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A Look at the Regulations Surrounding Commercial Construction in California

Commercial construction projects tend to be heavily regulated, and notably so in California. Each city, county, and town has various agencies that outline their own criteria, and trying to understand these regulations can easily overwhelm even a seasoned developer. Broadly speaking, however, commercial construction regulations come down to five essential sets of standards; we will discuss these in the post below.

Getting California Commercial Permits and Forms

Commercial construction projects in California are subject to an array of regulations. These requirements differ to an extent between authorities having jurisdiction, as each city and county has significant leeway in interpreting the state’s codes. However, commercial construction standards typically entail compliance within the following five criteria:  

  1. Adherence to the city’s Master Plan
  2. Compliance with the local adaptation of the California Building Standards Code
  3. Meeting requirements of local agencies and commissions
  4. Complying with safety regulations during construction
  5. Minimizing disruption to surrounding neighborhoods 

Since so many agencies take part in assessing a project’s conformance with the criteria above, commercial projects typically take a while to approve. However, a good knowledge of local planning and building department practices and expectations can help streamline the approval process. Below, we will discuss the five aforementioned criteria in greater detail.

1.   Adherence to the City’s Master Plan

A city’s master plan serves as a framework for that city’s development. The master plan is typically devised based on the planners’ vision for the city’s population, demographics, economy, social, and cultural trends in the future. Such plans comprise guidelines for land use, built environment, sanitation, transit, utilities, and other necessities for human welfare and sustainability.

Each city has a different approach to urban planning, but some similarities exist. As an example, below are the ten Urban Design Principles, which are part of Los Angeles’s General Plan Framework Element. Any new construction project, commercial or otherwise, should be designed in harmony with these principles. 

  1. Develop inviting and accessible transit areas,
  2. Reinforce walkability, bikeability and well-being.
  3. Nurture neighborhood character.
  4. Bridge the past and the future.
  5. Produce great green streets.
  6. Generate public open space.
  7. Stimulate sustainability and innovation in our city.
  8. Improve equity and opportunity.
  9. Emphasize early integration, simple processes and maintainable solutions.
  10. Ensure connections.

The Los Angeles Department of City Planning is broadly responsible for ensuring adherence to these guidelines. Likewise, planning departments in cities and counties across California enforce their local Master Plans with any new construction projects they review.

2.   Compliance With the California Building Standards Code

The California Building Standards Code aims to ensure that all new buildings, regardless of occupancy, are safe. However, the Building Code has several specific provisions for commercial occupancies, which address accessibility, fire safety, and means of egress. Building parameters, such as construction materials, building dimensions, and maximum number of floors also differ between various commercial occupancies.

Note that the commercial construction regulations found in the California Building Standards Code may differ between the state’s cities, towns, and counties. That’s why it’s vital to refer to the local adaptation of the Building Code.

3.   Approvals from Local Agencies and Commissions

A commercial construction project may be subject to regulations from several municipal or regional agencies or commissions. These may include the departments of fire, public works, transportation, cultural affairs, health, police, and others, depending on the building’s location, purpose, and design parameters.

4.   Compliance With Safety Regulations

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health, aka Cal/OSHA, oversees safety on construction projects in California by enforcing regulations in Title 8 of the California Code of Regulations (T8 CCR). Any building projects, including those with a commercial occupancy, must comply with Title 8 during construction. Title 8 contains a range of standards that aim to ensure worker safety, including:

  • Construction Safety Orders
  • Electrical Safety Orders
  • Tunnel Safety Orders
  • Compressed Air Safety Orders
  • General Industry Safety Orders

To ensure that the construction project proceeds smoothly, it’s essential to adhere to all the safety requirements found in T8 CCR and be ready for Cal/OSHA inspections.

5.   Minimizing Construction Impact on Community

Local governments in cities and counties take great care to minimize disruption caused by construction projects. Since commercial construction tends to involve large buildings and heavy, noisy machinery, some impact on the community should be expected. It’s the developer’s job to approach these potential disruptions proactively by finding compromises with the local government.

For example, in most locales in California, construction noise rules and regulations prohibit noisy activities between roughly 9:00 PM and 7:00 AM. Unfortunately, some construction tasks are time-sensitive; for instance, doing any work over a transit easement may only be possible when the transit isn’t running — at night. Likewise, some monolithic concrete pours must happen without disruptions, which means that the work may carry over into the “quiet hours.” Generally, local governments will consider waiving their construction noise rules if there’s no way to perform the noisy task during permitted hours.

Summary of California Commercial Construction Regulations

Commercial construction projects in California are subject to a massive assortment of regulations, many of which differ depending on the project’s location in the state. That said, regardless of the jurisdiction, all commercial projects are assessed based on the following, broad criteria:

  • Compliance with the Master Plan
  • California Building Standards Code Compliance
  • Meeting the requirements of various municipal and state agencies
  • Conformance with the state’s workplace safety regulations
  • The project’s effect on the community in which it’s built

Of course, the aforementioned factors are very general. To get an idea of what regulations your commercial project will need to comply with, it’s best to get in touch with the city’s planning department or a local construction management professional.


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