All drawings are submitted to the building department as a package and may cross several desks in series before being awarded a building permit. Generally, there is more architectural review (Planning, Fire, Mechanical, Public Works, etc) than structural (Building).
The most important thing to understand about building officials is that they are humans and are as imperfect as you are I. The interpretation of various building codes from one reviewer to another seems to be as broad as the building code is large, and there are objectively grey areas. As a result, the opinion of one reviewer may differ from another on one particular subject, which can makes things frustrating if you’re counting on their instructions. The best defenses against receiving conflicting information or review are to receive comments in writing and to maintain a relationship with the same reviewer throughout the project.
Comments and Clarifications
Following a review, a building official should provide a formal letter with an itemized receipt of questions or areas that need clarification. The respective professionals can alter their drawings, write a formal letter describing those changes in plain english, reprint, and resubmit for another round of review.
Over the Counter
Depending on the scale of the project, it may be possible to submit over-the-counter, which is a face to face conversation at a desk with the reviewer to defend/justify/explain the project. The rule of thumb here is that the project should take one hour or less to fully review, though there is usually some waiting involved. Think DMV but for buildings. “Intake” drawings are handed over to be reviewed by a building official behind closed doors, probably after some amount of waiting.
Outsourced Plan Review
Due to volume or staffing issues, some municipalities opt to outsource the review of drawings to third parties that may or may not be familiar with local or neighborhood regulations. We find these reviews to be substantially more scrutinous with sometimes seemingly unfair comments or questionably low effort. While it can feel like these reviewers are paid per comment, they ultimately won’t threaten the realization of your project. Armed with extra patience and thorough response letters, the project will be approved in no time.
While it would seem like we are living in a world where building regulations are clear cut with objectively straight-forward guidelines, we aren’t quite there yet. Hiring an expeditor may be a good option for your project if it is time sensitive or has a difficult approval path to navigate. An expeditor probably knows local building regulations and exceptions better than some of the reviewers and likely has professional relationships throughout the building that allow for streamlined review and ultimately faster approval than routine or amateur projects.
The general contractor signs for and takes responsibility for the construction project, which is an opportunity for the building department to make sure a licensed professional is performing the work. Some smaller projects can be approved as Owner-Builder, which means the building owner is taking on that responsibility and will be hiring subcontractors directly, behaving as the general contractor.