Seattle Permit Realities / by Josh Brincko

Starting a construction project is a huge undertaking, and knowing where to start is confusing. Do I need a permit? Do I need an architect? Do I need an engineer? Who do I hire first? What will the construction cost? How do I hire a builder? There’s so many things to consider. 

All projects are different, so there is not a single consistent answer to all these questions. The best place to start is to consult the person who orchestrates the entire process: the architect. Even if you just want to build a fence, chat with an architect first. Sure anyone could build a fence, but how do you ensure it will be on your side of the property line? Can it be something more special than “just a fence” and match well with your house? How high can it be? Does it need a permit? How can it be made more maintenance-free? Even for a fence, there’s no clear answers to these questions since all properties are different. I really suggest asking an architect for some advice before undertaking this or any project. 

The architect can advise whether or not you need a permit, and he or she will be able to point you in the right direction for finding a builder, choosing which materials to use, selecting a durable stain, reviewing the bid from a fence building company, etc. Even if it’s something simple like a fence, it is best to ask. Any architect that is any good would be happy to offer some advice. 

When a project requires a permit, the process keeps getting more challenging as time goes on. It is becoming more and more necessary to hire an architect who is an expert working with the building department in the jurisdiction of your project. This will save you time, and this will save you money. Since the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections recently changed their online permit platform, their has been some major glitches with their staff figuring out how to operate the new system, and this has added even more time to the lengthy process. An expert in Seattle permitting is now even more necessary as the permit process is getting more complex. This article in the Seattle Times discusses this in more detail: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/rocky-launch-of-seattles-new-construction-permit-system-causes-delays-anger/

The building departments are constantly changing their codes and administrative protocols too. An experienced architect has expertise in dealing with these requirements expeditiously. I just talked with someone who said it took him 3 years to get a permit for a similar project that took me only 7 months. Familiarity with the process pays off.  

A new requirement in the Seattle area is dealing with rain water. The building department doesn’t want your gutters to just collect the rain anymore and send it through your downspouts and eventually into the sewer. Now they want us to try to collect all of the rain water on site to allow it to infiltrate into your soil. This leads to geotechnical engineers analyzing your soil to determine how much water it can absorb. If you have too much roof area to collect rain, and not enough good, draining soil, you may need to install certain rainwater collection devices like rain gardens, green roofs, bio-infiltration swales, dispersion trenches, etc. An architect can help you jump through these hoops or consult with a civil engineer when things get more complicated. 

This is just one hoop to jump through when getting a building permit. This rainwater stuff  is only one of sometimes a dozen or more different departments within your government that reviews the drawings for things like fire suppression, zoning, structural, building code, sewer requirements, water availability, etc. Your architect is the center of the universe for coordinating all of the various drawings, forms, and consultants that are needed to get through the permit process while still designing something that will look great and work well. A good architect will know what is going to happen before it happens. 

The reality of permitting has become so complicated that you really cannot do it on your own. It’s not worth navigating this complex process by yourself. Rely on an experienced architect to “hold your hand” through the process, and to be your advocate for meeting the necessary requirements in the easiest and most effective ways possible without taking the most conservative (expensive) approach which is often “required” by the building department. We are happy to help you go through this process. It’s the price we pay for the amazing opportunity to design an awesome home for you.