Rebuilding After the Carr Fire: Advice from an Architect

Fire survivors are being fed information on rebuilding from every which direction, but one key part of the equation seems to be missing: What all goes into getting that coveted building permit?

I have yet to see a ‘rebuild’ informational guide that provides more than two sentences on the subject, with one being, ‘Get a design professional’ and the other being, ‘Submit to the building department for your permit’.

As an architect, this is a gross oversimplification of the process that is doing more harm than good. "Your Design Professional" is the person who asks you how your home made you feel, how you used each space, and what you would change if you had the chance. They are your guide and advocate through the rebuild process, through re-design and building-department hurdles and your jargon translator during construction.

There are a few big-picture questions that are simply not being answered, questions that homeowners need to understand before jumping  head first into the rebuilding process.

What is the difference between an Architect, Engineer and a Draftsperson, or a Residential Designer?

Both architects and engineers are licensed professionals in the state of California. They have extensive education, meet minimum experience requirements, have passed a number of licensing exams, are registered with the State of California and are likely to carry professional liability insurance (for errors and omissions). Both an architect and a structural engineer are qualified in California to stamp construction documents, and just like contractors, you can look up their licenses on their state board websites.

To oversimplify a bit, an architect is to a project as a conductor is to a symphony. The architect is ideally the first person brought on to a project, and the last one to shake your hand once you are all moved in. They help you define what it is you need and want to build, they either hire the engineers (which could include civil, structural, mechanical and electrical - plumbing is part of mechanical, etc.) under their contract with you, the homeowner, or they help determine which engineers you need and advise you on their individual contracts. Your architect helps you review and understand the contractors' bids, and then checks in on construction every once in a while, or at your request, to verify all appears to be going smoothly.

A draftsperson or residential designer may have the experience required to design and detail a home, but it's wise to verify their qualifications carefully as there are no registrations or minimum qualifications for a person to call themselves a ‘designer’, ‘draftsperson’, or ‘residential designer’. However, legally they may not refer to themselves as ‘architects’ or ‘architectural designers’. This said, the state of California does not require a licensed design professional on residential projects.

Who else do you need on a ‘design team’?

Focusing on fire rebuilds, if your lot was not properly cleared (i.e. too much soil was removed), you may need a civil engineer. If your house was more complicated than the ‘conventional design’ as described in the California Residential Code, you may need a structural engineer as well. Structural and civil engineers rely on information provided by geotechnical engineers, so if no geotech reports are available already, you may be required to hire a geotechnical engineer as well. Most residences can be designed without mechanical and electrical engineers as the code and energy-related information is reviewed, calculated and approved by an energy consultant. In addition, if you have trusses, you will need a truss designer, a service that is generally provided by the truss manufacturer. All of these individuals will require separate contracts and will charge professional fees.

Project cost vs. Construction Cost

These are two critical terms. Project cost is the total amount the project costs, including construction, permitting fees and all design services. These non-construction costs are typically referred to as ‘soft costs’ and can unfortunately be left out of the conversation with some contractors and insurance companies. Construction cost refers ONLY to the materials and labor of building the house, and does not include any soft costs. Discuss the coverage of your soft costs with your insurance company.

What is the price range for various design professionals?

Design fees vary widely, and depend greatly on the scope and complexity of the design task. Anticipate anywhere to 2 percent to 15 percent of your construction cost to be spent on design fees, in addition to other engineering and permitting fees listed above.

What should I expect when working with the building department?

A permit submittal can be looked at like a conversation with the agency; a conversation where the design team submits their complete drawing and calculation package, then the agency asks questions where they either don’t see or where they need clarification on certain aspects of the permit requirements or building code. The design team then responds in either narrative form or by revising their drawings to be more clear or complete. This, hopefully, only takes one round of resubmittal, but sometimes it can take more, depending on the agency and the extent of clarification needed.

Hopefully this has shed some light on the process and what it really takes to get that permit, because it is definitely more than a couple of sentences worth of work.

For more information on all the drawings and documents required for permitting, please take a look at both the City and County Building Department websites. Each has a checklist your designer will need to follow.

Hayley Andersen is a licensed architect and co-owner of Oneshop Makerspace & Architecture (oneshop.community) in Redding. Originally from the Sacramento area, she moved to Redding after graduating from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and is loving the Northern California life with her fiancé Brian and their English Mastiff Zeus. Hayley specializes in sustainable and wellness-focused building and design practices and is both a LEED and a WELL accredited professional through the US Green Building Council.

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3 Responses

  1. AJ AJ says:

    My dream since high school days, was to be able to build a home from the design on up.. . . After reading the above I am (1) EXTRA thankful all over again, that I did not lose my home in the Carr fire and (2) thankful I never had the where-with-all to build a house from the ground up. WHEW. . . . . what a lot of information and civil and legal entities have to be brought in to this kind of a project.
    Thank you Hayley, for this invaluable information.

  2. Thank you, Hayley, for the practical advice. You answered a lot of important questions for people who need to rebuild.

    (Disclosure: Oneshop and its architects worked on my home remodel last year to enable me to remove walls and insert beams, opening up my living room and kitchen area. I can’t imagine how I would have navigated the complex city permit process without them.)

  3. Kathy MacPhee says:

    Wow! My husband and I are trying to decide if we will rebuild our home in the fire area. As if there aren’t enough hoops to get through what with insurance, water issues, erosion concerns, dead/dying trees, plus the loss of Everything we owned. Not to mention do we want to look at the devastation for the rest of our lives? We just received our estimate from insurance on how much they will pay to rebuild and there is no mention of the “soft costs”. I am so depressed but thank you for another piece to this puzzle that has become our life.?

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