Building permit: The building permit process could become more efficient

The planning application process could be shorter. Other countries lead the way.

If you are thinking of building a property in Switzerland, you will need to factor in a lot of time. It can take several months from submitting the planning application to obtaining the building permit. Digitalization could accelerate the complex building permit process through greater efficiency.

It takes longer to issue building permits in Switzerland than in other countries

Building permit processes take a long time in Switzerland. This can be costly. Calls for more efficient processes are growing loud – which is understandable, as Switzerland is losing ground internationally. These are the findings of a study on building permit processes conducted by the World Bank. Although the processes do not take any longer than they did ten years ago despite increasing complexity, in a comparison of 190 countries, Switzerland has gradually lost ground in recent years, slipping from 32nd place to 69th. It is now between Egypt and Zambia.

Within Europe, Switzerland is in the middle of the pack. The leaders are mainly Scandinavian and Baltic countries. The building permit process in these countries is much faster. This is likely due to their advanced digitalization processes, a trend that is now increasingly being followed in Switzerland.

Building permit processes in Switzerland 

In Switzerland, the building permit process is regulated at the cantonal level. Planning applications are assessed by the relevant municipal authorities on the basis of local laws. The process can generally be broken down into five steps. 

1. Preliminary review

The preliminary review begins with the submission of the planning application. It is examined to determine whether all required documents have been submitted. If this is not the case, the application is temporarily placed on hold. 

2. Publication and staking out

The actual building permit process starts with the staking out of the construction project and official publication. This commences the period in which the public can consult the planning application and authorized persons, primarily neighbors, are able to lodge their objections. 

3. Material review of the application

During the material review of the application, the design, architectural, and environmental aspects are assessed, along with any objections. The length of this process depends on the utilization, size, and complexity of the project. 

4. Issuance of the building permit

If the planning application meets local building regulations, the building permit is issued. The building permit may be subject to conditions, which can vary, depending on the project.

5. Appeals period

The applicant may appeal against the imposition of these conditions. In addition, those applicants whose objections were rejected during the material review stage may lodge an appeal. The building permit is only legally valid after all of the objections have been settled.

The building permit process has five steps

The building permit process has five steps

Schematic representation of the building permit process in the canton of Zurich

Source: Credit Suisse

Single-family dwellings receive building permits the fastest

The length of the building permit process for new properties fell between 2008 and 2016 from by 4.9 months to 4.6 months. This is the finding of the Credit Suisse real estate study, which analyzed all planning applications submitted in Switzerland. However, there has been little additional improvement since 2009. Renovations are generally approved more quickly. Such projects take an average of 3.6 months.

The length of the process depends primarily on the utilization of the property and the number of objections. For this reason, single-family dwellings are approved the fastest. In 2016, such approvals required an average of 3.9 months. The approval process takes 5.8 months for multi-family dwellings. At 6.6 months, mixed-use residential and commercial properties take the longest.

Building permit process: The length depends on the utilization

The length of the building permit process depends on the utilization

Length of permit process in months

Source: Baublatt, Credit Suisse; sample size = 96,825

Size and location affect the number of objections to the planning application

There are also differences in terms of the length of the process when it comes to project size. For example, the building permit process for larger projects takes longer than it does for small projects. Properties with fewer than ten apartments are approved on average after 5.6 months. In the case of properties with more than 50 apartments, by contrast, it takes 7.2 months. In large cities, the building permit process for a multi-family dwelling lasts longer than it does in small municipalities. This is because of the higher population density, smaller building land reserves, and the fact that buildings tend to be built vertically. Objections are therefore somewhat more likely.

Greater distance and anonymity between the parties involved also result in bureaucratic hurdles in cities. These factors cancel out any advantages in terms of efficiency and professionalization that larger municipalities have. There are also differences from one canton to the next in terms of how long the process lasts. This is due to different building laws, permit processes, and process structures. In addition, project size and location affect the amount of time until permission is granted and explain part of the differences among cantons.

Cantonal building permit processes and how long they last

Cantonal building permit processes and how long they last 

Length of building permit process in months, multi-family dwelling projects with six to 30 units. The process usually lasts from 5.4 to 7.9 months.

Source: Baublatt, Credit Suisse; sample size = 12,081

The digitalization of the building permit process still has room for improvement

The cantons are increasingly making an effort to digitalize their building permit processes. However, Switzerland's slide in the international rankings shows that a more comprehensive effort is needed to push this initiative forward. Until now, digital solutions have only been used in isolated cases. Pioneers in this regard include the cantons of Uri and Lucerne. And many other cantons are currently running pilot projects.

Current approaches are focused on providing all of the necessary documents digitally via the relevant interfaces. The entire process is also managed on a shared platform. This by no means exhausts the potential offered by digitalization. For example, if building regulations, zone plans, and other documents were made available in machine-readable format, it would be possible to conduct an initial review digitally. This would accelerate the building permit process significantly.

Are you interested in additional findings from the real estate study?

Download the 2019 real estate study This link target opens in a new window
Or do you have questions about the building process? Call us at 0844 100 114 or schedule a personal consultation.