Building permit: Beware of regulations!

Does setting up a small garden shed require a building permit? Basically, almost all buildings and conversions must be approved. After all, fire protection regulations as well as construction, environmental and energy laws must be observed for practically all buildings and conversions.

House owner Walter Meier (name changed) liked the pretty garden house from the hardware store at first sight. The solid wood model cost 3,000 francs, has a real roof and a practical shelter for bicycles. Right away, Walter Meier and his colleague put the garden shed on his lawn. He was flabbergasted when a neighbor complained: „Have you obtained a permit from the community?“

Many people underestimate the issue of a building permit – and the complexity of building and zoning rules, fire  regulations, minimum distances from the edge of the lot and building heights. In case of doubt: Always assume the responsible building authority or the municipality should be contacted for structural measures.

Beware of regulations: Construction in Switzerland is regulated in many paragraphs. Small buildings over a height of 2.50 meters usually require a building permit. (Image:

Only small houses need no permit

Concerning Walter Meier, the case is clear: The shed is 2.60 meters high and has a floor area of 12 square meters. The neighbor complains rightly: Even a little house with these measurements requires a building permit. Most cantonal laws regulate which small buildings are exempted from a construction permit.

In the canton of Zurich, for example, small buildings of not more than 2.50 meters in height and not more than 6 square meters of floor area are excluded.  The ruling for the canton of Bern: Here it is also no more than 2.50 meters in height, but a floor area of 10 square meters.

Let us take another example: A covered winter garden usually is subject to the proper building permit procedure. Criteria are usually size, height, width, etc. As well as a canopy. Moreover, it is advisable to contact the competent authority if the construction or addition is heated and permanently used or inhabited.

«Do it yourself» is very much in fashion – but before you go to work with hammer and drill, you should take a closer look at the topic of building permit.

Building permit required? A new kitchen or an interior „brush renovation“ do not require a building permit.

Building permit: Countless regulations and laws

Sandra Markovic, Community Secretary in Oberglatt (ZH), cites another example: „Energetic building renovations generally are subject to authorization.“ For instance, if you want to improve the thermal insulation or have a heat pump installed, contact the municipality or competent authority first.

In addition to many others, figures of ocupancy, building heights, border distances, monument or townscape protection as well as predefined uses must be considered. Along with this are environmental and noise protection as well as the Clean Air Ordinance for heating systems.

Furthermore, you have to assume that all major interventions, and particularly changes in usage, require that you go to the authority. Thus, a bathroom or kitchen renovation usually is not subject to approval. However, a building permit is required if, for example, you want to change the floor plan, turn an adjoining room into a heated living space, or change a residential property into commercial use.

You should also note that depending on the canton, municipality or city as well as the zone (core, residential or commercial), different rules of the game apply. Incidentally, this also applies especially to locations outside the construction zone: Because buildings could affect the landscape of permissible use, not even small buildings outside the construction zone are possible without authorization.

When may no forms be completed?

A first conclusion: Very little is really permit free. A brief list:

  • Paintwork and pure „brush renovations“ inside buildings, usually also painting the facade anew as long as this does not change the color scheme and external appearance.
  • Open, uncovered patio.
  • Fountains, ponds, artistic sculptures or a sandbox in the garden.
  • Window replacement (if the external appearance is not changed and no special regulations such as noise protection need to be observed).
  • Smaller fences, enclosures, screens and walls, provided they do not exceed a certain height.
  • Normal building maintenance (repairs, gutters or roof repair, service and maintenance of equipment and installations, renewal of surfaces and materials, etc.)

What applies to photovoltaics on the roof?

Since the revised Spatial Planning Act has been in force, PV panels on the roof do not need a building permit. It is also unnecessary to stake out the actual construction projects on the building. Except for special cases (buildings under protection), it is sufficient to report the PV system to the municipality. Literally, it is stated: The reduced procedure refers to solar systems on roofs, which are „sufficiently adapted.“ Basically, the homeowner or his planner must make every effort to ensure the PV system fits well into the townscape. This means, for example, the panels must not extend beyond roof edges. But on the market today you will find many different variants, even for many old bildings and different roof shapes.

Building permit: What construction sins amount to …

People who do not abide by the rules of the game may have to expect far-reaching consequences. Community writer Sandra Markovic says: „In any case, it is necessary to carry out a retrofitting, building-law-based procedure.“ Those builders whose „project“ can be granted a permit will come away with just a black eye. Subsequently, the municipality will issue a building permit. However, the responsible administrator may issue an admonishment. Monitary fines are the exception. But what can be far more unpleasant: If the authority concludes the measures taken cannot be approved, they must be reversed. Thus, Walter Meier experiences the following unpleasant scenario: With his supposedly small garden shed, he gets into trouble not only with his neighbors, but also with the community.

Building permit checklist:

  • Apart from minor small buildings (see above), you should always seek discussion with the responsible building authority in advance. Experts from the authority also can advise you about your plans. This helps identify substantive weaknesses or problems. The authority also knows whether you need to include other offices (municipal or cantonal, etc.).
  • You will receive the official building permit application form from the municipality. This will give you or your architect an exact picture of what information and other plans and documents are required. These include, for example, the land register extract, a situation plan (official cadastral plan) and project plans on a scale of 1:100 (floor plan, facade sections).
  • If no specific regulatory requirements or neighbors‘ interests are involved, the project will be handled in a simplified notification procedure. Thus, no objection is possible, and the project is not open to public tender.
  • In the case of a proper building permission procedure, the project is publicly advertised and usualy also staked out on site. The authority checks whether all legal and other regulations have been fulfilled. In addition, the orderly procedure offers neighbors the opportunity to find out about it and, if necessary represent their interests.
  • Time-limit for objections and length of procedure vary greatly, depending on the municipality and the circumstances. Objections from neighbors and further inquiries with cantonal agencies or incomplete documents may lead to delays.
  • You only have the green light if the competent authority’s decision is final.
There are many prejudices and stories of „bureaucratic marathons“ surrounding building permits. It is best if you clarify all the important questions in advance. (Image: foto