Planning permission: when do I need it?

Is a planning application and permission required if you want to put up a summer house? As a general rule, almost all buildings and conversions require planning permission. This is because fire protection regulations, construction law, environmental law and energy law must be adhered to for virtually all buildings and conversions.

Jürg Zulliger

Most important questions: 

Who grants planning permission?

You’ll receive planning permission after submitting a planning application to your local authority building control. The local authority will check the planning application and if everything is correct, will grant you planning permission.

How long is planning permission valid for?

In most cantons, planning permission is valid for two years, but this can also be interpreted differently between cantons.

For homeowner Walter Meier (not his real name), it was love at first sight when he saw the lovely summer house at the DIY store. The solid timber design cost CHF 3,000 and has a proper roof and a practical shelter for bikes. In next to no time, Walter Meier and a colleague had put up the small summer house on his lawn. He came down from cloud nine rather rapidly when a neighbour complained: ‘Have you got permission from the local authorities?’

Many people underestimate the topic of construction and permission – and the full complexity of building and zoning regulations, fire protection regulations, boundary limits and building heights. When in doubt, always assume that the relevant building control department or local authority should be contacted for all building activity.

Planning permission: when do I need it?
There are regulations to consider: construction in Switzerland is regulated by many paragraphs. Small buildings with a height of 2.5 metres and over usually require planning permission. (Image: Gartenhaus.ch)

Only small huts are exempt from planning permission 

In Walter Meier’s case, it’s clear: the structure is 2.6 metres high and has an area of 12 square metres. And the neighbour was right to complain: even a structure with these measurements requires planning permission. Most cantonal building regulations specify which small structures count as being exempt from planning permission.

In the canton of Zurich, for example, small buildings of no more than 2.5 metres in height and no more than six square metres in area are exempt. As a random comparison, in the canton of Bern, the maximum height is also 2.5 metres, but the maximum area is 10 square metres. But look before you leap – in the central areas of a village, even the smallest structures often require permission from the relevant authorities in line with the preservation of historic buildings or fire protection.

Here’s another example: generally speaking, a roofed conservatory is subject to proper planning permission processes. The criteria are usually size, height, width, etc. as well as whether it has a roof. Approaching the relevant authorities is especially advisable if the structure or extension is heated and will be used or inhabited long-term.

However, if it’s a renovation you have in mind and you’re wondering which regulations apply, take a look at our post.

Planning permission: when do I need it?
Building permit required? A new kitchen or an interior „brush renovation“ do not require a building permit.

Countless regulations and laws

Sandra Markovic, town clerk in Oberglatt (Canton of Zurich), has another example: ‘Upgrading the energy efficiency of a building generally requires permission.’ So for example, if you want to improve your insulation or have a heat pump installed, you should contact the local authority or the relevant body beforehand.

Alongside many other things, floor area ratios, building heights, boundary limits, heritage protection, protection of urban character and predefined usage should also be considered. There’s also environmental and noise protection and even the Ordinance on Air Pollution Control in relation to heating systems.

Furthermore, you have to assume that all larger interventions and especially changing the use of a property should be addressed to the authorities. Bathroom and kitchen alterations don’t usually require permission. But you do need planning permission if you want to change the floor plan, turn a side room into a heated living area or change the use class from domestic to commercial, for example.

You should also be aware that specific rules apply depending on the canton, district or town and the areas within them (central area, residential area, industrial area). This also applies in particular to locations outside the building zone: because buildings could affect the appearance of the area or the permitted use, not even small structures are possible outside the building zone without permission.

In what cases are there no forms to fill in? 

In a nutshell: there are only very few cases where no permission is required. Here are some of them:

  • Interior painting and simple decoration improvements, and usually also the repainting of the façade as long as the colour and external appearance isn’t altered
  • Open, uncovered garden seating areas
  • Fountains, ponds, artistic sculptures or sand pits in the garden
  • Replacing windows (as long as the external appearance isn’t altered and there are no specific requirements such as noise protection to consider)
  • Small fences, enclosures, privacy installations and walls, as long as they don’t exceed a certain height
  • Normal building maintenance (repairs, fixing the guttering or the roof, servicing and maintenance of appliances and systems, replacing surfaces and materials, etc.)

What about photovoltaic panels on the roof?

Since the revised Spatial Planning Act came into force, PV panels on the roof don’t require planning permission. It’s also unnecessary for the building owner to declare them as an actual building project by putting a sign up on the building. Excluding specific situations (listed buildings, locations in central areas), it’s enough to notify the local authority of the PV installation. To quote the law, the reduced process relates to solar installations on roofs that are a ‘suitable match’.

Essentially, the homeowner or their planner must endeavour to ensure that the PV installation fits in well in the surroundings. This means that the panels cannot extend beyond the edges of the roof. But even for many old buildings and a wide range of roof shapes, you’ll find numerous different options on the market.

Permission for a summer house, pergola or a flagpole?

Yes and no. As mentioned above, it depends on how high the summer house, pergola or flagpole is going to be. However, there are cantons where permission must be obtained for every building project. Other cantons usually require an application for buildings over 2.5 metres high. If you’d rather not have to worry about it, it’s best to be on the safe side and ask your local building control.

Breaching permission obligations?

Anyone who doesn’t play by the rules will have to deal with the consequences of an unauthorised building project. Town clerk Sandra Markovic comments: ‘In all cases, it’s necessary to follow planning permission processes retrospectively.’ Provided the project is generally eligible for permission, the local authority will grant planning permission retrospectively. Deliberate violation of planning and construction regulations will be liable to prosecution. Sending a report to the governor is also possible.

In practice, it’s rare for fines to be imposed on those without planning permission. But what can be much more annoying is if the authorities don’t approve the work that’s been done and you have to change it all back. Walter Meier therefore found himself in the following unpleasant situation: because of what he thought was a small summer house, he was in trouble not only with his neighbour but also the local authority.

Planning permission checklist: this is what it comes down to 

In principle, you should bear the following points in mind:

  • Apart from insignificant small structures (see above), you should generally try to speak to the relevant building authorities in advance. The experts at building control will also be able to advise you on your plans. This will help you to identify anything that is missing or whether there are any problems. Building control is also best placed to say whether you need to involve anyone else (e.g. other community or cantonal departments).
  • From the authorities, you’ll receive the official form for the application for planning permission so you or your architect know exactly what information, plans and documents are required. This includes, for example, the extract from the Land Registry, a location plan (official Land Registry plan) and project plans at a scale of 1:100 (floor plan, elevations).
  • If there are no specific administrative requirements or interest from neighbours, the project will be subject to the simplified notification procedure. That means no objections are possible and the project also won’t be publicly advertised.
  • In the case of proper planning permission procedure, the project will be publicly advertised and usually also declared on site. The authorities will check whether all legal and other requirements have been met. Proper procedure also gives neighbours the opportunity to find out the details and represent their interests where applicable.
  • Deadlines and the duration of the process vary greatly depending on local regulations and the case in question. Objections from neighbours and further clarifications required by cantonal specialist departments or incomplete documentation can lead to time delays.
  • You’ll only get the green light when the decision of the relevant authority is legal – i.e. when the corresponding construction approval is available.