Here at Philadelphia Zoning, we get a lot of requests from developers and homeowners for permits allowing construction. Every developer — and most homeowners — know that they need some kind of paperwork from the City of Philadelphia to begin construction, but not everybody is sure what kind. At some point we usually get the question, “What exactly do I need to give the City?”
The answer is, of course: it depends on the project. Here’s what you might be looking for:
Building Permit Application
A building permit, you would think, would be a permit that allows building — construction. Simple enough.
But this isn’t really how the City of Philadelphia uses the term. A building permit is issued for almost anything having to do with a building, of any kind. Do you want to get a certificate of occupancy from Philly? You need to use the building permit application. Installing a sprinkler system? Building permit application. A building permit might authorize construction, but the same application form will likely be needed for other projects related to that construction.
There are, obviously, different types of construction projects, too: there are demolitions, alterations (either interior or exterior alterations), renovations, and new construction. For each of these categories, you file the same permit application with the City; however, each category has different requirements, different fees associated with it, and slightly different application procedures. Make sure you know exactly what your project requires before you try to file a permit application — a lack of detail will almost always get the application kicked back for additional information; which only happens after the application has been reviewed, which can take 20 business days (so, a month, effectively). If you’re trying to get a shovel in the ground, do your homework first.
Requirements vary, but basically every type of building permit in Philly requires plans. Building permit applications also require up-to-date certificates of both insurance and tax compliance for all contractors involved in the project.
Any projects involving load-bearing structures require a certificate showing that an engineer judges the structure safe (and shows his or her math), and another certificate showing that the building is suitably energy efficient.
Okay: you have the right building permit and the forms that go along with it. What was that about plans?
Now, some light changes to the building — changes that don’t involve any weight-bearing pillars or floor layout — don’t need architectural or engineering plans to go along with the permit application. But most construction will require these plans to go along with the building permit application.
Requirements vary, but basically every type of building permit in Philly requires a site plan (a lot plan) and an elevation plan (showing the profile of the building). The plans need to be 18” x 24”. They need to be stamped by an architect or engineer — verified by a design professional, in the City’s phrasing. (You’ll also need the architect’s, contractor’s, and engineer’s license number[s] on your application.)
If you’re ever getting bogged down in the minutiae of plans requirements, which vary by project type, just try to think like an examiner: The City’s plans examiners need to be able to tell, just from the sheets you submit, what the place will look like, exactly what you’re building, and how safe the building will be. They need to see any changes in relation to the streets surrounding the property, too. If they can’t really get a feel for your idea, they’ll kick it back to you.
(Philadelphia Zoning, we’re happy to say, has established bonds with several excellent, credentialed architects in Philly — it’s one of many ways we can take the guesswork out of this process for you.)
Wait, you want a sign?
Okay, look: signs should be simple. They don’t usually bear heavy loads — a sign doesn’t usually support, say, the third story of a building — and there are plenty of them in the city. Should be easy, right? Do you even need a permit?
You do! You need two or three of them, actually; and sometimes a fourth.
Any time your building has a sign, it must be zoned for a sign. This means that you have to apply for a sign zoning permit. Since the sign affects the building, you also need a building permit.
This is where it gets really tricky: The City has something called an “EZ Wall Sign Permit,” which is a permit that allows you to put up a sign without submitting pesky elevation plans.
In practice, however, the City tends to demand the wall sign permit application in addition to the building permit application — even though their own documentation appears to say they don’t require a building permit if they have a wall sign permit, and vice versa. They also seem to like the wall sign permit application with plans (or renderings at minimum), even though the permit application itself says that plans aren’t required if the sign isn’t too high, large, or expensive.
(How do we know this? We go down to L&I and ask, over and over again.)
What’s that fourth permit? Well, if you want to light up your sign, you’re probably not using a hand-crank to generate electricity. So you need an electrical permit, too, which — and this is kind of weird, but we don’t make the rules — does not require a building permit application. It has its own special form, just for electrical contractors. (Make sure you have their tax certificate and insurance clearance!)
Zoning Permit Application
All this time we haven’t even addressed the basic question: “Am I allowed to build this here?” The answer is, “Not unless the City zones the property that way!” For any new construction, additions, or large alterations to a building, you need a zoning permit. Period. For any type of proposed use of that building that is not explicitly allowed by the zoning code — say, a coffee shop in a residential district — you need a special allowance for that use from the Zoning Board (technically the Zoning Board of Adjustment).
Luckily for you, zoning is literally in our name. Philadelphia Zoning has handled dozens of these cases, and knows the forms you need, the lawyer to represent you before the ZBA, and how to gain neighborhood approval.
The Board of Building Standards
Okay, you’ve made it this far: your application looks great, you have the plans ready, and all the contractors involved are insured and pay their taxes. It’s just that you don’t really have room to make the stairs to the roof as wide as the building code insists. Or maybe you’re building in an old lot drawn up by William Penn, with a backyard that goes nowhere. What happens?
Well, you get rejected: no building permit for you.
And then you appeal that rejection: you still really want to build, right?
This is what you have to do: You have to build a good case, with your architect, engineer, and contractor, for why your building is (a) safe, even though it smudges the building rules; and (b) couldn’t be built any other way.
You file your application for an appeal, then appear before the Board of Building Standards (which is a really cool way to meet the Philadelphia Fire Marshall, incidentally). This review board will test your plan to see if it meets reasonable standards of need and safety, and if you’ve done your work right, you’ll get that building permit.
Now you just need a tax abatement…