Guide to Renovating in Westmount
Westmount takes its architectural heritage very seriously. You need only walk through the leafy streets and admire its stately Victorians to know that you are in a special place.
In 2016 the Government of Canada recognized the City of Westmount as a site of national historic significance. They designated not a just a building, street, or neighbourhood – but the entire City.
This is not an accident. The preservation of the quality of these homes is ensured through exacting guidelines and a tough permit process. It protects the heritage of the City, but also the (significant) value of the properties.
Getting a building permit in Westmount can be very difficult. We have helped hundreds of clients through the process.
Here is what you need to know:
- Do You Need A Permit
- What Category Is Your House?
- Interior or Exterior?
- Consult the Guidelines
- Consult the Bylaws (Zoning)
- Prepare Your Proposal
- Submit Your Drawings for Review
- The Plan Review Process
- Exceptions and Minor Derogations
- Special Cases
- What If I do Work Without a Permit?
- A Few More Things
DO YOU NEED A PERMIT?
The first step is to determine if you actually need a building permit. You do not need a permit for maintenance items such as painting, re-pointing masonry or flat roof resurfacing. For everything else, you need a permit! It is best to check with the City if you have any doubts.
WHAT CATEGORY IS YOUR HOUSE?
Consult your Character Area on this map to determine the Category of the house. Westmount divides homes into four categories 1*, 1, 2 and 3. The category of the home gives you an indication of how accepting the City will be of changes. 1* homes are “exceptional” expect to have exceptional difficulty. By contrast, Category 3 homes are considered “neutral” and are given wide latitude.
INTERIOR OR EXTERIOR?
The City is generally lenient when it comes to interior renovations.
They may raise concerns regarding the building code, or the structure, but otherwise interior work is not likely to hold up permit. Work that affects the exterior of the home however is closely scrutinized. This includes window replacement (often a big point of contention).
If you are doing both interior and exterior work it may be advisable to split the permit. That is, to do two permit applications one for interior, and one for exterior. That way the interior work may begin while the more contentious exterior work is being held up by the review process.
CONSULT THE GUIDELINES
The guidelines for building and renovating in Westmount are part of the City bylaws. They are published online and can be read here. They apply largely to exterior work, and are the main tool by which the heritage value of homes is defined and preserved.
CONSULT THE BYLAWS (ZONING)
Westmount is divided into several zones. Consult this map to determine what regulations apply to your zone. It will tell you the permitted uses, and the permitted envelope of the building (minimum setbacks, maximum height, coverage etc.). In many cases due to the sloped topography, and irregular lots common in Westmount, these calculations can be complex and may need to be discussed with the Planning Department.
PREPARE YOUR PROPOSAL
Have drawings prepared that describe the proposed work. These do not need to be construction drawings at this point.
The City encourages owners obtain the advice of an Architect, even for small projects. The City will require drawings by an Architect where there are modifications to the exterior of a house.
Having gone through the process many times, and having inherited many projects that failed the plan review process, we always recommend seeking the advice of an Architect before submitting. Contact us if you have any questions.
SUBMIT YOUR DRAWINGS FOR PLAN REVIEW
Submit your drawings and required documentation to the Urban Planning Department for review (along with a $55 fee). In Westmount, drawings are reviewed by three entities:
Urban Planning Department
The Planning Department reviews the drawings for conformity to bylaws, building codes and regulations. It also assesses the likelihood of success with the Planning Advisory Committee and makes recommendations accordingly.
Planning Advisory Committee (PAC)
For exterior work the PAC reviews the design merits of the submission in consideration of the heritage value of the property. It ensures that the character and quality of the home and the neighbourhood are preserved.
The elected officials do a final review (usually just a formality) and approve the issuance of the permit.
THE PLAN REVIEW PROCESS
Drawings are reviewed first by Urban Planning Department. If found to be conforming they are referred to PAC. If PAC has no objections they will then refer the project to council for approval.
Once council approves the project, the Board will require that architectural construction drawings are presented, as well as any necessary structural drawings, window contracts etc.
Upon receipt and approval of the complete package the City processes the permit.
The process can be long, even for fairly simple applications.
The Planning Department will take at least a few weeks to review the application. They recommend that the project be submitted at least one month before the next PAC meeting. The PAC meets generally once per month. Council also meets once a month.
The process to will take at least 1 month, but likely longer to address PAC comments. We can help gauge the length of the process given the nature of the work and importance of the house.
EXCEPTIONS AND MINOR DEROGATIONS
In late 2021, Westmount passed a minor derogation bylaw. This allows homeowners that feel that a bylaw is causing them serious harm, or prejudice, to request for an exception to that bylaw for their property. This applies to all zoning and subdivision bylaws except those related to land use and density. The process is longer than the standard application for a construction permit, and comes with a substantial fee. As of January 2022, the fee to formally review the application is $4,060, and comes with no guarantee that the request will be granted. However, the Planning Department will give their opinion on the likelihood of success of the application before having to pay the fee. Having a professional with experience in Westmount is also very helpful in gauging the likelihood of success.
A demolition permit will be required if any building or portion of a building is to be demolished. In addition to the standard plan review process, demolition requires a public posting, a public hearing in front of the demolition committee, and additional fees of course. For 1* homes, any alteration to the exterior will be considered a demolition (as was the case for this proposal to change a window to a door).
Modifications to Permit
For any number of reasons changes might be desired after the permit has been emitted. For changes to the exterior, a modification to the permit must be requested. The steps are identical to obtaining a new permit. No additional fee is required, and work not affected by the requested change can carry on.
For modifications to 1* homes the City may request a conservation strategy. This report should include (among other information) a history of the home, and summary of its heritage value. It should describe the requested changes, consider alternative approaches, prepare a mitigation strategy and describe how the changes are reversible. It is important to have a professional accustomed to operating on heritage homes prepare the report. The City is looking for assurances that this property (of national historic significance) is in good hands.
WHAT IF I DO WORK WITHOUT A PERMIT?
In short…DON’T! Building inspectors do their rounds regularly, and Westmount neighbours are known to be especially vigilant. The City can (and will) force you to stop the work, fine you, and if needed, require you to restore what was changed.
A FEW MORE THINGS
For buildings built before 1970 an asbestos report will be required. This requirement can sometimes be waived if a previous renovation replaced the original walls with gypsum board. A professional report will be requested.
Westmount requires that all exterior walls have a minimum of 8” of solid masonry (regardless of finish material). A wall section describing the composition will be requested.
It is a special honour and challenge to work in a City with such exacting standards. It’s important that homeowners and builders are aware of the process involved, and schedule delays they might accrue. The City of Westmount has a wealth of information online.
Should you have any questions or require any assistance Contact Us.