Building Permit: When Do You Need One and When Not?

7.7.2022
  1. When do you need a building permit?
  2. When do you not need a building permit?
  3. Which renovations have to be approved?
  4. Do alterations to the house have to be approved?
  5. Do photovoltaic systems have to be approved?
  6. Do energy-efficient renovations have to be approved?
  7. Does a swimming pool in the garden have to be approved?
  8. How do you apply for a building permit?
  9. Ask once too many rather than once too little
  10. What happens if you violate the authorisation requirement?

Many homeowners know someone who can tell a story of their struggle with the authorities over a building permit for their garden shed. In Switzerland, almost everything has to be approved. Even very small buildings above a certain size, which is determined differently from canton to canton. In the canton of Zurich, for example, you need permission from a height of 2.50 metres and an area of 6 square metres, while in the canton of Bern you only need permission from a height of 2.50 metres and an area of 10 square metres. As soon as you want to extend and heat your garden shed, you always need a building permit, regardless of the size or area. In addition, you must respect the boundary distance to the neighbouring property and, of course, comply with all the requirements for the protection of historical monuments and the local heritage.

When do you need a building permit?

Anyone who builds affects the neighbours' view, their privacy and the overall impression of the neighbourhood. For this reason, the municipalities must approve all changes above a certain height that are visible from the outside. These include carports, skylights, garden sheds, tool sheds, walls, privacy screens, roofs over seating areas, bicycle sheds, conservatories and fences. For example, you may build walls, screens or fences directly on the border, but depending on the canton, you may need a building permit and the consent of your neighbours for heights as low as 80 centimetres. In principle, you need a building permit for all structures that are firmly connected to the ground or firmly anchored in the ground. This means for most small and all medium or larger projects.

When do you not need a building permit?

This list is relatively short and clear. Only a few building measures are really exempt from approval. Among others:

  • Painting work and brush renovations in the house or apartment
  • Repainting the façade with the same colour but without façade insulation
  • Window replacement with comparable windows as long as the openings are not changed
  • Matching sun blinds
  • Open and uncovered garden seating areas
  • Small garden sheds and tool sheds or marquees that are only in the garden for a few days
  • Fountains, garden chimneys, pergolas (without roof and walls), statues or ponds in the garden
  • Dog kennels, sandpits or playhouses in the garden
  • Smaller walls, screens or fences up to 80 centimetres (depending on the canton)
  • Roof repairs, for example new tiles, and gutter repairs

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Which renovations have to be approved?

All renovations that have major spatial consequences and/or are visible from the outside. For example:

  • Outdoor chimneys and fireplaces
  • Balconies and terraces
  • Energy-efficient renovations, for example exterior insulation or new façade material
  • Roof extensions such as dormers or skylights
  • Roof incisions
  • Skylights
  • Attic conversions
  • Changes to façade openings such as windows or doors
  • Building services engineering (heating, air conditioning and ventilation)
  • Lifts
  • Permanently mounted marquees
  • Move or retract partition walls
  • Change of use, for example from living space to office space (with the exception of individual rooms)
  • New heat pumps

Do alterations to the house have to be approved?

Interventions, renovations and conversions in the house or flat only require a permit if they change the use or influence fire safety. Removing a simple partition wall or installing a new kitchen or bathroom does not require a permit. However, if you want to change the floor plan, convert an adjoining room into a heated living space or convert living space into commercial space, you need a building permit.

Houzy Advice

Good to know

Most renovations or conversions in the house are approved in a simplified notification procedure. This means that there is no public invitation to tender and no possibility for neighbours to appeal.

Building Permit: Windows Fit Skylight
 In most cantons, roof windows must be approved as soon as you want to have more than two installed.

Do photovoltaic systems have to be approved?

Since the revision of the Spatial Planning Act, you no longer need a building permit for a photovoltaic system. Unless the house is located in a core zone or is a listed building. The only condition: The solar power system must be "sufficiently adapted". This means that it fits in well with the local landscape and does not violate any nature conservation or heritage protection requirements. Even if you no longer need to obtain permission for the installation, you must register it with the responsible building authority.

Do energy-efficient renovations have to be approved?

Most major renovations must be approved, especially energy measures. When installing a heat pump with a geothermal probe, for example, it is first checked whether the new heating system meets all water protection and environmental protection requirements and complies with all cantonal building and energy laws. In addition, it is clarified whether the ground is suitable for a geothermal probe. Other energy-related renovations, such as façade insulation, must also be approved.

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Does a swimming pool in the garden have to be approved?

It depends. In many cantons, no permit is required for small pools that are only set up in summer and are not permanently installed, i.e. without an excavation pit or permanently installed parts. In other cantons, for example in the canton of Bern, unheated swimming pools up to 15 square metres in size do not require a permit, but heated pools with a capacity of 8 cubic metres or more do.

Building Permit: Small Swimming Pool in the Garden
A small pool that you only put up in the summer for your children is usually exempt from approval.

How do you apply for a building permit?

  1. Talk to your neighbours and get their written consent. This will minimise the risk of appeals.
  2. Depending on the municipality, talk to the building authority, district architect or building permit office. The experts will tell you whether your project requires a permit, advise you and point out possible problems or weak points. If in doubt, submit an application instead.
  3. Fill out the building application and compile all documents. At least the extract from the land register, an official cadastral plan and your project plans at a scale of 1:100 (floor plans and façade sections).
  4. Submit the building application with all documents to the municipal administration.
  5. If your project does not violate any official requirements or neighbouring interests, the application will be approved in a simplified notification procedure without a call for tenders and without the possibility of appeal.
  6. If your project could violate official requirements or neighbouring interests, the application is publicly published in the ordinary building permit procedure after the preliminary examination and is usually marked out with building profiles. The authorities check whether all regulations have been complied with, the neighbours are allowed to inform themselves about the project and can lodge an objection.
  7. Depending on the municipality, affected neighbours have 20 to 30 days to lodge an objection. After expiry of the objection period, the authority notifies all parties involved of its decision. The decision can be appealed.
  8. How long the building permit process takes depends on many factors. Objections, clarifications by cantonal offices or incomplete documents prolong the process.
  9. Do not start the project until the building decision is legally binding.

Houzy Advice

Good to know

In most cantons, a building permit is valid for two to three years at the most.

Houzy Hint

Tip

You can submit a simple planning application yourself. If your project is more complex, such as an attic conversion, you should use an architect. He knows the process and how to submit the application and documents so that your project is approved.

Ask once too many rather than once too little

For larger building projects, the case is clear: you need a building permit. Smaller projects in particular, but also medium-sized ones, are often in a grey area that varies in size depending on the canton. That is why there is no clear answer to the question of when you need a building permit and when you do not. To be on the safe side, clarify in advance with the building authority whether the project requires a permit. In addition to their cantonal regulations, the experts also know all the fire protection regulations, building laws, environmental laws and energy laws that apply to new buildings or conversions. They also know whether your house or flat is in the core zone, residential zone or commercial zone. Depending on this, different rules apply: Outside the building zone, for example, all small buildings require a permit.

What happens if you violate the authorisation requirement?

Anyone who builds without a building permit violates the Planning and Building Act, is liable to prosecution and could be charged if the violation is intentional. However, only a few culprits are fined. Nevertheless, it can be expensive: If the building authority does not subsequently approve the building project in a building law procedure, the summer house, for example, must be dismantled again. Then the bargain from the DIY store quickly becomes an expensive pile of wood.

Do you want to convert the attic, renovate the house to make it more energy efficient or build a granny flat on the ground floor? Find certified craftsmen from our network in your region and receive up to three free and non-binding offers.

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