Do I Need to Permit My Commercial Space?
By Sandy Wolf
April 10, 2018
And, what type of permit do I need?
Are you an entrepreneur who is finally ready to move into the brick-and-mortar retail world, a business owner who has outgrown their current space and is looking for a new office, or a restauranteur ready to create a new, hot restaurant? If so, congratulations! While the commercial real estate search can be overwhelming, it is an exciting time for any business owner and it is a place where having a trusted architect can be very helpful.
One of the most common questions we get from business owners thinking about a move is “Do I need to permit my commercial space?” The easy answer, in Seattle at least, is almost always yes. The bigger question is: What type of permit do you need?
STFI (Subject-To-Field-Inspection) or “Over-the-Counter” Permit
The quickest and easiest permit type that every business owner hopes they qualify for is a “Subject-To-Field-Inspection Permit” or an STFI, for short. That is a long name for what we often call an over-the-counter permit. If your project qualifies for this type of a permit, then your architect can go into the City of Seattle permit offices and walk out with a permit that same day. I’d like to clarify, this does not mean that your architect needs only one day to put together a drawing set and get a permit. The design process takes much longer than that, and you need to account for time to create the permit drawing set. You can estimate that, from the start of the design process to getting your STFI permit, it will take between three and six months, depending on the complexity of your project. Still, an STFI Permit is your fastest permit route.
So now you’re probably asking… “How do I know if my project qualifies for an over-the-counter permit?” Thankfully, the City of Seattle has clear definitions for what kind of commercial projects can use this permit type.
To assess if your project qualifies for an STFI permit, here are the questions to ask yourself:
Is my project a change of use from the prior tenant?
For instance, was your space an office before and it will still be an office? That’s not a change of use, but if it was retail before, and you are changing it to an office, then, yes, it is a “change of use.”
Am I changing the occupancy of the space?
This is a little more technical, but if you are going from a “Business” use (typically office space), to “Mercantile” (typically retail), or from “Mercantile” to “Assembly” (where bars and restaurants are categorized), then you are changing the occupancy.
Are you changing the egrees conditions?
For example, are you changing the number of exits that exist in the building, or adding new walls that would impact how people exit in a fire?
Are you altering the structure of the building?
For example, are you planning on moving load-bearing walls?
Are you adding additional floor area to the space?
Is your space over 4,500 square feet?
Are you expanding an existing tenant space?
This could happen if you are combining two tenant spaces into one.
Are you changing the number of parking spaces provided?
Are you the first tenant for the space?
This often comes up in brand new buildings where your business will be the first to move in. Being the first tenant has major time implications, as you’ll see when we discuss full building permits below.
Are you altering the exterior of the building?
You can generally exclude paint and signage changes.
If you answered yes to any of these questions then you need to keep reading, as you will need a full building permit review.
Full Building Permit
Okay, so what is full building permit review? As opposed to an STFI where you can get a building permit in one day, a full building permit involves review by multiple building departments and so it takes significantly longer for the city to issue your permit. The full building permit process can take anywhere from five to nine months from the moment you set up your project with the city to building permit issuance. There is a lot to know about the process, and so we have a whole blog post to help you out: How Long Does It Take To Get a Full Building Permit?
The important thing to know, is that a full building permit has major time implications, and so if you have a tight schedule you should make sure when you are looking for commercial spaces that you are keeping the above questions in mind. Know that new construction spaces where you will be the first tenant will add time to your schedule. Also keep in mind that if you are opening a restaurant, look for spaces that were already a restaurant to streamline the process (this holds true for retail and office, as well). (Read more about what to look for when selecting a commercial space.)
We know that all of these timelines and questions can be confusing. There are a lot of moving pieces with any new venture, whether it is retail, restaurant, office, or whatever else you are dreaming up. This is a great time to mention that it is never too early in the process to bring on an architect. Often clients think they need to have a signed lease before they talk to an architect, while in reality, an architect can help you understand the challenges and opportunities of a space before you sign a lease. In addition, an architect can help you map out when you will actually be finished with permitting and construction so that you have leverage as you work with landlords to negotiate your lease and determine when you will actually be open for business. It is a big task to open your business, but find the right team and you will be starting off on the right foot!