building permit and approval

An Overview of Required Commercial Building Permits and Approvals

What building permits are required for commercial construction projects? The answer probably sounds all too familiar: it depends. And there’s much more to consider than just permits. Each municipality, county, and state will have its own combination of commercial building approvals that need to be met. Some plan reviews, permits, approvals, and business licenses are required before starting a project, others are needed during construction, and yet more are issued before granting occupancy of a facility.

In addition to issuing permits, some municipalities have strict zoning requirements, ordinances, and inspections that need to be factored in. Despite the unique parameters of each project, there are some general considerations when thinking through permits for commercial construction.

What Does a Municipality Review for Compliance?

Each community has various goals as part of its long-range planning process, and many factors influence those goals and which building permit applications are approved. Is the proposed project located near wetlands or in a historic district? Is it an economic development zone? Are there utilities and other infrastructure in place? What about noise ordinances, restricted sightlines, aesthetics, or materials requirements, and more? 

Something as seemingly simple as the proposed placement of dumpsters or loading docks could be in violation of a local ordinance, and building permits and approvals can’t be issued until the authorities within a municipality understand the full scope of a project and its intended use. Some communities are satisfied with a conceptual plan while others ask for detailed specifications, elevations, renderings of how it will be situated on a site, and more.

Commercial Construction Permit Process

An advantage of having a construction manager is that they can help coordinate all the moving parts of a commercial project, including approvals. There are basically three development stages to creating a plan that meets building codes, allowing the permitting process to move forward:

  1. A conceptual schematic design outlining size and budget 
  2. Details defining mechanical and electrical systems, finishes, walls, exteriors, etc.
  3. Construction drawings, specifications, and contract 

The owner is responsible for coordinating these details, but usually relies on the architect to outline the plans and the contractor to secure most permits for construction. Then, once the review and approvals take place, the municipality will calculate the fees and issue permits.

After the initial approval to move ahead is given, the project owner is typically locked into a schedule and next steps will take place requiring further reviews, other incidental permits, and inspections for plumbing, heating, electrical, structural systems, and specialty code items. 

Once construction is completed, licensing authorities may come in for final inspections and follow ups. For example, if a school in Wisconsin wants to host WIAA-sanctioned diving tournaments in its swimming pool, the facility must be inspected and meet strict depth requirements in order to be approved for hosting. It’s the owner’s responsibility to inform the architect and contractor about the school’s WIAA affiliation during the planning phase to meet those licensing requirements.

Types of Commercial Building Permits & Responsibilities

In the grand scheme of things, the permitting process doesn’t cost that much when managed properly, but it can add significant costs if not done correctly and work ends up needing to be redone to comply. 

The types of building permits, reviews, and licenses for commercial construction can be overwhelming and will vary depending on the type of facility, location, intended use, and more. The following is a list of common building reviews and permits for commercial construction and who is responsible for coordinating them.

Best for Owner to Coordinate With Architect or Engineer

Local Site Plan Review / Approval

  • Site design, building use, parking, landscape, lighting, and signage permits
  • Stormwater management, site erosion control, construction erosion control
  • Business plan when required

State Plan Reviews (IBC and companion codes; Safety and Professional Services rules)

  • Architecture, structure, HVAC
  • Plumbing (or private sewage systems)
  • Fire Suppression and Detection (sprinklers and alarms)
  • Elevators (and escalators)
  • Electrical (may not need to submit, but electrical requirements required)
  • Various components (e.g., roof and floor trusses, metal buildings, steel girders, precast concrete plank and walls, laminated wood)
  • Others (e.g., kitchen exhaust, swimming pools, boiler/pressure vessels, mechanical refrigeration, canopies, bleachers, rack supported building storage, membrane construction, skywalks)

Additional State Plan Reviews

  • Department of Health Services (DHS): hospitals, nursing homes
  • Department of Corrections: (DOC 350 and other sections for guidance)

Best for Owner to Have Contractor Coordinate

Local Building Permits

  • General Construction
  • HVAC
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical
  • Fire protection
  • Signage

DNR Permitting

  • Stormwater management / erosion control
  • Hazardous material abatement (remodeling, demolition)
  • Shoreline construction, docks

Diggers Hotline

  • Underground electrical, plumbing, services that are not “private”

Generally Left to Owner

Licensing

  • Hotels, motels, bed and breakfast
  • Restaurants, bars, commercial kitchens
  • Daycare
  • Community Based Residential Facilities (CBRFs)
  • Pools
  • Campgrounds

Other

  • Location of any “private” underground electrical, plumbing, and other services
  • Any additional insurance, accreditation, and other private requirements only the owner knows about 

Commercial Building Permits — Where to Start

The steps to coordinate and obtain commercial building permits are complicated, especially for those with little or no experience managing a major project. It’s important to involve an architect, engineer, and construction manager early on to help you identify your needs and ensure a smooth process.  

Connect with the construction management team at The Samuels Group to talk about the unique aspects of your commercial building project and an overview of potential permits. And access our helpful guide below, 10 Questions to Ask a Commercial General Contractor, for additional considerations.

10 questions to ask a commercial general contractor

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