Ask the Architect

‘We think our work can be done without all these problems’


Q. We know we need it, but we don’t want to wait for a permit. We know it takes too long and costs a lot. The contractor, we believe, knows what to do from our accurate computer drawings. We’re just wondering what to look for in order to pass a future inspection. Any do’s and don’ts you can recommend? After the torture our neighbor went through with literally a year of expensive plans, a zoning board and never-ending rejections from plans inspectors, we think our work can be done without all these problems.

A. Your biggest concern, including being stopped, should be the many laws you need to follow. I rarely see work done without permits that follows all the laws. Let’s start with the laws of nature — namely, correct structure and connections of materials to handle expansion, contraction, thermal transfer and wind resistance. Also chemical reactions, leak prevention and fire spread.
I regularly get desperate calls from people, within a week of their property sale, who just need a “quick sketch” and fast permit turnaround. Whoever fed them that idea may as well be selling them a miracle cure or underwater real estate. It’s not going to happen.
Recently I reviewed just such a dilemma. The owner called their contractor while I was explaining that buildings need foundations, and their expensive addition didn’t have one. I think they wanted me to explain that to their contractor. That discussion shouldn’t take place in a surprise telephone call, or after the fact. You can’t assume the person you interview just knows what to do. While it is true that you can build without all the scrutiny that goes into a permit, how do you know that you will ever pass the bigger test, the one of building longevity, safety and satisfaction by an insurance company or bank?
Most people aren’t aware that the real problem isn’t the time you could spend waiting for a permit or being tested by a zoning board, site review or exterior design review board or plans examination — it’s really the gamble of never getting the full settlement money from the insurance company to which you shelled out money every month to cover an incident. As many discovered after Hurricane Sandy, their insurance company — the one that raised their rates because their home gained in construction value — turned around and tried to reduce the settlement cost, with excuses like depreciation or lack of permits for insured dwelling conditions.
Insurance companies don’t want to pay the full amount you need to rebuild after a disaster. Not having documentation that your work was legal, or having work that, upon investigation, is shown to be non-compliant with the codes and best practices, can lead to reduced, or no, payments. The risk of assuming that the work is being done correctly, or that you’ll pass a future inspection by either a building inspector or an insurance company, may make you want to rethink your intentions. Good luck!

© 2022 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.