Building Permits, Why Bother?

In my 20’s, I worked as a builder to help me get through University. Back then, homeowners hired me based on word-of mouth or through the small construction companies I worked for. Few of the jobs I worked on required building permits. From roofing jobs, to swapping out windows, to interior refinishing – nothing really major ever took place. So I can understand that it might be hard for some builders, homeowners, and even commercial building owners to know just when they need a permit, and when they don’t.

Far from being a mere ‘cash-grab’ by municipalities, the application for and enforcement of the Building Code is considered the bare minimum requirement for a building to demonstrate that life safety requirements have been met. As one of my engineering professors in Germany once said, “Earthquakes seldom kill people, Buildings kill people”, but turning a blind eye to regulations can have deadly consequences. One recent case in point was the Grenfell Tower fires in the UK, which as I understand from my colleagues in London the renovation process took a kind of budget and code short-cut that bypassed the usual code, standards and professional liability checks and balances that are in place in all new construction and ‘substantial’ renovations.  Many other scholars and researchers of Building Codes around the world have chronicled the storied past of the codes, and the reasons we have them. Most of the provisions in the code are the direct result of cases of death and destruction, mass tramplings resulting from the inability to properly exit a building, death by smoke and fume inhalation, and finally death by the collapse of a building.  Most of these deaths were considered avoidable by the authourities having jurisdiction (AHJ’s), and so rules have carefully developed over the past hundred or so years that provide for example; adequate exiting proportional to the number of people (occupant load, egress/corridor/exit door and stair widths), sometimes in a panic, and even in the event of power loss (emergency lighting). Doors need to open the right way so that people can funnel outwards without getting trapped, and multiple means of egress need to be provided in case a fire blocks a given exit. We need to design buildings so that they don’t collapse before a full evacuation can take place – which is why we have Fire Resistance Ratings for things like floors and Roofs and Columns. The Building Code for Toronto has only about 27 pages long 100 years ago. Most of the ‘best practices’ at that time were in the minds of the builders and Architects, but as buildings became larger and more complex, so did the rules that govern them. The current Ontario Building Code is 877 pages in length, not including supplements to the code. Some people in the construction industry feel that this is either intimidating, or unnecessary, or both – and so choose to avoid dealing with it.

But we can imagine worst-case scenarios, and there are ample case-histories to back the measures that have found their way into the Building Code.

The Code is, as such, a pre-emptive survival manual.

So when I have a client or builder – or even in some cases a local building inspector that tells me that for x and y scope of work, we don’t need a permit – I have sometimes found myself on the defensive. Here is our provincial Association’s post on the subject:

ii) You need a Building Permit / You don’t need a Building Permit

Notably, the list of instances where a permit is NOT required is actually pretty small. In fact it’s small enough I’ll post it right here:

You may not need a building permit to:

  1. build a utility shed less than 10 square metres in area, subject to By-Law restrictions
  2. replace existing, same-size doors and windows, subject to distance from property lines
  3. install siding on small residential buildings, subject to distance from property lines
  4. re-clad exterior walls with noncombustible material, excluding brick or stone veneer and subject to distance from property lines
  5. build a roofless deck under two feet (0.61 metres) above adjacent grade that is not attached to a building, subject to By-Law restrictions
  6. install a skylight in a Part 9 building, provided not more than one rafter, joist or similar structural member (excluding a truss) is cut or removed and multiple skylights are not less than 2 m apart
  7. reshingle a roof, provided there is no structural work
  8. do minor chimney repairs such as the installation of a chimney cap, chimney line or repointing
  9. install eavestroughs, provided that drainage is contained on your property
  10. replace or increase insulation, gypsum board or plaster
  11. damp-proof basements
  12. paint or decorate
  13. install kitchen or bathroom cupboards without new plumbing
  14. erect a fence (except for swimming pools – outside pools require permits)
  15. do electrical work (the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA), however, must inspect electrical installations)

The financial burden of applying for a permit is typically a function of building size, where permits fees are calculated as so many cents per square foot of building area. On simple jobs I’ve seen permit fees as low as $300. On big commercial projects (ie. 7,000sf+) fees over $10k.  In short – when planning new construction or any substantial renovation – one should simply assume that a permit required. As a licensed Architect – we are in fact reviewing and applying the rules of the building code on a daily basis. We need to take extensive courses on the code, and finally write an exam on the code, not to mention rounds of continuing education on changes and updates to the code. In some cases we even participate in workshops held by the Ministry responsible for the creation and enforcement of the code. And if we are involved in complex buildings, or where interpretation is divergent, we can even lean on experts in the Building Code that have experience with similar precedents. In other words – you can trust your architect to know when and how to design for, and apply for a Building Permit for your project.

All of that said, some owners and builders I have dealt with have not taken professional advice, operating under the assumption that it is easier to ‘beg forgiveness’ rather than ‘ask permission’. They consider the non-application for permit as a business decision, where the time and cost burden of creating drawings and designs might be detrimental to their business plans, and so initiate demolition or construction without any permits in place. The assumption here is that the worst case is a ‘Stop Work’ order and possibly a fine. However, many fail to anticipate that an ‘Order to Comply’ is part of this – and that these orders typically require an owner/builder to replace or restore whatever they demolished before actually applying for a permit. The work stoppage, delays, and requiring to obtain all drawings necessary for a permit is in fact not worth the risk, as it can basically double the cost of work and impose the fees that would been required at the outset in any case. Just gutting through a job without permits can in this light never be advised.

An order to comply from a small commercial job.

A Stop Work order from the same small commercial job

I have seen instances where builders have advised clients that they don’t need permits, then proceed with construction, completely ruin a project and even charge double what they originally quoted – only to claim later on that as an unlicensed ‘professional’ that they were not obliged to inform a client whether or not a permit was required, and were under no obligation to obtain a permit or create drawings. It is a pretty weak argument that we have evidence of not standing up in court, when it has come to that. If a judge asks a shoddy builder to speak to their professionalism and competency, and then asks why they would give such poor advice – their true colours show. Architects, as licensed professionals that are obliged to uphold all laws and bylaws of the land, will always recommend even a bare minimum permit application set, as it is a template and measure that work executed will comply with the code, and the standards of good practice.

In a nutshell, please, just get a permit. There are good reasons for it. We can all mistrust the government in some ways, and we can all point to the failings, incompetency and inefficiencies of the government and its red-tape. However, the Building Code is a solid document, created by well-trained professionals, from a very sad history of deaths from ill-considered building designs. If anyone tells you, you don’t need a permit – please refer to the link posted above, or get some professional advice. It’s a prerequisite for most of the work we do.


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