This article will focus in on some of the recurring themes that seem to come into play when doing construction in San Francisco. Factors that have more weight here due to some of our unique characteristics, be they physical, political, bureaucratic or economic. Things that you might not be prepared for if you’re new to the area, or had never renovated before.
The permitting process in San Francisco is definitely something to be aware of up front. Mainly because it can have a profound affect on the project timeline. As cities go San Francisco isn’t particularly tough. In fact, planning is pretty forward thinking and we don’t have some of the view requirements and design guidelines that other towns have. Department of Building Inspection has some reasonable people and at times it seems they are on our side. But the problem arises from the fact that this is a government agency in a big city, and we all know through first hand experience what that can mean: the process is often wrought with bottlenecks, queues, backlogs, buck-passing, run-arounds and mis-information.
In a nutshell, getting a permit here can be very quick (1 day) or very long (6 months to a year or more), depending on the scope of your project.
If the exterior dimensions are changing, you’d better plan on permits taking the better part of a year. And this doesn’t take into account the several months it can take to prepare a design. I cant tell you how many times I’ve had clients tell me they’re having a baby in 6 months and they need to have the addition done by then. The moral of this story is start the process early and be aware of the time involved.
Residential structural design in areas without earthquakes is pretty straight forward, and can usually be handled by the architect. In seismically active zones like San Francisco, buildings need to be designed to withstand seismic forces. A structural engineer is usually needed, and there are a number of ways that structural requirements can affect our buildings:
Windows/glass spanning the front or rear of a building can be desirable. But to meet code we usually need sections of solid wall four or five feet wide on either side. There are always ways around it, but will cost more. A mandatory seismic upgrade may be required if we substantially alter the house in various ways. Removing or altering a substantial amount of the walls in a house can or adding enough weight can trigger this requirement. Adding to the height of a building (vertical addition) can be particularly difficult, because it affects the entire building as the new loads are transferred down to the foundation. When we do work on a house, we are usually working with our structural engineer trying to stay below the thresholds that would require replacing entire foundations and other costly propositions. Of course we always want to maximize safety, so we either need to make sure we don’t change things enough to make things unsafe, or elect to do the full seismic work. But it is very important to be aware of the implications up front.
Expensive houses, high construction costs and a sketchy economy all conspire to make home improvements in San Francisco a tenuous affair. Even if the funding is there, homeowners have to be wary of exceeding the potential value of their house when doing improvements. It is always a balancing act that is a major part of any construction project here.
San Francisco’s planning & zoning primarily governs how we can change the exterior dimensions of our house. They have the same sorts of regulations in other towns, difference is that most homes in San Francisco are already built out close to the maximum size. There is usually some room for expansion, but we are always pushing up against, or finding ways to (legally) exceed the limits. Planning may also look at the impression that a house gives when seen form the street. Historic factors come into play, placing special restrictions on buildings with historic merit (anything older than 50 years is considered for historic review). Modifying the front of your house can be a big deal if there is a lot of original historic detail. It is also tough to demolish a building in San Francisco. This and that there are very few vacant lots here make renovation and addition the only option for most people.
Although we don’t have the protected views, or design review processes of other towns, we do have a neighbor notification process. Residents & owners within 150 feet are given 30 days to review your project and bring up any concerns they may have. They don’t have a lot of say in the style of the home, valid concerns have more to do with decreased light and air, or other hardships they may experience. Neighbors can also have a lot of influence if they feel your project conflicts with the neighborhood, particularly in terms of size and massing. Although neighbors ultimately don’t have final say in the end, they can sure complicate the process. So it always a good idea to get your neighbors’ feedback & support early in the process, and always try to be wary of how they may be impacted by your project.
There do seem to be reogonal patters to levels of neighborhood involvement. Some neighborhoods are les affaires and hands-off, while others are extremely hands-on. Some neighborhoods have self appointed design-review boards which usually weigh in – although they don’t have authority, they are usually active, and planning considers their input for what it’s worth.
I certainly don’t want to deter anyone from renovating here in San Francisco. But it can be very helpful to have some understanding of the process up front. It’s an architect’s job to set help you navigate the process, so get one on board early.