When Are Building Permits Required in Massachusetts?

The requirements for building permits are often overlooked and misunderstood. 780 CMR, Massachusetts State Building Code, Section 105 addresses when building permits are required. Building permits are essential to help ensure that work is being completed correctly and safely. It is illegal and unlawful to complete work without first filing an application with the building official and obtaining the required permit, unless the work is otherwise exempt.

In general, a permit is required for most activities that are regulated by the Code and its referenced standards, and these activities cannot begin until the permit is issued by the building official. There are some cases where work such as repairs and finish work do not require a permit, although the work must still be completed in accordance with the applicable codes. The Q&A below has been developed to help clearly understand when building permits are required, when permits aren’t required, and examples of such work. These requirements are related to the Base (Commercial) Volume of 780 CMR.

When Is A Building Permit Required?

A permit is required to construct, reconstruct, alter, repair, remove or demolish a building or structure; or to change the use or occupancy of a building or structure, or to install or alter any equipment which is regulated by 780 CMR, Massachusetts State Building Code (780 CMR 105.1). The permit must be granted by the building official prior to performing any work. Where replacement and repairs must be performed in an emergency situation, the permit application must be submitted within the next business day to the building official (780 CMR 105.2.1)

When Is A Building Permit Not Required?

A building permit is not required for ordinary repairs to structures (780 CMR 105.2.2). A repair is defined as “the reconstruction or renewal of any part of an existing building for the purpose of its maintenance or to correct damage.” (780 CMR 202). Ordinary repairs do not affect the structure, egress, fire protection systems, fire rating, energy conservation, plumbing, sanitary, gas, electrical or other utilities. A building permit is also not required for the following activities:

  1. One-story detached accessory structures used as tool and storage sheds and similar uses that are less than 120 square feet;
  2. Fences not over 7 feet high;
  3. Oil derricks;
  4. Retaining walls that are not over 4 feet in height;
  5. Water tanks supported directly on grade if the capacity is not greater than 5,000 gallon and the ratio of height to diameter or width is not greater than 2:1;
  6. Sidewalks and driveways not more than 30 inches above adjacent grade and not over any basement or story below and are not part of an accessible route;
  7. Painting, papering, tiling, carpeting, cabinets, counter tops, and similar finish work;
  8. Temporary motion picture, television, and theater stage sets and scenery;
  9. Prefab swimming pools accessory to Group R-3 that are less than 24″ deep, are not greater than 5,000 gallons, and are installed entirely above grade;
  10. Shade cloth structures constructed for nursery or agricultural purposes, not including service systems;
  11. Swings and other playground equipment accessory to one- and two-family dwellings;
  12. Window awnings in Group R-3 and U occupancies supported by an exterior walls and do not project more than 54 inches from the exterior wall and do not require additional support;
  13. Nonfixed and movable fixtures, cases, racks, counters and partitions not over 5’9” in height;
  14. Greenhouses covered exclusively with plastic firm used for agricultural purposes only;
  15. Replacement or repair of any component or components of a fire protection system, where such does not affect system performance and compatibility. Note that permits are required related to the impairment or temporary disconnecting of fire protection systems by the fire official.

What Are Samples of Work Requiring a Building Permit?

  • Installation, removal, or reconfiguration of a wall, partition, door, or window.
  • Installation, removal, or modification of any structural column, beam, or other load-bearing supports.
  • Removal or change of any required means of egress including security or door-locking hardware.
  • Rearrangement or change in occupancy that affects egress, mechanical systems, or other requirements affecting public health.
  • The addition, alteration, replacement, or relocation of fire protection systems such as sprinkler, standpipe, or fire alarm systems.

Note that additional permits may be required the State Fire Code, State Plumbing Code, and Electrical Code.