Plans, Consultants and Permit Reviews

Recently a resident expressed concern about having to pay for an expert to review plans for a change they wanted to make to their home. This was after they hired a different expert, at the City’s suggestion, to prepare the plans they submitted for the permit application. That struck them as odd. Why have two experts — both of which are paid by the applicant — do the same job?

The answer is that the two experts are not doing the same job. In fact, while they are both working on the same project, they have very different responsibilities.

The first expert — let’s call her the designer — is responsible for coming up with a plan that meets the client’s needs and desires, at an acceptable construction cost, while being compliant with the appropriate zoning and building codes.

The second expert — let’s call her the reviewer — is responsible for making sure the plan complies with zoning and building codes, nothing else.

One might assume that what the designer comes up with would automatically pass muster with the reviewer, making the reviewer unnecessary. But that’s not the case. Zoning and building codes, by design, allow for as much flexibility as possible. That means any two experts can disagree on what’s acceptable. In addition, some aspects of the codes allow for judgment, which creates an opportunity for the designer to sell the reviewer on why the designer’s approach is acceptable.

These are not abstract, theoretical issues. As I write this I am finishing up construction of a new home for my family in San Carlos, and I know from personal experience that these differences of opinion and give-and-take are quite common.

It’s also worth pointing out that having separate designers and reviewers creates value for the homeowner, by expanding the scope of what can get approved. Which is a good thing.

One last point: to my knowledge, I don’t believe the applicant has to hire an expert designer. Instead, the applicant can prepare the plans herself. However, unless the applicant has some level of expertise in design and codes that’s often a more expensive and/or frustrating approach than hiring someone. That’s why staff will often suggest hiring an expert to do the design work.

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