Enforcement at the N. Y. City Department of Buildings
Gerard Hillenbrand, P.E
A smashing success best characterizes our October 25thdinner meeting at Mullen’s restaurant in Manhattan. This meeting produced the largest turnout at one of our monthly gatherings in recent memory. Approximately 70 attendees gathered to hear a presentation covering “Enforcement at the N. Y. City Department of Buildings”, a topic that directly impacts the professional activities of many of our members. The evening’s speakers were Robert Limandri, First Deputy Commissioner of the Department, and Lesie Torres, Esq., Assistant Commissioner of the Enforcement Division. The speakers were introduced, and all attendees welcomed, by newly elected chapter president Marc A. Chiffert, P.E.
Over the years many engineers, in their private conversations, have expressed frequent frustrations with their dealings with the buildings department. The speakers assured the attendees that the department is aware of these concerns and has embarked on a major reorganization and expansion to remedy these concerns. For example, the department staff has been expanded to more than 1000 personnel. Deputy commissioners have been hired in Queens and Brooklyn with the highest numbers of applications. Professional engineers and managers have been added to the department’s staff and electronic filing procedures have been initiated to improve the response time when processing applications.
The N.Y. City Department of Buildings is a borough-based operation handling zoning issues, issuing construction permits and certificates of occupancy. The borough offices respond to complaints, provide emergency response when required, issue appropriate licenses, and provide forensic, structural and environmental guidelines under certain circumstances. To provide an understanding of the scope of the department’s activities, the following approximate figures were recorded in the past year:
- 413,000 Inspections were performed.
- 116,000 Work permits issued.
- 116,000 Complaints were processed.
- 73,000 Permits were handled.
- 10,000 Certificates of Occupancy issued.
- 83,000 Inquiries received at the call center.
- 13,000 Tradesman Licenses Granted.
- 48,000 Environmental Control Violations issued.
As indication of the department’s increased efficiency, all these activities represented an increase of 10% in inspections performed, 95% of complaints were responded to, 22% increase in trade licenses granted, the response time to inquires was reduced by 85%, and the time required for first plan review reduced by 57%.
Of course, these statistics validate the building department’s increase in operational efficiency. In addition, the activities and procedures used by expeditors have been enhanced. There has been, and should be in the future, a substantial increase in the use of the Department’s web site. Compliance with departments 2003 building code, including recent updates, has improved. Enforcement procedures for zoning violations and certificates of occupancy have been reorganized under rule 21, which is in effect but subject to revision based on input and comments form architects, engineers and builders. Similarly, newly published rule 52, concerned with correct guidelines for earthwork and excavations, including trenches, has safety as its primary motivation. If situations of non-compliance with the details of rule 52 are discovered, these problems must be brought to the building department’s attention within 24 hours so that remedial action can be initiated. As a matter of department policy, changes in the guidelines defined under rule 52 are subject to revision after appropriate input and comment from concerned practitioners.
The speakers emphasized that the construction permit holder is primarily responsible for the work of the builders and sub-contractors. The essential interaction and communications between owner, builder, contractor, architect and engineer can avoid many onsite problems. When violations are discovered, a work stoppage order, lasting a minimum of three days, will be issued. Any remedial work must be initiated as soon as possible and total adherence to safe construction practices is essential before a stop order is lifted. An official safety report documenting proper usage of these practices may be required. Contact the buildings department when an inspection is required to lift the stop order.
At this stage of the meeting the attendees voiced many critiques and suggestions concerning the building department’s procedures and rule making processes. The speakers responded with a broad invitation to all interested parties to attend the department’s monthly meetings at which requests for rules changes are proposed, discussed and analyzed for approval. Some of these proposed changes may require public hearings before implementation. As an example of the building department’s efforts to respond to practitioner’s problems, the speakers described the Brooklyn Manhattan Beach pilot enforcement project in which multi-disciplinary teams of professionals respond to concerns. Out of approximately 60 issues in Manhattan Beach, 60% of these involved cases of non-compliance with existing rules and regulations and one-third (20 cases) consisted of zoning violations. All of these issues either have been resolved or are in the remediation process.
The buildings department has embarked on a program of developing a series of future initiatives and strategic plans. Among these are the formulation and adoption of a model building code (initiated in January 2004) and dramatic increases in the use of modern technology when processing applications. The final version of the model code is scheduled for completion in November after which it will be submitted to the commissioner for adoption. After publication, there will be a one-year period for industry response and review. The buildings department has consulted with more than 400 professionals in developing these initiatives. The BIS-SCAN electronic document management system has been developed to increase efficiency and reduce paperwork, which consists of more than one million individual pieces of paper per year. This system is based on a defense department record system and has been successful in processing electrical design plans. Once the plans are approved, permits are electronically transmitted to licensed electricians. Currently the department processes documents on an eight-week cycle and the objective is to reduce this response time to one-half hour using electronic means.
This meeting was concluded with the usual informative question and answer period which, concentrated on implementation of rule 52 procedures and questions of compliance of the department’s model code, which is updated every three years. Another result of the question and answer period was the consensus that the building department needs to be more responsive to the concerns of the small-time practitioners in the construction industry.
This technical dinner meeting was sponsored by the Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineering Firm and the Metropolitan Section of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Attendees were eligible to receive credit for one professional development hour toward continuing education requirements in the state of New York.