Illustration by Glenn Harvey
Over the course of seven years, Bryan Romanesky, CEO of Permit Masters, has helped countless people secure the permits needed to do their renovations. His company started as an urban-planning firm, but more and more people started asking for his help with the process of getting permits.
Since then, he’s encountered not only people who struggle to understand the process, but those who even ignored it to start with and now deal with the consequences. In one case, the homeowner placed plumbing lines haphazardly over the electrical box, another removed necessary support beams for aesthetic purposes, and a third added an addition to a home without a foundation, resulting in the destruction of an entire side of the structure.
“We see the worst,” he says, “and they justify all of these regulations.” When doing renovations, homeowners may need permits for building, development or for mechanical and plumbing, depending on the work being done. And then there are the incredibly unique projects Romanesky’s seen that require permits: A ping pong gym set up in someone’s garage, a stage in a basement and a spa room made out of salt.
Some of the permits do require quite a bit of leg work, in the form of floor plans, photos of exteriors, and listings of construction materials; but it’s worth it for safety reasons alone. When asked what types of renovations require a permit, Romanesky laughs. It’s the question he gets most often, and the most difficult one to answer. The reason being that it’s really a case-by-case basis with every city in Canada split into zoning districts with their own regulations determining what permits will be required.
But, generally speaking, they’re needed “as soon as they start moving walls around, removing doors, moving windows, adding windows – as soon as it’s going deeper than a fresh coat of paint, they definitely need a permit,” says Romanesky.
Development permits are required for new construction, or changes to how a building is being used – they regulate the building’s use within the context of a specific neighbourhood and ensure the construction aligns with a city’s vision according to its zoning bylaw.
According to City of Edmonton senior planner Marty Vasquez, there are about 15 different residential zones within the City, each allowing for different types of structures along unique requirements corresponding with their locations. Areas around the North Saskatchewan have extra regulations around flooding, for example.
Meanwhile, building permits are there to ensure that your renovation meets standards set by the Alberta Building Code. The regulations often change; a major shift happened in 2015 when energy efficiency requirements were added, including the use of thicker insulation and higher efficiency furnaces, for example.
Mechanical permits are required for all utilities, from water to air conditioning, and electrical permits are sometimes needed as well. For those who require several permits, combination permits – issued at the same time – can be granted.
Applications are found on the City of Edmonton’s website, and need to be submitted either by mail or in person at the Edmonton Services Centre. People can do it themselves, but, if there is any complexity to a project, or the homeowner doesn’t feel comfortable with the Alberta Building Code, Nancy Domijan – the former director of safety codes, permits and inspections for the City – recommends getting help. Contractors or consultants are often well versed in safety codes and can be of assistance.
Romanesky says the process of getting permits should be built into a renovator’s planning stage, though it’s commonly overlooked. “People get carried away looking at the colour of the fridge and they forget the whole preparation to get there,” he says. “We get a lot of emails in the middle of the night by people saying: ‘I just thought about the fact that we don’t have permits and we’re halfway through our renovation.'”
Ideally, though, Domijan suggests looking at getting permits six weeks to two months in advance of a renovation – then at various points during the construction, her staff members will inspect the progress to ensure it’s built in accordance with minimum code requirements.
People can still have the paperwork completed successfully halfway through or even retroactively, if necessary, provided things were done correctly in the first place. However, problems can ensue not only if requirements are not met, but if homeowners wait too long to gain the permits and by then the regulations have changed and they have to do updates to gain approvals. Romanesky sees this happen all the time.
Recently, Romanesky’s seen other consequences of not having permits. When some homeowners go to sell their properties, many potential buyers will ask to see permits for renovations. “It’s driven by the fact that the city or the local jurisdiction becomes a third-party review,” he says. Without those documents, selling a home could become more challenging.
Finding out you don’t have the right paperwork could be stressful at any time, but imagine that news coming in the aftermath of a disaster. After a fire or flood, insurance companies can refuse a claim if something wasn’t permitted since they can say the damage may be the result of faulty construction.
“We’ve seen that since 2013, with the flood in Calgary, where an insurance company would reach out and say: ‘Show us your permits for your basement; and if you don’t, we’re not paying for it. We’ve seen it even further in Fort McMurray with the fires,” says Romanesky.
While it may seem like a lot of trouble for the homeowner, the rules are in place for a reason. “We see crazy construction where you’re like: ‘Oh my God, maybe you shouldn’t live in this house,'” Romanesky says.
This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.
This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Avenue Edmonton