DOB’s General Counsel and Deputy Commissioner Discuss the Endeavor to Adopt a Revised Model Building Code

In December 2005, Mayor Bloomberg signed Local Law 99, the first significant step towards the City’s goal of replacing the current Building Code, unrevised since 1968, with a national model code. Local Law 99 selected the International Building Code as the City’s model code and directed the Department of Buildings with preparing, and presenting to the City Council, modifications to the IBC making it responsive to New York’s unique construction, density and safety issues. As part of the law, DOB prepared complete modifications to the IBC’s plumbing, administrative and enforcement codes to become effective if the remaining modifications obtain City Council approval.

CityLand interviewed Phyllis Arnold, DOB’s General Counsel, and Fatma M. Amer, its Deputy Commissioner for Technical Affairs, who share responsibility for overseeing DOB’s Model Code Program. Arnold, a graduate of Columbia University School of Law, served as DOB’s General Counsel for four years under Commissioner Gaston Silva and returned to the job in 2002 to join Commissioner Patricia Lancaster. Amer, a licensed professional engineer, started at Buildings in 1981 and worked her way from plan examiner to chief engineer for Manhattan, Queen’s Deputy Borough Commissioner, and the agency’s Executive Engineer before assuming her current role.

Application of the IBC to New York. As written, Amer said, the IBC does not contemplate the density of New York City. In the fire and safety provisions of the IBC, for example, the code anticipates a 60-foot open space surrounding the base of all tall buildings. “Where would you get that in New York,” Amer commented. Arnold added that the effort to modify all chapters to suit New York City, particularly the safety and construction requirements, is “blazing a path for all urban centers.” Amer highlighted that the IBC is a performance-based code that sets achievement standards throughout its text. This approach allows engineers to design a building to meet the needed result in contrast to the City’s current code, which sets out the exact way a building should be designed to meet a standard.

The Drafting Process. In 2003, DOB formed 13 Technical Committees, comprised of specialists in various fields, to be responsible for initial draft modifications after a section-by-section review of the IBC and the City’s existing building code. The committees, mostly volunteers, met monthly in the initial days and moved to bi-weekly and weekly meetings as deadlines for the modified text approached, giving an estimated $16 million in volunteer time. DOB requested consensus on draft text. Arnold said that, of the IBC’s 34 chapters representing thousands of provisions, only 50 or so issues remain in need of resolution. Arnold believes that since Local Law 99 requires the City to review the code every three years to align it with the IBC’s existing revision period, some committees might have reached a consensus knowing the issue would soon get a second look.

A Managing Committee, comprised of Arnold and Amer along with other City agency representatives like FDNY and DDC, a City Council representative, and groups like REBNY and AIA, reviews all the draft text, looking at it as a whole. In some cases, Arnold said, when the committee text was looked at cumulatively, certain provisions did not make sense. In hindsight, Arnold commented that DOB would avoid having private drafters work separately on code sections to address this “silo effect.” To analyze the complete code, DOB will develop case studies to look at the building types the new text would permit, and ask if they are acceptable buildings for the city.

Status. Arnold estimated legal, technical and environmental review to continue through the summer and fall. DOB would start briefing the Council and deliver final text by the end of 2006 or the start of 2007. DOB is already working on training sessions for local architects and builders since the code will take effect one year after enactment. Arnold said that DOB has not finalized the three-year revision process. The Technical Committees would remain in existence in some form.

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