How Does Remodeling Work in Denver?

If you’re remodeling in Denver, something to keep in mind is that Denver permitting has more requirements than many other surrounding metro area cities.

One of the most important roles I have is to minimize uncertainty and surprises by doing legwork in the beginning. I always prepare clients for the long permitting process, which can otherwise feel nebulous and bureaucratic.

So, how do you get a construction permit to remodel something in Denver? Patience, preparation, and a lot of paperwork.

What Do You Need Besides Drawings to Get a Permit?

In addition to architectural drawings, a lot of other documents must be prepared and submitted with renovation or remodeling, new construction, or building an addition in Denver.

Structural Design Documents

This refers to the framing, the foundation, and the other things that hold the house up. If you’re making changes to load-bearing walls or building a new addition, you’ll need a structural engineer’s drawings no matter where you’re building. If you’re going to be digging a new foundation, Denver requires us to show that doing so won’t cause issues to your neighbors on surrounding properties.

Energy Efficiency Code Compliance

Denver has adopted the latest green building codes, designed to reduce the amount of energy that buildings use. Though many of the energy efficiency codes apply to new construction, these also affect large additions that increase the size of an existing house by more than 30 percent. These codes only apply to the new portion of the house — though the existing structure is generally not required to be compliant with current codes, all new construction must.

Denver’s energy codes call for high levels of insulation, sealants so the house doesn’t leak air, and require efficient heating and cooling equipment. We will also need a report from an energy consultant to show that the furnace and air conditioner are correctly sized for the project, which also affects whether or not any electrical updates are needed.

Skyland House
This addition in the Skyland neighborhood of northeast Denver added 560 square feet

Property Survey

Denver only requires that you submit a survey of your property if new construction is occurring within three feet of the property line or if you’re building an ADU or a new home, but in my experience, if your project involves anything on the outside of your home, I recommend completing a survey.

A survey is key for where you can build on the property. It will clearly indicate the property lines and where structures already exist on the property. Any exterior work — including window wells, extensions, ADUs, or garages — is subject to setbacks, which are the minimum distance between the work and your property line, and the bulk plane, AKA how high you can build.

What Does Denver Look For Before Issuing Permits?

The first thing the city does is make sure that everything that’s on their checklist is submitted. If anything is missing, they will kick the application back as incomplete.

The City of Denver has a multi-step process of reviewing documents for any remodeling project in Denver, but not all of the steps below apply to every project or property. As your project works its way through the review queue, different permits start coming in.

Sewer Usage & Drainage Permit

This is usually the first permit to come back because it’s the easiest: The sewer use and drainage permit is simply looking at how many new fixtures for bathrooms will be added, whether the sewer is up to date, or if the project is going to involve new construction within two feet of the sewer line — if it does, you’ll need to make sure your sewer line in that area has been replaced with a new plastic pipe.

Zoning Review

A zoning review applies to any project seeking a permit in Denver. During the zoning review, the city is concerned with what is visible from the outside, and what the structure will be used for: How tall will an extension or pop-top be? How many stories is the property zoned for? How close is the project to the property line? Does the zoning allow for a garage or ADU?

Forestry Review

If you plan to add or remove trees from the public right of way (also called a treelawn, hellstrip, or parking strip) you will need a forestry review. In Denver, your property ends at the edge of the sidewalk but homeowners are responsible for maintaining what’s between the sidewalk and curb and planting or removing a tree requires additional review and permission.

Historic Review

If you’re in a historic district, the Landmark Preservation staff conducts a review to ensure any updates are keeping in character with the district. The reviews include materials, building height, setbacks, and some design elements. Several districts also have their own additional requirements, called design overlays. It’s imperative to know if you’re in a historic district or along a parkway so we can make planning and execution much easier!

Plan Review

After the zoning review (and forestry and historic, if applicable) the Plan Review Department sends back a set of comments on all of the drawings. Each reviewer is trying to work as quickly as possible, so sometimes we receive comments about items that are actually there and were just overlooked. Sometimes a reviewer is particularly interested in grading or siding or something else and they are seeking more detail. 

No matter who the reviewer is, I warn my clients upfront: Even with all of our preparation, we almost never get an approval the first time around.

Exterior, BeforeExterior, After

Why Does It Take So Long to Get a Construction Permit?

Denver’s requirements are among the most stringent and complicated of any in the Denver Metro area. Staffing and how busy the planning department is when you submit also play a role. To minimize the time it takes, it’s key to have your team together before filing your permits. 

The documents filed for permitting will come from multiple people working on your project: me as your architect, and also people like the contractor, structural engineer, energy consultant, civil engineer, or surveyor, among others who may be involved. 

Because the plan review step looks at all the documents together, any of those players who receive comments pertaining to their documents need to respond to each comment in writing. Any required changes also need to be made at this step and then updated drawings or documents are sent back for a second review.

This second review takes less time as it typically goes back only to the reviewers who had comments. Usually permits are approved after this step. Depending on how complicated your project is, you should expect a minimum of eight weeks and might end up waiting a few months  before permits are approved and construction can begin. You can see the current estimated review times on Denver’s website.

What if You’re Not Remodeling in Denver?

Denver’s documentation requirements are more intensive than some other nearby areas because of the density of Denver’s urban neighborhoods, and the city’s proactive adoption of the latest energy codes.

Castlewood Ranch
This 1980s home in Douglas County traded an awkward exterior for an elegant modern farmhouse aesthetic

Aurora’s requirements are similar to Denver, while Boulder has its own set of guidelines especially in historic districts or areas where wildfires are a risk. Cities in Arapahoe, Douglas, and Jefferson counties have a bit less paperwork because the houses don’t tend to be as densely spaced and close to their property lines. Though it may take less time to get construction permits in other areas, don’t assume you’ll be able to start construction as soon as the drawings are done.

The Bottom Line.

Make sure your architect does a thorough zoning and building code analysis at the beginning of the project to know what is required both in terms of documentation and what permitting jurisdiction will allow. You don’t want to have a design you can’t build.

Going through all this seems like a burdensome and complicated process that can be frustrating and confusing but it’s important to remember why we have these codes: With stricter review you end up with a better project in the end. Energy efficiency costs less over time and keeps you comfortable in both winter and summer. Good design is timeless with construction that’s durable and will hold up to the elements.

No matter where you live or the age of your home, I’m comfortable with Denver’s 1890s Victorians, 1900s Foursquares, and 1920s bungalows, and often work in area suburbs where many mid-20th century houses especially need modifications and updates. Let’s talk about how we can transform your house to the home of your dreams.