What is it?

In some cases, you as the building owner can request a variance from the code. A variance is appropriate when
  • Existing conditions in a building make it very difficult to follow the letter of the code AND
  • You are taking steps to provide an equivalent level of safety.
A variance is not a code waiver. You must meet the intent of the code. The Building Board of Appeals (BBA) decides whether to approve variances. If your proposed equivalency does not meet the intent of the code, the BBA will not approve it. The variance fee is $50 for one and two family homes. The fee is $490 for commercial buildings. Read on to learn more about the process.


**Please note, this variance is different from a Zoning variance. For setbacks, see zoning.**

Who should apply?

As the building owner, you must be part of the application process. Below is some general guidance about when a variance might be appropriate.

Yes, a variance is appropriate.

  • You would like to finish your basement. The existing stairs don’t meet current code.

  • You would like to change a space in your existing home. The ceiling height is lower than current code.

No, a variance is not appropriate.

  • You would like to build an addition. You do not want to meet code.

  • You would like to finish your basement and have a bedroom. You do not want to add windows and it does not meet natural light requirements.


How do you apply?

First, fill out the Building Variance application.

Thoughtfully answer these three questions.
  1. State the code, section number, and a summary of the code. Also state the nonconforming conditions for the project.

    Example: SPS 321.04 minimum stair width is 36 inches. We will have 34 inches of stair width.

  2. State why you cannot meet the code. Note: choosing not to meet code is not an adequate answer.

    Example: Not structurally feasible.

  3. State how you will provide an equivalency to the code. These items should relate to the item for which you're applying for a variance. The items must exceed code requirements.


    • Adding hardwired, interconnected smoke detectors on all floor levels.
    • Painting areas of low headroom a contrasting color

For commercial buildings:

  1. Get the application notarized.
  2. Contact the fire department for a position statement.

Submit your application.

Email the application to biplans@cityofmadison.com. Staff will review the application. We may require plans that clearly show the existing conditions. An inspector may visit the site to verify the conditions. One of two things will happen:

  • If the BBA has approved at least five variances for the same item, we may approve yours on precedence. Staff will contact you for payment. You will receive your variance by email after paying. You are now done with the process.
  • If the BBA has not approved a variance for the item in the past, staff will contact you to discuss your application. Continue to the next step.

Attend the BBA meeting.

The Building Board of Appeals meets virtually once a month. You will receive a link by email 48 hours before the meeting. At the meeting, you will need to answer the Board’s questions.

Receive decision.

Staff will mail the variance decision within 7 days of the meeting date.

When can you apply?

The Board meets virtually the third Tuesday of the month at 1 PM. The deadline for submissions is the first Tuesday of the month.