Welcome to the Assembled Light Blog

Over the first three years of operating our small business here in Hamilton, Ontario, our studio has completed more than twenty projects, with more in the works.  During this time, we have learned a great deal about our clients and their needs, and it has become evident to us that architecture and, also, more specifically about the process of architectural design are still a mystery to most.  Architecture – when done well – is always accomplished via a team of various people with a vast range of knowledge.  As vital members of our team, we want our clients to be educated and knowledgeable about our business so that they feel empowered to contribute.  The more our clients know about architecture, its value, and the process of getting to the final product, the better quality work we can provide.  

In order to help demystify the profession and answer some commonly asked questions, we’ll be publishing a new post every Monday on a variety of subjects.  We’ll begin this new year with the rather appropriate theme of Getting Started.  Over the next two months, we’ll cover a range of topics from timelines and budgets to permits and fees. We thank you for joining us and we hope you find this information useful. Let’s begin. 

For our first post, let’s talk about timelines.  

We’ll start with an example from our archives.

Potential client calling in May: “Hello, we’d like to design a new home. We have found a contractor who is available to start building in September”.

Is this four month timeline impossible? No.  Is it realistic in most circumstances? No. 

One of the most common misconceptions we have noticed is regarding how long the design and approvals process can take.  We’ll save demystifying the design portion for next week’s post, and for now we’ll focus on the timelines for various approvals processes.

To illustrate how the approvals process can impact your timeline, we’ve put together some example projects and associated potential requirements. Please note that these examples are not meant to be exhaustive and that depending on where your project is located, there may be governing bodies we have not mentioned.  They should be used simply to gain a better understanding of the approvals process. 

So let’s get to it.

Project 1: You have a home and would like to build an addition.

In just about any project, your designer or architect will start by gathering information about your property to determine which authorities have jurisdiction.  Authorities Having Jurisdiction (often referred to as AHJs) are governing bodies which have the statutory responsibility for enforcing the requirements of a standard (for example, the building inspector or fire chief).  

For this project case, let’s assume your Municipality (or city) is the only one that has any jurisdiction.  (Refer to Project 3 for examples of other AHJs). Your municipality’s planning department will have established a specific zoning for your site which you can have confirmed before starting your project by requesting a Zoning Verification.  Once you know how your property is zoned, the zoning by-law will outline acceptable building types, required setbacks, height restrictions, and a plethora of other requirements which the project must abide by.  

Side Note
The municipality will also indicate whether a Site Plan Approval (SPA) will be required.  A site plan application requires a resolved building outline located on a map of the site, as well as drawings showing each side of the proposed building indicating the materials to be used and including window and door locations.  If you require SPA, we suggest you add 4 months to your timeline as the city review process is often lengthy and requires input from a number of departments. It may take less, but may also take a lot more depending on the municipality and the particulars of the project.  However, for this example, let’s assume you don’t need it.

Regardless of any SPA submission requirement, if you would like to push the boundaries of any zoning restrictions for your property (e.g., you want to build higher than is currently allowed), you will need to present your case to the municipality’s Committee of Adjustment (CoA).  At a CoA hearing, your neighbours may comment their support for (or concerns with) your proposal. In Hamilton this committee only meets twice a month and, from submitting your application to the end of the appeal period, the process usually takes 2-3 months. 

Assuming that the Committee approves your proposal, and no appeals are filed during the following appeal period, you may then submit to get your building permit.  For a single family home, the Building Department is required by code to respond to you within 10 business days. At that time you may be given permit approval, or you will be asked to submit more information or drawings.  The city is not beholden to a timeline after this initial communication.

Estimated approvals timeline (not including project design): 1 – 4 months*
*The lower end of this timeline is only for building permit, with not CoA requirement. The higher end is if you need CoA, but are approved and no appeals are made.
Our suggestion: If your home can conform to the zoning requirements of the property while the design meets your needs and taste, we recommend doing so.  

Project 2: You would like to tear down and rebuild your house in the city.  The municipality is the only AHJ.

To build new, you’ll need to demolish the home on the property.  In many older cities, this means you’ll have to confirm that the home is not registered with the City’s Heritage Department.  Many homes have been inventoried and may show up on the list; but, even if the home is very old, if it has not been well preserved to protect its original character, there is likely nothing that will stop you from demolishing it.

Side Note
If the home is registered and is considered heritage, you’ll need to find out which aspects of the home are protected.  Sometimes it’s the building’s street face or simply just a bay window, and sometimes it is the entire interior and exterior of the home. If you are in this situation, hiring a heritage consultant is advisable to help determine what changes you can make. For this example, let’s assume the home is not Heritage.

You may also be asked to do an Archaeological assessment to determine if anything of historical value may be found on the property.  This requirement varies greatly by municipality and location. The assessment is best done during the months where the ground is not frozen or covered in snow. 

To receive a demolition permit, you will also need to submit your drawings for the proposed building itself. To avoid having lots that sit vacant for years on end, most municipalities will require that you build on the property within a specified time of receiving your permit (two years, for example). Prior to granting a permit, you may also be required to gather sign-off from all of your local utilities (e.g. gas, water, phone, cable, etc.) indicating that they’ve been shut off and that you have permission to proceed. Depending on how old the infrastructure is in your area, you may be required to inspect the sewer to determine whether or not you have to line or replace it.  Sometimes this requirement has to be fulfilled prior to receiving permit approval. 

Estimated approvals timeline (not including design): 2-6 months
Our suggestion: Request that your municipality provide you with all of their requirements well ahead of time so you can plan accordingly. 

Project 3: You would like to build new on an empty lot you own outside of the city.  The lot has ecological/conservation impacts.

The first thing that will need to be determined about the land are the relevant AHJs.  In Southern Ontario, for example, the Niagara Escarpment Commission will be at the top of the food chain, and if a permit is required through the NEC, you may be looking at 6 months (or more) depending on their backlog. 

Additional Conservation Authorities may also have input and require a permit process, though these vary depending on the environmental and physical characteristics of your property and the adjacent land.  You may be asked to stake wetland boundaries, or to show that your building will not be negatively affected by a 100-year-flood (that is, a flood that has a 1% occurrance chance).  

If your land is deemed to be an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) by your municipality, you’ll need to submit an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which can take a full year to complete (in order to cover all seasons).

On the upside, if you require and obtain an EIS for an NEC or other Conservation Authority permit, some municipalities may allow you to skip the SPA process.

Estimated approvals timeline (not including design): 6 months – 2+ years.
Our suggestion: When an AHJ (like the NEC or Halton Conservation Authority) indicates that they do not require a permit, make sure you receive the answer in writing and file it for future reference.  Follow up any and all phone conversations with an email.

We hope this has helped shed light on at least some aspects of the approvals process for building an addition or new home.  In next week’s post, we’ll talk about the difference between a product and a service, and the architectural design process. Have a great week!

For Hamilton zoning information go to Hamilon’s Interactive Zoning
Base: general information, property lines, lot size, etc.
Policy: NEC, Conservation and other AHJ information
Zoning: Indicates Applicable Zoning By-Law, including any holds on the property

*** Disclaimer: The information in this post is based on our experiences and is solely our personal opinion.  It is to be used for educational purposes only.  Consult your local municipality for requirements.