Ask the Architect

What changes do we need permits for?


Q. We just bought a house, and want to make a lot of small changes, like taking down the wall between the little kitchen and the dining area to put in an island, and making two bedrooms on the second floor. The house is one story but has room in the attic to make the bedrooms. Do we need to have drawings made to get a contractor? Some we spoke to said no. Do we need a permit if it’s all minor work? Again, some contractors told us we don’t need one, and one said he wouldn’t do the work without one. I’m a developer in the city, but Long Island is so different. In the city, the architect self-certifies the drawings, and a couple of days after the contractor files the job, we have a permit. I’m being told that it can take weeks for our new house to pull a permit, and there is no self-certifying. Is that true?

A. There are regulations for the bedroom ceiling height and insulation you must follow, or you will someday be like the several retirees I have dealt with who discovered the expensive truth: Their second-floor bedrooms fail the code requirements of an average ceiling height of 7 feet. New York state building code, which every community, including New York City, follows (New York City has added restrictions), requires that the minimum height is 5 feet, and the average height is 7 feet. If you take the space width, only from the 5-foot height location and the height at the center, you can calculate average height.
I present a cross-section diagram to demonstrate compliance. Many older sellers trying to move to lower-taxed homes discover that they need to do up to $35,000 in alterations to raise roofs and add legal windows for light, ventilation and fire escape requirements as well. A few gave up, passing the problem and a price reduction on to their buyer, causing frustration.
You absolutely need permits for the “small” changes, which will end up not being so small when you realize that the wrong beams may be installed by an unqualified person who can tell you they do the same thing “all the time,” without correctly calculated and drawn plans. Most beams they install work for carrying the floor load upstairs, but don’t take into consideration the other factors, such as snow, wind and uplift loads transferred from the roof a story above. All too often I see sagging, barely detectable, wrong-sized beams when I’m meeting with potential clients. Unless there is work to be done in the area of that beam or it looks extremely undersized, I generally remain silent, because most people don’t want to hear about it, never noticed it and really do believe that any old beam will do the job, and the person with power tools knew what they were doing. Only when ceiling cracking appears do they notice. Good luck!

© 2022 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.