A curtain for your property – privacy screens and how they are regulated

Whether it’s a hedge, wall, or frosted glass, many homeowners install garden fixtures to protect their privacy, particularly along the borders with neighbouring properties. But what are the red lines to note when designing them? With numerous regulations governing their use in Switzerland, lawyer Alexandra Pestalozzi joins us to help avoid any legal blind spots. We explain what to keep in mind at the planning stage and what to clarify with the building authority for your project.


Woman relaxing on a deck chair in her garden and protected from outside view by a privacy screen

Does your terrace skirt a popular jogging route? Is your garden cheek to jowl with a neighbouring property? It’s times like these that bring home to you that your privacy depends on more than just you alone. If you, too, find yourself in search of seclusion, it’s time to consider drawing the curtains to your property with the privacy screen.

To keep things cordial with the next-doors, however, hold off on erecting any hasty tall fences on the boundary to your neighbour’s property. Whatever privacy screen you choose - whether a hedge, fence, or wall - they are all subject to certain regulations, which are governed by the cantons and municipalities. And that means that before planting or building one, consulting the cantonal and municipal building regulations, plus the provisions of the Swiss Civil Code, is non-negotiable. To help you navigate the regulatory roadmap when you visit the municipality, we sat down with Alexandra Pestalozzi, a lawyer at AXA-ARAG, to get you all the key pointers on Swiss privacy screen regulations.

First things first: What types of privacy screen are there?

Privacy screens refer to installations that allow you to shield parts of your property or living space from view. And as a general rule, the main choice is between plant-based screens or structural options. If the natural option appeals, hedges made from thuja, bamboo or Chinese reed are ideal. If you prefer a structural alternative, consider fences, walls and similar elements, which can be crafted from wood, metal or mineral - namely stone or concrete. An increasingly popular go-to option is a design glass privacy screen, since they allow light to pass through while remaining opaque to the onlooker.

Place the privacy screen directly on your property’s boundary and it will double as a border marker with your neighbour’s plot. If this marker surrounds your property, in whole or in part and shields it from the outside, it’s called an “enclosure.” And when this enclosure is made of plants, it’s known as a “living enclosure”, as opposed to the term “non-living enclosures” for structural installations demarcating the boundary lines.

Which regulations apply and to which privacy screens?

It goes without saying that each region regulates the various types of privacy screens available differently! So, before setting one up, getting a handle on precisely which of these rules apply is a must. As a general rule, though, structural and plant-based screens are regulated differently. The rules also vary for border structures and plants as opposed to privacy screens installed within your property itself.

Pointers for structural privacy screens

More often than not, you’ll have to apply for a building permit when putting up structural installations. As Alexandra Pestalozzi explains, “Cantonal and municipal regulations tend to dictate which types of structural installations require a permit and boundary distance and height are normally the crucial determinants.”

How can I ensure my building permit for a structural installation is approved?

Provided you’ve ticked the first two basic boxes (respecting the maximum height and boundary distance), you should be well on the way to getting a permit. You’ll also want to ensure your privacy screen fits in to the local surrounds. Scouting out other screens already in place in your neighbourhood is a good idea here, to get an idea of what kind of structural privacy screen might be approved. But here’s a note of caution from Alexandra Pestalozzi: “Just because the same wall was allowed elsewhere doesn’t necessarily mean you can build one too. As a minimum, though, it’s safe to say your screen of choice should at least blend in properly to the local landscape.”

Pointers for plant-based privacy screens

Hedges made from conventional plant species are generally subject to the provisions of the introductory act to the civil code. So if you’re planning this type of screen, you almost certainly won’t need a building permit. But do note the caveat from Alexandra Pestalozzi: “Exceptional, large-scale hedges that change how the landscape looks changes may be subject to building permit requirements in rare cases.”

Tip: Unsure about any lines your plant-based project may cross? The safer and surer way is always to clarify any uncertainties beforehand with your local building authority.

For plant-based privacy screens, other rules you have to comply with include the minimum boundary distance rules in your area: if the hedge is not placed on the boundary with the consent of both property owners, a certain minimum distance must be maintained. The precise distance depends on the relevant cantonal and municipal regulations and also on how high you want the hedge to be.

Pointers for constructing structural and plant-based boundaries

Things get a bit “borderline” when planning a structure along a shared boundary! If you go for this option, both adjoining parties have to agree to and participate equally in the construction. In other words, the privacy screen becomes a co-owned structure. But don’t confuse this with rented property... This means that both neighbours are equally responsible for maintaining the shared or mutual privacy screen and keeping them in good working order.

Incidentally, the “density” of the privacy screen when constructing borders also matters. Open structures, like widely spaced fences that let light in, often have less strict regulations than opaque, closed walls. So, if you’re more concerned about the boundary than privacy, it’s better to plan a widely spaced fence instead of an opaque hedge.

Getting the neighbour’s OK for a privacy screen inside the property

As a general rule, your neighbours have to give the green light whenever public or civil law provisions are violated or exceeded. When your privacy screen is higher than building regulations allow, for example, or falls short of the minimum distance to the neighbouring property.

But regardless of whether consent is needed, it’s always a good idea to run your plans past your neighbours beforehand to nip any potential problems in the bud.

Points for privacy screens for public roads and paths

Well believe it or not – shock – regulations also govern the fine details of how to approach cases like these. And while you’re allowed to install privacy screens as boundaries with public roads and paths, certain limitations do apply, as Pestalozzi explains. “Besides the classic criteria (height, boundary distance and local appearance), traffic safety is also a key element in almost all such cases, which is why the regulations for privacy screens along public roads tend to be stricter.” So, if you want to install privacy screens for public paths, always inquire with the responsible authority beforehand.

Feeling all regulated out?

Worry not – here’s our privacy screen roadmap to help you navigate the word salad of rules you just read. Just follow these steps:

  1. Consider: What are my needs? What kind of privacy screen do I want – plant-based or structural? Should it be a boundary fence right on the border? Or would it be better placed within the property? Should the privacy screen be built towards a public road? How high should it be?

  2. Clarify: Check with your local building authority precisely which regulations apply to your privacy screen of choice. Get answers to the following: Do I need a building permit for my project? What is the maximum height my privacy screen can be? What is the legal minimum boundary distance? Do I need my neighbours’ consent?

  3. Communicate: Have a word with your neighbours and give them details of any potential building applications. Depending on the circumstances, you may need their written consent.

  4. Finalise: Plan with a company if need be. Key things here include having a clear contractual agreement and carefully choosing the materials you use to ensure compliance with the applicable regulations.

  5. Apply: Submit your application for a building permit.

  6. Wait: for your building permit. If your neighbours are building, now is the time to file a possible objection against their building permit. 

    Here’s a template for that.

  7. Get started.