before you can start. At key times during construction a building inspector will visit to see that everything is being done to code. At the end they will do a final inspection, sign off on the project, and you are done with the bureaucracy. Once again, your home is all yours!
If you would like any further clarification on what planning and building departments do, or how to work with them, feel free to add a comment.