Building in France: French Planning Structure for Building and Renovations

Understand the processes, permits and organisations you need when planning to build in France: the Code de l'Urbanisme, Plan Local d'Urbanisme (PLU), COS and SHON...

The French planning rules and regulations are codified in a single text, the Code de l'Urbanisme. The control of development in France is comprehensive. Permission has to be obtained for virtually all types of development, even wooden chalets and garden sheds.

Development must comply with planning law, there are no exceptions to this and development plans will be amended to incorporate a specific project if necessary rather than a project "breaking the rules". Planning officers have no opinions regarding buildings aesthetics (that is the role of architects); planners are there purely to administer an application. If a project complies with planning law (it either will or will not, there are no grey areas) then a permission will be granted.

The Code de l'Urbanisme

Anyone who wishes to construct or have constructed a building, to be used as a dwelling or not, whether with foundations or not, must in the first instance obtain a Permis de construire (building permit).

This same permit is compulsory for any work carried out on an existing building:

  • when this work would change the usage
  • where the exterior appearance or volume would be modified
  • extra storeys would be created 
    (C. Urb. Art. L421-2)

Planning Structure

Planning is administered at a regional and local level with the same standard application forms used across France. The Mairie provides the key documents including building permit applications and the local plan for the planning zone of the property.

Planning at a national, regional level and local level

France has national, regional and local plans that are linked together very well, national policies are fed to the regions and then these are overlaid with regional and local policies. These are integrated into an area plan called the SCOT (Schéma de Cohérence Territoriale) and it is the SCOT that provides the framework for individual cities, towns and villages to create their own local plan.

Schéma de Cohérence Territoriale (SCOT)

The SCOT (area plan) is drafted by the planning authority, the Communité de Communes (the committee of local communes) and the chamber of commerce. It identifies areas for residential, commercial and tourist development as well as conservation and green belt recreational areas for the future 10 years. These include Zone Artisanale (ZA) and Zone Commercial (ZA). From these broad-brush strategies local development plans are created.

Local Plans

There are 3 types of local plans:

  • Plan Local d'Urbanisme (PLU)
  • Carte Communale
  • Textes du Code de l’Urbanisme

The PLU and Carte Communale are the key planning documents and clearly identify development rights and restrictions.

PLU (Plan Local d'Urbanisme)

The PLU has replaced the POS (Plans d'Occupations des Sols) in most cities and towns; it zones the land into sections each of which has a detailed plan that defines the development permitted within the area. The social, economic and political requirements of the urban area are translated into the development zones. To encourage commercial development in the city centre the zone could be extended or changed allowing denser development. Likewise in residential areas development may be reduced to preserve the tranquillity.

All Zone d'Aménagement Concertée (ZAC) development zones for residential, commercial, industrial and artisanal uses are identified in the PLU. These are usually large areas of land that have been identified for re-developed and can range from a dozen industrial units on the edge of a small town to the Bercy / Australitz / Tolbiac ZAC that covers 12 percent of the city of Paris, and includes a new park, railway stations, housing and more.

PLU in a typical residential zone

The PLU will contain information such as the distance from the boundary of the land that can be built on, the percentage of land that must remain as vegetation, restrictions on the type of roofing material and the height of any future development and/or extensions including garages and swimming pools. It will also provide the COS (Coefficient d'Occupation du Sol).

Within an urban area the density of development is determined by the COS. Based on the size of the land parcel in square meters, the size of the development is determined both in terms of the amount of land that can be built on and the amount of habitable space. The COS of a zone will normally allow greater density of building in the centre of an urban area than the perimeter.

COS (Coefficient d'Occupation du Sol)

The COS identifies the amount of net habitable space or SHON (surface hors œuvre nette) allowable on the land. For example, an owner of 1,000 square meters of land with the COS at 0.25, is allowed 1,000 x 0.25 = 250 square meters of net habitable space (SHON). If an existing house has 190 square meters of habitable space there are the rights to a further extension of 60 square meters and provided the intended development complies with all the remaining restrictions within the zone planning will be awarded.

Note: In this example an architect would have to be employed to be the author of the project and submit the planning application because it would be over 170m².

Carte Communale

The Carte Communal is approved by the local council and the Mairie and covers villages and surrounding areas in exactly the same way PLU covers cities and towns, it zones the land into sections each of which has a detailed plan that defines the development within the area. The centre of a village will probably be zoned for commerce and residential and an owner will be able to build on the land if it is a permitted development area (zone constructible).

Outside the village centre many zones will not allow new building (zone non-constructible). Only existing buildings would be able to be used and in some cases only individual buildings highlighted in the Carte Communale for re-use/restoration could be developed.

In France, the planning permission is attached to the building and not to the land and unless a building is considered suitable for development and specific reference is made to it in the local plan there are no obligatory development rights. A Certificat d’urbanisme (CU) application can ascertain the planning state of a building and an operational request can establish change of use to habitation. Such a request need not be made specifically by the buildings owner.

Pockets of development

Major projects such as factories, adventure parks and golf course and leisure developments do spring up in the middle of non-constructible land. If a project is going to bring major investment into an area and such activities are strategic goals of the SCOT then it is possible for a PLU and a Carte Communale to be redrafted to write the project into the local plan (ultimately the project area will be assigned a specific planning zone to accommodate its particular requirements). This will take time and all parties have to be in agreement at both local and area level but the local plan can and will be amended if the area will benefit from the project.

Textes du Code de l’Urbanisme

In very rural and isolated areas there will be land that is not covered by either a PLU or Carte Communale. In this case the development rights are defined in the Textes du Code de l’Urbanisme. These are fairly restrictive but information will be available at the Mairie, however, there is no opportunity to re-draft the Textes du Code de l’Urbanisme for a local project as can be done with a PLU or Carte Communale.

"My friends did this can I do the same?"

Different areas have different development rights and restrictions. It is important to have a clear understanding of locally specific development rights.

Advice and Clarification: Habitable Space

Definitions as to what constitutes habitable space are precise and clear. However, when applied to a particular situation clarification can be required. Each local Direction Départementale de l'Equipment (DDE) has a specific advisor (the "planning conseillé") who has the jurisdiction of a commune and, free of charge, can advise on the type of building permit required, explain and expand on the PLU or Carte Communale and confirm if a project constitutes more than 170 square meters of net habitable space and therefore requires the services of an architect. Ultimately the DDE will examine a building permit application on submission for compliance with the PLU or Carte Communale.

To arrange a meeting with the "planning conseillé" make an appointment with the DDE by telephone (never arrive unannounced); provide photographs of the existing development together with plans and elevations of the proposals and a site plan including plan cadastral details. Where the intension is to convert a derelict building be precise regarding its future use. Learn the technical planning language before the meeting or attend with someone who can translate.

Developments over 170 meters of net habitable space (SHON)

The law states that a request for a building permit (Permis de construire) cannot be investigated unless a qualified, registered architect has "established the architectural project". That is, prepared the plans and written documents, shown site plans, volume and layout, sections, and elevation treatment, as well as choice of materials.

The owner of a house of less than 170 square meters SHON may submit their own application (C. Urb. Art. L421-2).

Conseil National de l'Ordre des Architectes

The Ordre des Architects is the national body of registered architects in France. The profession of an architect is protected in France and only those architects registered with the Ordre and that are the principal of a practice may submit planning applications (salaried architects may not). It is a criminal offence for an unregistered person to pose as an architect in France. Unqualified architects that stamp and sign permits of others are suspended for a minimum of six months.

Architects contracts of employment in English

The Ordre des Architects has 18 regional offices that are open to the public for consultation and as a national organisation it has developed contracts of employment that are translated in to English for all types of projects. All registered architects require professional indemnity insurance and under the code of contract they require a contract of employment. By using the contract of employment forms provided by the Ordre, an architect states registration and insurance details together with estimated construction costs and defined architect fees and payment stages. Request an English version from the architect.

  • The Ordre des Architects website has a list of all registered architect and practices (in French)

Conseils d'Architecture, d'Urbanisme et d'Environnement (CAUE)

There exists within the law a requirement to "establish the architectural project" this is an important concept because as well as conforming with the PLU or Carte Communale there is a obligation for all building permits (Permis de construire) to be evaluated for their architectural merit.

If a property owner submits the application themselves, then before doing so they should go to the CAUE to advise on the architectural content of the project; there is a box on the new form to mark if this has been done. A project may be delayed if the owner has not had prior advice.

A planning officer may not refuse a project on architectural grounds but the planning department architect (employed by the DDE) may, although this is more difficult if the project has been taken to CAUE prior to submission (the architect for the DDE and the CAUE may be the same architect).

Architectes des Bâtiments de France (ABF)

The Architectes des Bâtiments de France are qualified architects that have taken further study in restoration and conservation. They work in the Service Départemental de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine and protect all the historic buildings and listed monuments within their department.

500 meters proximity to Listed Buildings

If a property is within 500 meters of a listed site, building or historic monument then the project comes under the separate legislation of historic monuments. The ABF have six months to consider any Permis de construire, Permis de construire maison or Permis d'aménager, never assume a tacit approval where listed buildings are concerned and expect restrictions on the architecture and materials used. The local Mairie cannot overrule any refusal or condition stipulated by the ABF.

Historic centre, conservation area, national park

If a property is more than 500 meters from a historic monument, but within a historic centre defined by the local plan, a conservation area or a national park. The development can comply with all the technical standards of the PLU or Carte Communale but receive a recommendation for rejection on architectural grounds by the ABF. In this situation the local Mairie decides whether permission is granted or refused, (however, it is not often that the Mairie will contradict the ABF).

If a project comes under the jurisdiction of the ABF then it is imperative that a meeting be arranged at an early stage to discuss the project. Only the ABF can approve a project and there is no appeal process; its architectural judgment is law.

Certificat d’urbanisme (CU)

A Certificat d’urbanisme (CU) can ascertain the planning state of a building and an operational application is a request to "perform an operation on a building" such as establish change of use to habitation. A CU is particularly important for those who are in the process of purchasing a property to establish what the building is, and what it can be used for in the future.

An informative request (Certificat d’information générale) is one that establishes the existing planning state of a building. This may be used if there is a derelict cottage on the land and the owner wants to know if in planning terms it is still classed as a cottage or if it has been de-classified (many farmers did this to reduce taxes on their land). If it has been de-classified then a permit to change the use (Changement de destination) of the building to habitation is required.

An operational request (Certificat opérationnel) is a request to "perform an operation on a building" for example changes an agricultural barn to habitation "house".

A CU is however, an approval "in principal" subject to the granting of a building permit (Permis de construire, PC). An approval "in principal" does not guarantee a PC. This is particularly important for those who are in the process of purchasing a property to note because their development must still comply with the PLU or Carte Communale and pass before the ABF if applicable.

Note: Where a property owner who already owns a building that they wish to convert (for example from a garage/storage to a house or gîte) there is no need to apply for a CU and certainly no obligation to submit a CU prior to making a building permit application (Permis de construire).

Disclaimer: The content of this document is provided for guidance only and while every effort has been made by the author to ensure the accuracy of the information and translations contained, no liability can be accepted for any errors omissions and inaccuracies, or for the opinions expressed herein. The sources of information used were Guidance notes from the Directors of Planning for Calvados (14), Manche (50), Orne (61) at a presentation for the Conseille Regionale des Architectes Basse-Normandie 10/07/2007. J.O n°5 JAN 2007 Text n°12

Page prepared by Andrew Booth Architect RIBA DUAOB Inscrit au Tableau Regional de l’Ordre des Architectes de Basse-Normandie au titre d’Architecte DUAOB (Diplome de l’University d’Architecture Oxford Brookes) No. general 49004 regional 731 11 Rue de la Ville, 50480 Brucheville Tel France 06 83 73 71 29 / Tel UK +44 (0)15394 88265 / [email][/email] Copyright © 2007 Andrew Booth Architect All Rights Reserved