Submitting a planning application: Procedure and details of the construction process
The building permit process – from submitting the planning application to obtaining the building permit – can take several months to over a year. Although the process differs from one canton to the next, it can be roughly broken down into five steps. Find out how the process works, what obstacles could be lurking around the corner, and what developments in the construction process are likely to emerge in the future.
Why is a building permit necessary?
In Switzerland, a building permit is usually required whenever a new building is constructed or significant changes are to be made to it. Refurbishments, renovations, or even energy-saving modernization work therefore usually require a building permit. The corresponding regulations can be found in the building and zoning regulations of the municipality or in the cantonal building laws. If you're unsure whether a planning application needs to be submitted, you can ask the relevant building inspectorate in the local municipality or the cantonal building department for information.
How much does a building permit cost?
The costs of the building permit process are based on the project's total construction costs and can vary greatly from canton to canton. Some building authorities offer a fee calculator, such as the Hochbaudepartement der Stadt Zürich (the Department of Building Construction in the City of Zurich).
How does the building permit process work?
In Switzerland, the building permit process is regulated at the cantonal level, although the 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 to the municipal administration. This application includes the form for the building proposal and the required documents. Depending on the location and type of construction project, additional forms may also be required. This may be the case if, for example, the construction project is planned in a groundwater protection zone.
The municipal administration then checks whether all of the required documents have been submitted and whether legal requirements have been met. In some cases, the planning application will be forwarded by the administration to specialist cantonal bodies. If any forms or documents are missing, the application is temporarily placed on hold. The applicant is then usually asked to submit the missing documents.
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 neighboring residents, are able to lodge their objections.
3. 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 construction project.
4. Issuance of the building permit
If the building application meets the municipal, cantonal, and federal building regulations, the building permit is issued. The building permit may be subject to conditions, which can vary, depending on the project. The building permit is valid for two to three years throughout most of Switzerland.
It is important to note that the building permit may have consequences under civil law, as it is only assessed on the basis of public law. Easements, which can have a negative impact on the construction project, must therefore be checked in the land records and, if necessary, building regulations under civil law agreed with the neighbour.
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. However, construction may only take place once construction approval has been granted.
Objections and appeals delay building permits
Many homeowners face obstacles as late as the fifth step of the process: Building permit processes in Switzerland often experience delays due to objections. Lengthy building permit processes are currently on the increase, especially in the case of larger residential construction projects. This development is particularly evident in the large centers, where it takes an average of more than a year from the submission of the planning application to the issuance of the legally valid building permit.
Various cantons and cities are reporting increasing objections and appeals. The Credit Suisse 2023 real estate study shows that, for example, the Zurich Court of Construction Appeals had to process more than 950 cases per year in 2020 and 2021. This figure was some 25% higher than it was in the period from 2012 to 2019.1 Indeed, the construction of around 1,000 apartments is currently on ice in the Canton of Zurich simply due to objections in connection with a new judicial interpretation of Switzerland's noise pollution legislation.
Source: Administrative Court of Canton Zurich: Accountability Report 2021
Tips to keep the building permit process as short as possible
Follow our advice to make sure that the building permit process doesn't start to resemble an endless task:
- Firstly, arranging a meeting with the building authorities and making sure you have a thorough understanding of the process is recommended.
- In most cases, contact with the neighboring residents should be sought before submitting a planning application. The more irregularities that can be ironed out before the building permit process starts, the smoother the process will be. Otherwise, easements under private law, for example, which often do not receive the necessary attention in a planning application, can delay the process.
- In order to keep the process as short as possible, we recommend checking the planning application thoroughly before submitting it. Queries and missing documents delay the building permit process.
- In order to avoid possible administrative hurdles, the applicant may submit signed declarations of consent from those directly affected by the construction work, together with the planning application.
The digitalization of the building permit process still has room for improvement
The building permit process is benefiting from the acceleration of digitalization seen in recent years. Applications in the Canton of Bern, for example, now only need to be submitted online. In the Canton of Zurich, you can choose whether you want to submit your application online or offline, but this also depends on the municipality.
This means that the potential for digitalization is far from exhausted. For example, if building regulations, zone plans, and other documents were made available in machine-readable format, it would be even possible to conduct an initial review digitally. This would accelerate the building permit process significantly. In other words, digital submission and processing for applications must be promoted, with staffing levels at the building authorities being increased as necessary.