Growing Food in Philadelphia:
Some Basics on Building Codes and Permits
What are building codes for? What do they cover?
Building Codes are used to ensure minimum standards for safety of occupants and the protection of life and property from avoidable hazards such as fires or structural failures. They address all aspects of new construction and remodeling. Codes have been written and refined by committees over decades and carry the weight of law when adopted by state, county, and city government. In Philadelphia, the building code is based on the model rules of the International Code Council.
What code governs buildings in Philadelphia?
Title 4 of the Philadelphia Code (The Philadelphia Building Construction and Occupancy Code) governs building sites, construction, alteration, addition, repair abatement, removal, demolition, location, occupancy and maintenance of all buildings, structures and building service equipment within the City of Philadelphia. Additional City regulations applicable to buildings can be found here.
Is this important for an urban gardener or farmer?
If you are planning on constructing anything in your garden or farm, or if you currently have structures, you should be familiar with the specific building code governing your specific structures. You’ll want to make sure all existing or planned structures are in line with the requirements of The Philadelphia Code. Such structures may fit into the following Code categories:
Roof Gardens (see Section B-1504 of Title 4)
Temporary Structures (see B-102 of Title 4)
Storage of Refuse (see B-424 of Title 4)
Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code (Section “PM” of Title 4) – This is particularly important for rules regarding safety on vacant lots.
If you plan to construct anything for your garden, you may need a building permit.
What kind of structures may require permits?
Depending on size and location, installing raised beds, rain barrels, compost piles, sheds, signs, or fences may require a building permit.
How do I determine if a structure I’m planning to build will need a permit?
The need for a permit is based on your structure’s size and location. It does not matter if you are installing a structure for only a short time—no matter how impermanent the structure is, you will still need a permit if the structure does not comply with your property’s zoning classification height or volume criteria.
First, check the zoning classification in the Zoning Code for your garden’s property to determine legal height limits or volumes for various structures. For example, sheds in single-family residential areas up to 120 cubic feet do not require a permit. Similarly, fences in these areas that are chain link and no taller than four feet in the front, six feet in the back/side yards do not require a permit.
Then, if your new construction or installation is not allowed by the Code, you should file a Building Permit. In some cases, you may need to file a Zoning and Use Registration Permit instead of a Building Permit.
How do I determine which application I will need to file?
Sometimes, smaller structures that do not fit into legal size limits for a specific zoning classification only require a Zoning and Use Registration Permit. For example, sheds between 120 and 200 cubic feet require such a permit, and do not require a Building Permit. However, sheds over 200 cubic feet require a Building Permit. You can always ask the Department of Licenses and Inspections about your unique structure and the proper form for it. For more information, see: https://business.phila.gov/Pages/BuildingPermits.aspx?stage=Start&type=All%20Business%20Types§ion=Permits%20%26%20Certificates&BSPContentListItem=Building%20Permits or
Department of Licenses and Inspections
Municipal Services Building-Concourse
1401 John F. Kennedy Boulevard
311, or 215-686-8686
How long is the processing time and how much does it cost to obtain a permit?
Once your application has been submitted, processing time usually takes between 15 and 20 business days. Applications for a Zoning and Use Registration and Building permits require a non-refundable filing fee of $25.00 for one or two family dwellings and $100.00 for all other uses. Once the permit is issued, there may be other small fees required in order to pick up the permit.