Wednesday, February 15, 2017

San Francisco Permit Process Flowchart

Have you ever wondered why the permit process in San Francisco is so confusing?  Here's why (see image).  With a little assistance from my web developer, we mapped out a flowchart of the process.  Once we had the steps in place, we stacked the decision tree vertically.  There are a lot of steps.  From a pure usability standpoint, San Francisco's permit process is a nightmare.  Keep in mind this is a simplified flowchart, we didn't chart other city agencies such as mechanical plan check, PUC, BSM, etc.  And clients wonder why it's so expensive to build in this town!

Download the file for greater legibility

Friday, March 11, 2016

Stakeholders in the Design Process

I often have clients who would like to add an addition or build a new house and believe that they can build whatever they want, within reason of course.  It often comes as a very unpleasant surprise when they discover that their "castle" isn't entirely theirs.  The reality, particularly in dense urban areas, is that there are numerous stakeholders who can have an impact on the aesthetics, size and even layout of their home.  Negotiating this maze of vested individuals can be a difficult task.  However, the good news is that most municipalities have a fairly sane process to ensure that your one malcontent neighbor cannot completely derail a project.

The description below outlines San Francisco's stakeholders, mainly because San Francisco has one of the most rigorous review process in the Bay Area.  Other municipalities have similar reviews, though they tend to be less complex and lengthy.

If you are planning a remodel, they are not subject to the same level of scrutiny. In most municipalities neighbors will not have the opportunity to review the project and the project is approved over-the-counter.  However, there are exceptions, such as the neighborhood of Westwood Park in San Francisco which has a Homeowner's Association that reviews all projects.

Planning Department

The Planning Department enforces the local Planning Code.  These were created in the early 20th century as a response to industrialization.  Early codes were designed to protect property value by separating industrial and commercial uses from residential areas.  Current codes are extremely comprehensive and regulate everything from height/bulk, materials, signage, landscaping and historic character.  In San Francisco, residential construction that affects the exterior of a building such as an addition, is also subject to the Residential Design Guidelines.  The Planning Department’s Residential Design Team reviews all new construction and most additions for compliance with the guidelines.  The guidelines are fairly subjective in nature and often results in revisions to projects.

If a structure is historic under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), it is subject to further scrutiny.  Each municipality has significant leeway as to how they enforce CEQA.  San Francisco requires any changes to a historic façade visible from the street to be reviewed by one of the Planning Department’s preservation planners.  Part of the submission requirement entails making the case that the building does not have significant historic value.  This includes researching old building photos, occupants and owners.

SF Planning Department’s Property Map:
Variety of Interesting Planning Maps:

Adjacent Neighbors

The biggest stakeholders, other than the owner, are the adjacent neighbors.  All additions and new construction in San Francisco must go through a rigorous neighbor notification process.  Prior to submitting the project for permit, a pre-application meeting with the neighbors is required.  The goal is to address any concerns prior to permit submittal.  Sometimes this is feasible and at other times accommodating neighbors would necessitate serious design compromises.  Once the project has been submitted for permit AND approved by Planning staff, a second neighbor notification is sent.  At this point neighbors have 30 days in which they can file for review of the project by the Planning Commission.  The Planning Commission is usually the final stop for a project.  If approved by the commission, the project proceeds to the Building Department for review.

Neighborhood Groups/Homeowners Associations (HOA)

Many communities in San Francisco have neighborhood groups who are active in the design review process.  Some examples are the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, the four Bernal Hill neighborhood groups and the Forest Hill Association.  Many of these groups are recognized by San Francisco’s Planning Department who mandates meeting with them prior to permit submittal.  Additionally, many of these groups have adopted their own neighborhood plans (design guidelines) in addition to the Planning Department’s Residential Design Guidelines.  The local guidelines may enforce stricter height and bulk requirements thereby reducing the size of any new construction.  While these local neighborhood groups make recommendations to the Planning Department, final design authority rests with Planning.

List of Neighborhood Plans:

Friday, March 4, 2016

Architectural Phases

A typical architectural project has seven phases.  All projects go through these various steps, though on smaller residential projects there is often blurring of boundaries between the some phases.  The phases are:
Existing Conditions and Code Research
Schematic Design
Design Development
Construction Documents
Bidding and/or Negotiations
Construction Observation

 Phase 1 – Existing Conditions and Code Research

The first two steps in any project are often critical for success.  We start by researching the appropriate zoning code that applies to the site.  Zoning varies from city to city AND from neighborhood to neighborhood.  San Francisco has a great on-line map that makes basic zoning research easy:

The second step is to spend a day measuring the existing building and site.  From these measurements a three dimensional computer model is created from which the existing floor plans, sections, exterior elevations and site plan are generated.  Given that these drawings are the basis of all future work, it's critical that they are accurate.  Therefore we do not work with plans drawn by others.  A survey may be required by a professional surveyor.

 Phase 2 - Schematic Design

Once the existing conditions are drawn, we meet with the client to discuss/sketch their design requirements in greater detail.  From this meeting the first set of schematic floor plans and three dimensional line drawings are created.  Typically two to three floor plans are presented to the client.  Based on the client's feedback the design is refined and presented again.  Depending on both the client and the job, we may create several iterations of the schematic design.  The time frame varies greatly for this phase, it may be as little as a month or as long as several months.

At the end of Schematic Design the drawings can be sent for preliminary construction bidding and engineering.  Additionally, some clients elect to hire a contractor to work with us through the remainder of the phases to manage cost.

 Phase 3 - Design Development

In this phase, we begin to develop the details of the design. In contrast to Schematic Design where, for example, we develop the overall floor plan of a kitchen that simply indicates where the big blocks of cabinetry are located, in Design Development we will develop the actual cabinet sizes and refine the proportions.  In order to communicate the design intent, interior and exterior elevations are drawn.  In conjunction with the floor plans, the interior designer will use the elevations to begin selecting fixtures and finishes.  Typically, the architect will work closely with the interior designer to ensure that the design develops into a cohesive visual and functional design.

At the completion of Design Development, the documents can be utilized for structural engineering, energy analysis and more accurate cost estimating.

 Phase 4 - Construction Documents 

The bulk of the work we do happens in this phase.  The construction documents are developed sufficiently for construction and that means a tremendous amount of detail drawings.  Ideally, the major design details should be drawn to avoid confusion during construction.  These include window and door details, cabinetry details, roof overhangs, connection details of decks, guardrails, etc.  If left undrawn, many design decisions are made by the contractor and the final result may not reflect the design intent. 

The construction documents represent the final design approved by the client.  With our assistance, the client should review the drawings very carefully as changes made later can add substantial cost, both in professional fees and construction change orders.

 Phase 5 - Permitting

The construction documents are submitted to the city Planning and Building Departments for review.  If the project is an interior remodel then it will not be subject to Planning review and in some cities may obtain an over-the-counter permit.  If exterior changes are required, the process could be quite lengthy.  Once the drawings have been reviewed, the city will send the architect “plan check comments”.  These are usually small revisions that need to be made to the drawings to be code compliant.  Most projects have one round of comments, but some may incur a second round.  Once all changes are accepted by the city, the permit is issued to the general contractor.

 Phase 6 - Bidding and/or Negotiations

While the drawings are being reviewed by the city, the project is sent to general contractors for bidding. Typically three to four contractors bid on a job. The architect usually manages the bid process by answering questions the contractors may have, doing walk-throughs of the site and comparing bids. We will provide a list of contractors that we have worked with in the past that have a track record of good workmanship and completing jobs on budget.

Alternatively, the client may choose to do a negotiated bid with on general contractor.  Given the current backlog that most reputable contractors are experiencing, this will allow the client to get into a contractor’s queue prior to completion of construction drawings.  In this scenario, construction usually starts as soon as the permit is issued.  With competitive bidding there may be a delay between the permit being issued and construction commencing.

 Phase 7 - Construction Observation 

At this point, the general contractor becomes the lead person on the project and the architect takes on a supporting role. The contractor is responsible for all aspects of construction including inspections and construction methods. We will be available to address any issues that arise. The amount of construction observation required varies greatly. For smaller projects, we may be on site once a month, for larger projects, site visits may occur weekly.  We will schedule regular walk-throughs with both the contractor and client to discuss construction issues and review the progress. The client should always address construction questions to the architect and we will discuss them with the contractor.  A clear chain of communication is important in order to avoid costly rework.  Once construction is finished, the contractor, client and architect do a final walk-through of the job site.  Any items needing attention are added to a punch list for the contractor to correct before receiving final payment from the owner.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

How to Ensure Your Project is a Success

Realistic Schedule

Good design takes time.  The design process for a remodel may take three to six months or longer. The design of an addition or new construction can be twice as long.  After the design is complete, the project will go through the permit process and once it is approved by the city, construction may start.  Which means that a simple remodel of an existing home from the start of the design to the end of construction is a six-month process and very likely much longer. 

Clients often ask; why does it take so long?  Architecture is one of the few professions in which every project is a custom work.  While parts of a building are mass produced, much of the design and construction is still designed/built for the individual setting.  It’s comparable to having a custom made dress designed for you versus buying a mass produced dress from Gap or Ann Taylor.

Gap Mass Produced Dress
Custom Made Dress

Realistic Budget Expectations

Architects pride themselves on being creative, and we can be very creative with a modest budget.  However, if the budget is tight, then considering Carrera marble counter tops for a kitchen isn’t realistic.  In San Francisco/Bay Area, average construction cost is $400-$500/sf.  It can be lower if there is very little structural work, but it is rarely below $300/sf.  Depending on material choices, construction cost can be considerably higher.  Other areas of the state have much lower construction costs, but even in rural settings construction costs are rarely below $200/sf.

Additionally, professional fees need to be factored into the overall budget.  These vary based on project size.  For example a very small deck addition requires much of the same drawings as a larger project and therefore the architectural fees can be a quarter of the construction costs.  However, for rough estimating, typical architectural fees are between 8-12% of construction cost and structural fees are between 3-5%.  Permit fees should be factored in too and these vary from city to city.


Whenever a client tackles a remodel/addition it is like taking on a second part-time job.  While the architect does the heavy lifting, the client knows the project best.  There will be many decisions that the client needs to make and without these decisions the project may become stalled.  At every major milestone a set of drawings is produced that shows the design intent.  These drawings are the primary form of communication with the client, engineer, contractor and building officials; therefore they are the most important tools in the architect’s repertoire.  Just as the client would review a contract crafted by a lawyer for completeness, it is also the client’s responsibility to review the drawings thoroughly for completeness and intent.  Once the drawings are submitted for permit any changes will result in added cost and delays.

A major component of this second job is timely communication with the architect.  If any changes need to be made, let the architect know in writing immediately.  Some decisions if not communicated in a timely fashion can cause major delays.  For example, the client and architect discussed the possibility of a new window in a load-bearing wall.  An item like this has architectural, structural and energy consequences.  The architect will have to liaison with the engineers and energy consultant to have revisions made to the drawings.  It may take several weeks to effect this simple change, so early and clear communication is key.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Why Hire an Architect?

If you’re thinking about starting a building project, be it a new home, a remodel, or an addition, you may be asking yourself, ‘Do I need to hire an architect?’  In a word, yes.  An architect provides a broad range of expertise in buildings that no other profession can offer.  Buildings are complicated amalgams of numerous systems that all work together, and the architect is uniquely trained to work with the design and construction of all of them.  An architect’s training requires advanced schooling, a long internship, and passing a series of rigorous exams. 

From the very beginning of any project, even on the smallest projects, there are decisions to be made in respect to codes, zoning, and scheduling.  Only an architect is trained to navigate these complexities in a comprehensive way.  The first thing an architect can do is help you to define your scope based on budget, site and your needs.  Early involvement of an architect may seem like an unnecessary expense, but the earlier the better because the architect will help protect your investment, and frequently the earliest decisions have the greatest impact.

As construction begins, an architect is your agent and advocate representing your interests when dealing with contractors, building officials and consultants.  An architect has the ability to foresee problems as they arise on paper, which is far less problematic and less expensive than discovering problems during construction.
A home is usually the largest investment you’ll make in your lifetime and an architect will make sure not only that any remodel or design is not only done to code and avoids fines or expensive repairs, but also that the design enhances the property value.  An architect can also help to save money through increased energy performance.  Additionally a well designed project will anticipate the client’s needs over the long term, e.g. preparing for future growth of the home. 

Particularly in new homes, the single most important decision one can make for the performance of the home is the siting.  A well sited house can do more to reduce your energy bills than any other energy efficiency measure can.  In addition, an architect can help to relate the project to neighborhood and historical contexts. Only an architect is qualified to not only address the complex set of needs you bring to your project, but also bring you into the decision making process like no other professional can.

Monday, May 28, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about place lately, not site, but place making.  I've recently  returned from a trip to Las Vegas and southern Utah.  (This was my first trip to Las Vegas and I disliked it more than I expected.  I had hoped it would be so kitschy that I could find some humor in it, but it takes itself too seriously to be funny.  It's just bad architecture.)  Almost every town we went through could have been "anywhere U.S.A.".  Why is this? 

I suspect it's because the U.S. does not have a strong vernacular (folk) tradition of architecture.  A friend strongly disagreed with me when I stated this, citing the Victorians of San Francisco and brownstones of New York as examples of American vernacular.  But while I do think these are examples of local building traditions, I don't think they can be held up as examples of vernacular architecture.  Vernacular architecture springs from site; from local climate, building materials and modes of living that have developed over centuries.  In Switzerland, they build houses with steeply slanted roofs due to the heavy snowfall and use local materials such as abundant wood and stone to create a very distinctive look.  In Iceland, where wood was a rare commodity prior to trade and the winters are long and fierce, they used to build partially submerged sod houses.

Icelandic Sod House Partially Submerged in Ground

Greece House Built of Local Stone and White-washed to Minimize Heat Gain

The Victorians of San Francisco are not built in response to the site (other than the use of wood).  The style is a foreign import.  Granted, San Franciscans have made the style their own, but to me, it is not vernacular architecture.  I think if we were to look for a vernacular American tradition we'd have to look to native Americans who did not build extensive permanent settlements, other than the pueblos of the south west.

So throughout America (and I include Canada too), we build sprawling, suburban communities that are divorced from place.  San Jose looks the same as St. George, Utah.  They are both filled with boxy, windowless strip malls and houses that are a mish-mash of architectural styles.  The average American, I believe in an attempt to find a sense of permanence and tradition where none exists, gravitates to new housing that imitates older European architectural styles.  How do we create a sense of place that isn't a rehash of old tired styles?  Advocates of Critical Regionalism would encourage us to use local vernacular architecture as a starting point, but if no vernacular architecture exists, how does one begin? Is it simply by responding sensitively to the site, the climate and context?  Or should we simply forge ahead and develop a uniquely American style divorced from historicism?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Architecture and Happiness

I frequently meet people who tell me that they hate modern architecture.  Typically they start to rant about the "modern" office building where they work, one of those soulless buildings that suck all the joy out of life.  I try to point out to them that this may be "modern" architecture, but it's not good modern architecture.  I am always struck by how strong the negative reaction is.  Unfortunately, I recently had cause to visit one of these lifeless buildings.

It was time for my yearly physical at my doctor's new office, a 1960's building probably built by a developer.  I think this qualifies as the ugliest building I have ever been in.  Not only were the ceilings low (I'd be surprised if they were much over 7') but there was very little natural light and the few fluorescent fixtures did nothing to brighten up the space.  Everything was painted beige and the ceiling looked like it was spray-on fireproofing, also painted beige.  I made some deprecatory comment about the space to the receptionist and suddenly all three receptionists started complaining to me about how much they hated the space.  One told me that she had to regularly go to a perimeter office to see the sky and another said, "At least you get to leave after half an hour, we're stuck here all day!"  From my doctor and her assistant I heard similar complaints.  Everyone was miserable in this building.  When I was done I tried to leave but instead got lost in the warren of hallways (good thing there was no quake at that very moment).

Charming Doctor's Office (I'm kidding)

Who designs these horrific buildings?  Did the architect take pride in creating spaces that made so many people unhappy?  There is clearly no doubt that architecture has an effect on our quality of life (psychologists have done studies that bear this out, though they test quantifiable things such as amount of natural light or color, not necessarily the entire gestalt of a building).  I can't help thinking that the old buildings that people prefer are more palatable because architects had no choice but to provide tall ceilings for large windows since there was no electricity to generate light.  The general public doesn't seem to notice when spaces are good, they just accept it and go about their business.  But when a space is bad, they notice and we modern architects get blamed.  Is it any wonder that the masses think that a good space has to be neo-colonial or neo-Victorian when the "modern" buildings they spend their work days in make them so unhappy?

Our built environment is with us all day, every day, subconsciously  effecting us.  Our built environment  can give us pleasure.  I will always remember with great fondness the Art Center hillside campus building, where I spent three years.  It is a Miesian box designed by  Craig Ellwood in 1974.  The building is a long and low black steel building, spanning a ravine. The tectonics of the building have been exposed to reveal the precisely crafted steel beams and columns.  My favorite space was the cafeteria.  It is a jewel-like space encased in glass walls on two sides with dappled light filtering in through the trees outside.  I spent a great part of my day in this building and it taught us budding designers a lot about what good design means. The building was an inspiration to us, it spoke of craftsmanship, quality and joy.  Is it any wonder that Art Center graduates are known for designing products or graphics with similar qualities?

Locally, one of my favorite buildings is Herzog and de Meuron's de Young Museum.  As is all too familiar to those of us who practice in San Francisco, there was the usual outcry against the "modern" building when it was first proposed.  The tower in particular, which projects out of the trees in Golden Gate park, was pronounced an extra special abomination by the public.   However, now that it is built, it has become a city icon.  While I don't think all the spaces in the building are great, there are enough wonderful spaces that demonstrate to the public how exciting modern architecture can be.  The hated tower is now  a required stop on any visitor's tour of the city.  At the top, the walls are all glass presenting a vertiginous drop to the beautifully detailed roof below.  I particularly like the wedge shaped courtyard that compresses the visitor as you descend to the lower galleries.  And while vertigo and compression may not exactly be positive adjectives, this building challenges us to design architecture that isn't simply banal or worse yet, depressing.  It inspires us to create truly exceptional and emotive spaces.