With a population of over 9.9 million in its metropolitan area, Chicago is a thriving market for real estate development. However, like in any major US city, you must ensure your project is compliant with local building codes, and must then carry out the corresponding approval procedure with the Chicago Department of Buildings.

By working with professional engineers who are familiarized with Chicago building codes, you can ensure a quick project approval, eliminating or minimizing changes once construction has started. If you are developing a multi-family project or commercial spaces for rent, it is in your best interest to have a swift design and approval process - this way, you can start charging rent sooner.

Architectural and structural design tend to get more attention, since they deal with visible elements of a building. However, MEP engineering is equally important, since it deals with the systems that make your building suitable for human occupancy. Also note that the operation and maintenance expenses of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems represent a significant portion of your building ownership cost.

Design

To get a project approved for construction in Chicago, it must meet all applicable requirements in the Chicago Building Code. Although the code is extensive, its content is broken down by sections to make it easier to navigate:

  • The Chicago Building Code starts with Administration and Accessibility requirements. The administrative describes how the code is enforced, while the accessibility section ensures that buildings are suitable for individuals with special needs.
  • The code then provides general requirements for New Construction, followed by several chapters dealing with specific building systems: conveyance, electrical, fire prevention, fuel gas, mechanical, energy conservation, plumbing and signs.
  • Having presented the bulk of engineering requirements, the Chicago Building Code moves on to licensing requirements. There is an entire chapter dedicated to the trade licenses required for all categories of work performed during construction.
  • The code also dedicates two chapters to existing buildings: Once chapter deals with reparations, alterations and additions; and the other chapter provides minimum requirements that must be met permanently by all existing buildings, even when no modifications are planned.
  • Finally, there is a code section dedicated to zoning requirements.

Although the Chicago Department of Buildings has a website that makes the code easy to navigate, the sheer volume of requirements can be overwhelming for property developers who are new in the Chicago construction industry. The best recommendation is working with qualified design engineers who are familiarized with the process.

Approvals at Chicago Department of Buildings

The average permit issuance time of the Chicago Department of Buildings is displayed in their website permanently, and this is a very useful feature when planning your project. However, note that the actual time may vary: qualified Chicago engineers can speed up the process, but you may also have to wait longer if there are many corrections and changes.

Unless the work you are planning is very minor, a permitting procedure is required. The following are some examples of work that do not need a permit:

  • Door and window replacements, where the new unit will have the same size and location as the one being replaced.
  • Plumbing fixture upgrades without a change of size or location.
  • Siding reparation or replacement.
  • Painting.

Note that Chicago has a landmarks law, and even the minor work described above may require a permit if the building is a Chicago Landmark, or located in a Chicago Landmark District.

For all cases where a permit is required, the Chicago Department of Building offers many review options, depending on the type work and its scale:

PERMITTING PROCEDURE

WHEN DOES IT APPLY?

1) Easy Permit (EPP)

Simple projects like replacements and reparations. Applies for homes, but also for minor work in larger buildings.

2) Homeowners Assistance

Special program for single-family dwellings where the occupant is the owner.

3) Standard Plan Review

Standard permitting procedure for new constructions and renovations, of small or medium scale:
- Buildings up to 80 feet high.
- Residential projects up to 49 units.
- Commercial projects up to 150,000 square feet.

4) Self-Certification Permit Program

Licensed design professionals who meet certain training requirements can certify compliance for residential and small commercial projects.

5) Developer Services

The standard permitting procedure for large-scale construction and renovation. Applies for projects that exceed the thresholds for the Standard Plan Review.

Chicago offers permitting incentives if you deploy green building measures, such as energy efficient equipment or renewable generation. You may be eligible for an expedited permitting procedure, or may even get discounts on permitting fees.

Construction Bidding

Even if you have a project design that is compliant with the Chicago Building Code, it is important to work with contractors who can deliver the project as specified, within the time frame required, and for a reasonable cost. When you need to complete a project as soon as possible, you may be tempted to hire the first contractor available. However, it pays off to ask for multiple bids and compare them.

For minor projects or work dealing with a specific building system, the bidding process is often carried by the property management company, with technical assistance from engineering professionals. However, for more complex work involving multiple building systems and subcontractors, management of the bidding process is often delegated to a general contractor under the oversight of a consulting company.

Ideally, you should select an offer that meets the full scope of work and its performance requirements, while having the lowest realistic price. Instruct your bidding contractors to break down their offers by items instead of presenting a total price, since that way you can compare their bids item by item.

Building

The construction process involves a significant capital expenditure, but it should proceed without major hurdles if the project is well-designed and if you work with qualified and licensed contractors. Consulting and supervision services from a neutral third party are strongly recommended, to ensure the completed work matches the plans and specifications approved by the Chicago Department of Buildings. Design engineers normally offer this service as well; if you rely on the same company for design, supervision and consulting, they will already be familiarized with plans and specifications.

Mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems require special attention during the building process, since many of their components are hidden from sight. If there are errors that affect MEP systems during the construction process, they may be difficult to detect, causing performance issues in the future.

Once you have completed the building process, the Chicago Department of Buildings will inspect your project, making sure the work completed matches the design documents approved. If there are differences you will be asked to correct them, delaying project completion and increasing cost. Therefore, it pays off to have the assistance of a qualified supervision team during the building process.

 

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