The Washington DC Building Permit Process: A Closer Look

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Navigating through building permitting systems can be a challenging and time-consuming process. As Owner’s Representatives, we are continuously guiding our projects through such systems, with building types ranging from hotels, office, multi-family, to high-end private residences. In Washington DC, securing a building permit often requires 5 months or more, so managing this process correctly has been a critical part of our project success.

Over the last few years, several factors including a booming construction market, a revised zoning code, and the adoption of “Green” building standards have created an increasingly difficult environment for owners and developers not familiar with the permitting process in DC.

This paper provides an overview of our group’s collective knowledge of the permitting process in DC, with contributions from Harold Bingham, who is involved on a wide range of commercial, residential, and institutional projects across the District, Dermot Ryan, who leads MGAC’s Hospitality Project Management Group, Michael Lee, who is overseeing the historic L’Enfant Plaza Hotel and W Washington DC renovations, Mark Anderson, the Founder and President MGAC, and Mimi Toner, who is managing the renovation of an estate-quality residence.

The Permitting Process

Applying for a building permit in DC involves an online submittal to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) for review and approval from all relevant agencies. We created this flow chart of the building permitting process as a tool for our Project Managers:

Flow chart showing illustrating the DC permitting process

It pays to spend the time upfront ensuring that your permit application and drawings are as complete as possible before submitting. Applications can incur multiple rounds of reviews by multiple agencies until the plan receives all required approvals. Only after all relevant agencies have reviewed and approved will DCRA issue the building permit.

Remember that design changes following the issuance of a building permit may result in additional plan checks before progress can be inspected. In certain cases where significant (such as structural related) design changes have been made, the project may be required to restart the permitting process from the beginning.

For more information and links on the permitting process, see our Additional Resources section at the end of this paper.

Which Agencies Are Involved In The Permitting Process?

DCRA

Arguably the single most important agency in the permitting process is the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the primary permitting agency for Washington DC.

As the only agency authorized to issue permits, DCRA plays a key role in the permitting process. But like other permitting agencies in other cities with busy construction markets, DCRA grapples with the issue of limited resources relative to their processing workload.

Over the last five years, permit volume has grown by over 30%, but the number of permit reviewers has not seen a corresponding increase. While it is still unclear how DCRA plans to overcome these challenges moving forward, the agency has explored a number of options to streamline their process over the past year including new permitting programs (See Evaluation of Other Permitting Routes below), performance management programs, and restructuring.

Other Review Agencies

According to DCRA, 57% of building permits require reviews from more than one agency. Although DCRA is the primary permit issuance agency, other agencies will be involved in the review process before the application even reaches DCRA. Common project types that will require review from additional agencies include: New-build, Additions, Restaurants, Excavation, and Historic district locations.

A building permit is issued only after the project has met all the standards required by the relevant disciplines. Unfortunately, there is currently no central tracking system that consolidates updates from all involved agencies.

The following chart summarizes the review disciplines for the involved agencies:

MGAC DC Permitting Review Agencies

One unique factor to consider in DC is the involvement of the US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), which is charged with overseeing both public and private projects that involve changes to “exterior architectural features, height, appearance, color, and texture of the materials of exterior construction” that are visible from public spaces.

The CFA operates in conjunction with the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) and the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) to ensure that historic character is preserved in all Federal and District of Columbia government projects and two designated neighborhoods – the Georgetown Historic District, and Shipstead-Luce Area.

Any project with exterior alterations meeting these criteria will need to be reviewed by the CFA, HPO, and/or the HPRB.

How Long Does It Take to Get A Building Permit in D.C?

Perhaps the question that concerns owners and developers the most is how long it takes to obtain a construction permit.

Although permit processing times can vary significantly depending on project, the issuance time for an addition, alteration, or repair construction permit averages five months, according to DCRA. In practice, however, we’ve experienced permit processing times of up to six months for a standard commercial interior demolition job.

For a new build construction permit, DCRA reports an average issuance time of just under 6 months. In our experience, we’ve found that commercial new build permits tend to require more time and generally allot a minimum of 6 months for the process.

DC Construction Permit Issuance Times - MGAC

This situation is not unique to Washington DC. Other cities with booming construction markets also experience similarly long permit processing times. Seattle for example, which is one of the busiest construction market in the nation, currently averages 8 months for a new build construction permit.

As a general best practice, but especially in these types of markets, engaging relevant agencies early and keeping them involved throughout the project can help facilitate a much smoother permitting process.

Challenges

What Factors Can Extend Permit Processing Time In DC?
Involvement of Multiple Agencies

The involvement of multiple agencies is one of the main factors in a longer-than-expected permit processing time.

The 2016 Permit Issues Study published by the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) revealed that 75% of respondents saw longer permitting times when the review process involved the DOEE and DDOT.

In our experience as well, projects with public space components such as outdoor patios or curb cuts tend to have longer permitting times. These types of projects not only require a public space permit from DDOT, which stipulates very specific traffic control rules that can limit construction, but are also frequently subject to more public input and oversight into the process, which can impede a project’s schedule.

For commercial developments in particular, projects can be required to run through a series of local and Federal agencies for plan review, depending on a number of factors including project complexity, scope, and zoning.

Multiple Review Cycles

During the permitting process, multiple rounds of review may be required due to errors or omissions in the application package. According to DCRA, 53% of plans submitted in 2016 required 2 or more reviews, including:

  • 10% requiring a third green review
  • 9% requiring a third structural review
  • 9% requiring a third zoning review

Changes in regulation, such as the implementation of the 2016 Zoning Code and the DC Stormwater Management code have compounded this issue, as both applicants and agencies must work to understand and enforce these new laws.

In an effort to reduce the number of review cycles, DCRA now requires the applicant and team members to participate in a mandatory meeting to address project specifics if the plan has been held for corrections after the second review cycle.

DC Number of Review Cycles Required to Proceed - MGAC

But this complex permitting process and lengthy process continues to face sharp criticism. To address the issue, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced legislation in January 2018 that proposes restructuring DCRA into two separate agencies, known as the Department of Buildings and the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection, with the former focusing on the enforcement of building related codes. Even if approved, the legislation would not be implemented until around 2019.

In our experience, hiring an architect with extensive local experience is one of the most effective methods for minimizing the potential of multiple review cycles. An experienced architect will have a thorough understanding of local code and deliver complete and compliant drawings that will help simplify the review process.

Evaluation of Permit Expediting Routes

There are three routes to potentially expedite the permitting process. It’s important to note, however, that none of these routes are guaranteed to expedite the permitting process and that care should be taken to select (or avoid) the service that is right for your situation.

Permit Expeditors

Permit expeditors are firms that are familiar with the permit submission and review process and requirements at DCRA, and typically have established reputations and relationships with individuals at relevant agencies.

The highly specialized expertise that expeditors offer can be invaluable for moving the process along, especially in DC where the process is complicated and lengthy. We have worked with multiple permit expeditors over the years and would recommend engaging an expeditor if you are considering building in DC for the first time.

Contact us for recommendations on specific expeditors.

Third-Party Review Program

The third-party review program was created in response to the District’s large volume of development applications. The program is designed to expedite the review process by augmenting DCRA staff with DCRA certified third-party companies. Fees will vary depending on size and scope of the project.

Rather than waiting in a queue at the DCRA, owners can hire these approved third parties to perform plan reviews. Ideally, an approved permit would be issued shortly after the plans are reviewed and approved by the DCRA-certified reviewers.

In practice, utilizing a third-party reviewer may not necessarily yield improvements in speed, and in certain cases, can slow the process even further. Two main reasons include:

  • Zoning – Zoning is typically the most time-consuming discipline but can only be reviewed by DCRA, which means that all applications must be routed through the agency at some point during the review process.
  • Re-review – DCRA will re-review a percentage of the plans already reviewed by the third-party companies as part of their quality control process. If any changes are required, they will then need to be reviewed by the third-party again before submitting back to DCRA.

In the 2016 Permit Issues Study by the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), 60% of respondents reported that they have not used the Third-Party Review Program. Among the 40% that have used Third-Party Review Program, 68% reported no improvements in permit processing times.

In our experience, third-party reviewers are best reserved for complex projects, as they are willing to sit down and take the time to understand your project across all disciplines. This extra set of eyes and expertise can be the difference between approvals in the first round or going through multiple rounds of re-reviews. 

Fast-Track Plan Review Program (Velocity or Expedition)

The Fast-Track Plan Review Program was originally an emergency program instituted in September 2017 and meant to expire in January 2018. This program has since been extended indefinitely and is designed to speed up the permit review process by offering two routes for fast-tracked approvals:

  • Velocity Service – Designed for permit applicants whose design concepts and plans are 100% complete.
  • Expedited Service – Designed for applicants whose plans are still in the design phase.

To participate in either program, applicants are required to first attend a project consultation session in-person, over the phone, or via web conference. Then, the applicant will file their permit applications online and upload documents into DCRA’s database. After the DCRA Coordinator approves the project for fast-tracking and the applicant pays a $5,000 non-refundable deposit, the applicant and the design team can move forward to a mandatory pre-submittal meeting and several rounds of plan review sessions. At the conclusion of the plan review sessions, the plan will be approved by DCRA and permit issued. More details of the process can be found here.

The Fast-Track Program can add tens of thousands of dollars to the standard permit costs. Below is the fee schedule published by DCRA:

DCRA Velocity and Expedition Program Service Fees - MGAC

It may be too soon to draw any conclusions about these programs so far. However, the AIA DC has voiced its concern in its testimony before the City Council that even with the fast-track program, it might still take months to get a permit as DCRA can’t guarantee that other agencies will also respond in a timely fashion. The program is also facing public criticism.

Conclusion

Although DCRA and other review agencies are continuing to explore new programs and structures to streamline the permitting process in Washington DC, the route to a fully permitted project in the District is likely to remain a complicated affair in the near term.

As we saw earlier, there are many factors in the permitting process that are out of the developer’s or owner’s control. There is simply no definitive formula to expedite the process.

Rather, the goal is to minimize unnecessary roadblocks and re-reviews by understanding which agencies will be required to review your specific project and where potential bottlenecks may lie. From this, an owner can deploy the right consultants to prepare the most accurate and complete application package and select the right permitting route for your unique timing and situation.

Experienced Project Managers can help navigate through this process by defining a realistic schedule for your project, assembling the right team of consultants, and leveraging relationships with relevant agencies.

For more information about the DC permitting process, reach out to us through the contact page or connect with me on Linkedin.

Additional Resources

When Is A Permit Required?

Washington DC Zoning Map

Building Permit Guidelines

DCRA Plan Submission Checklist

DCRA Online Construction Permit Intake Portal

Building Permit Fee Schedule

Involved Agency Websites

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Elias Pace

Elias is a Senior Project Manager in MGAC's diverse hospitality group. A seasoned professional, he brings extensive experience in execution and management to all phases of highly complex construction and real estate development projects.

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