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  • Lorianna Kastrop

Difficulties Getting Permits for Incomplete Drawings

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President/CFO, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

Lately we have been receiving calls from people who are asking us to help them get their Building Permit. The request is something like this:

“We already have the plans, but we (or the contractor) are having trouble getting the permit. Can you help with that?”

Helping with a project like this is not as straightforward as people assume, and sometimes not possible. One of the pitfalls of using designers or general contractors to create “plans” is that you have no recourse if the plans are incomplete, don’t meet current building codes, don’t meet local ordinances, or require engineering.

We have no efficient way to troubleshoot these problems on other people’s drawings. The number of corrections can often be so lengthy that it is easier to create the drawings from scratch. We cannot advocate for or explain a project to the permitting agency when we have no idea of the considerations that were used to create the design. In addition, licensed architects have professional liability for any drawings that they sign. It would be reckless for us to take legal responsibility for documents produced by an unlicensed designer.

Some unlicensed designers advertise that they provide “architectural drawings” when they are not really architects. This is not legal, but it happens all the time. Please protect yourself by verifying whether the person you are hiring is an architect when they use the term “architectural drawings”. California architects are licensed by the California Architects Board, part of the state Department of Consumer Affairs. You can check for an architect’s license at

So, what to do with plans that are deemed insufficient or incomplete by the permitting agency?

There are consultants that are usually called “expediters” who make it their business to shepherd construction documents through the permitting process. They typically work for commercial builders and are not cost effective for smaller residential projects. They also do not have the skills to make the necessary corrections to the plans.

If you did not hire an architect but you really like the design someone gave you, you can try to take it to an experienced architect. Ask them to create the construction documents for you, but don’t expect them to modify any computer files you already have. Be prepared to pay for the architect to verify measurements on your property and on any existing buildings. They will need to charge you to input the existing conditions as a base for their drawings. Then they can use the design ideas to create a set of plans and specifications. Be prepared to consider suggested changes from the architect, who may have better ideas for design coherence or more economical and efficient constructability. Changes will be required if the design does not meet applicable codes and ordinances.

You may have to start all over. The most cost-effective approach is to hire an experienced licensed architect. If you explain that you’ve already had one false start, they may be able to expedite their design process to save you money if they can. The architect has the skills and knowledge to see that their drawings will be thorough and compliant with the state building code and local ordinances.

Whatever you do, don’t make things worse by trying to build without a permit. Cities and counties have all the properties in their jurisdiction on computers now. They will know, sooner or later, that the construction is illegal. The consequences can be severe, including demolishing the illegal construction, paying fines in addition to permitting fees and paying back taxes on increased square footage. Also, you cannot buy insurance for unpermitted square footage, so if anything happens to your building the insurance company might not cover the loss.

Keep in mind that the “soft costs” of architecture, engineering and permitting are typically in the 10-15% range of the overall cost of your project. The hard construction costs are by far the biggest percentage of your budget. It simply does not make sense to skimp on the up-front architectural fees, when a good set of drawings will save you so much time and money. The savings will not only be in getting faster permitting. You will also save money by getting more accurate construction bids and avoiding change orders during construction.

In conclusion, we are sorry to say no to callers who want us to rescue their projects. We encourage everyone to do research before you start to avoid paying for a “design” or “plans” that are just drawings by someone with not enough expertise to get a building permit.

Thank you for reading. As always, we are Designing for Your Reality.

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