Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Philadelphia Building Permits
Whether you’ve just bought your first house or are an experienced contractor, a Philadelphia building permit can be a confusing document. Not the permit itself: the process of getting the permit. Depending on the project, there might be a lot of documents required to successfully acquire a Philly building permit; and if these documents aren’t prepared in the right way, City departments reject the permit application. Because of this, Permit Philly has prepared a little guide to help you understand when building permits are needed in our city, and how to apply for them.
A Philadelphia Building Permit Means More than Just Construction
Obviously, a building permit is required in Philadelphia for a new construction, or for an addition to an existing building.
However, building permits are also required for other changes to a structure. Some of this other work is intuitive, like basic interior renovations (those require an interior alterations permit). Some of this other work you might not think of, like a sign building permit: to install a sign, you need to get a building permit in virtually all cases.
A Philadelphia Building Permit Application is Required for a Lot of Different Permits
A Philadelphia building permit application is used to apply for a lot of other types of permit, too. If you want a demolition permit, for example – the very opposite of building – you need to submit a building permit application to the City of Philadelphia. If you need a certificate of occupancy, you must submit a building permit application to the City of Philadelphia.
All mechanical permits – for things like fireplaces, sprinkler systems, and ductwork – are classified as building permits in Philadelphia.
On its website, the City provides a list of permits which require the building permit application, which you can find here.
A Zoning Permit is Often Required Before You Get a Philadelphia Building Permit
This one trips up a lot of people: If you’re changing the way a building is shaped, or the total floor area of a building, you need a zoning permit before you can get a building permit. This means a zoning permit is required for any addition, demolition, or brand-new construction. A zoning permit is also required for signs.
If you want to use the building in a different way than allowed by the zoning code — say, you want to build a small restaurant space in a residential neighborhood — you need a variance, which requires approval by the zoning board.
You (Probably) Need Professionally-Made, Detailed Plans to get a Building Permit
Small renovation projects in houses for one or two families don’t require architectural or engineering plans. However, as you might expect, just about every other building permit project requires plans. Any architect or engineer in Philly worth your time will know what sort of plans the City requires; however, even the architect might not know exactly which information to put on each plan set for a specific type of permit. Sign plans, for instance, require diagrams of the sign with all dimensions marked, the weight of the sign, the type of bracket or other device used to anchor the sign, and a rendering of the sign as it will appear on the wall — not every residential architect will think to collect all that information.
There are two ways to make sure your plans are up to par: (1) Check all the City’s plan requirements for the type of permit you’re after (again, go to the main list here), and (2) contract Permit Philly! We’re not architects or engineers, so we can’t make plans for you. But we do have enough experience with the City to tell you when your plans are missing information that the plans examiners like to see.
Don’t Forget Reports and Forms!
Plans are great, but the City needs to know that what you’re building is safe. So, they often require a lot of forms to go along with the plans. Not all projects require a bucket of forms, but most construction and additions require one or two.
New construction requires a Structural Criteria Design Form; as does any construction of something designed to hold a lot of weight (even a deck!). Any demolition and certain renovations require an Asbestos Inspection Report. New construction and full demolitions require a Soils Investigation Report. New construction and additions and some renovations require inspections.
For an overview (which is not comprehensive!) check out the City’s list of top ten problems with building permit applications. Otherwise, make sure to look at that list of building permit types again, and ensure that you have everything the City of Philadelphia wants you to have.
Prerequisite Requirements for a Philadelphia Building Permit
Before you get a building permit from the Department of Licenses and Inspections, you may need to get approval for your project from another department of the City of Philadelphia. Most often, the Streets Department will want to look at construction projects, since construction projects regularly modify or build over sidewalks. Streets also reviews projects that involve adding garages, or corner properties generally (corner properties have multiple points of entrance that can’t interfere with the right of way for pedestrians or cars).
For full demolitions, you need to check with the Water Department to make sure water is shut off at the site. For signs in Center City, you need approval from the Art Commission. For large projects, the City Planning Commission needs a look.
You get the idea: do your homework before applying to Licenses and Inspections (or contract Permit Philly to do your homework for you).
How to Apply for a Philadelphia Building Permit
Well, now we’re to the easy part! If you have good plans, a zoning permit, the required forms, and you’ve had your plans stamped by other departments, you can just go to Licenses and Inspections and drop off the package. That’s it! If Licenses and Inspections doesn’t think they understand your project well enough, they’ll ask for more information from the owner or – more likely – the architect or engineer. Once they have enough, and if the project is deemed safe, you’ll get your permit.
An application review without a request for additional information usually takes 2-3 weeks, and up to a month. An application review can take a lot longer if additional information is requested. You have the option to expedite the review – to pay Philadelphia to process your application faster – for the low price of $540 per application (as of this writing – fees change).
To learn more about what happens after you apply for a Philadelphia building permit, check out our explainer.
The Big Picture
Most of the work on a Philadelphia building permit application happens before you submit the package to Licenses and Inspections. You need to have good plans, you need to make sure that you have all the paperwork the City wants to see, and you need to get approval from other departments in the City. If you do all this work first, building permit reviews are easy. If you try to rush the permit in to Licenses and Inspections without all the other forms and reviews, you’re much more likely to get a request for additional information from the City of Philadelphia, which can stall your project for quite a while as architects, engineers, and inspectors work to meet City requests.
Of course, if you still have any other questions about building permits (or zoning permits), just contact us!