I'm on the board of a large cooperative on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We plan to undertake several repair projects over the next few years, including rebuilding the parapet and replacing the balcony doors and windows. In addition, I'm planning renovations to my own apartment, which will require removing a wall between closets. Which type of projects will require permits and what kind will be needed?
The most common permit required for repair and maintenance work is issued by the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB). According to the DOB, a permit must be filed for any work that involves "public safety and health, the structural integrity of the building, new structural loads, new anchorages," or a number of other items under the city's building code.
More specifically, the DOB lists nine categories of exterior work (e.g., masonry, doors/windows, stone/terra cotta restoration), each with specific repair items (e.g., brick repointing, sill replacement, patching spalls or cracks) and whether they require a permit. Demolishing and rebuilding a parapet, for example, requires a permit, whereas replacing balcony doors and windows does not (assuming the existing masonry openings aren't modified). The DOB provides a complete list of filing requirements for the different types of exterior repair work in its Technical Policy and Procedure Notice #1/99 at www.nyc.gov/html/dob/html/reference/tppn0199.shtml.
Repairs or alterations done inside the building also often require DOB approval. Some examples of interior work that need a permit include cutting away any portion of a wall or floor; removing, cutting, or modifying any beam or structural support; and removing or rearranging piping.
Most large interior projects, such as installing a boiler or upgrading the electrical system, fall into one or more of the above categories. But even a small job such as your plan to remove a partition between closets involves cutting a portion of a wall and would therefore also require a permit.
If your building is a designated landmark property or in a designated historic district, you will also need to get approval from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) before undertaking most repair work. Any exterior work that requires a DOB permit will also require a LPC permit as well. However, even if the DOB does not require a permit (say, for a window project), you still may need LPC approval if the work will alter the exterior appearance of your building. Basic maintenance work on LPC-designated buildings, such as replacing broken window glass, repainting (the same color as existing), or window or door caulking, does not require LPC approval.
For interior work in LPC-designated buildings, the commission's approval is required if a DOB permit is needed, if the changes will affect the exterior of the building, or if the building's interior has been designated an interior landmark. A more detailed explanation of which kinds of work items require LPC approval can be found on the Landmarks Commission's Web site at www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/html/working_with/perform_work.shtml.
Although DOB and LPC work permits are the most common ones needed for the vast majority of exterior and interior projects, other types of permits are also sometimes required. Permits for sidewalk sheds, equipment use, signage, place of assembly, and scaffolding, as well as permits issued by the Department of Transportation sometimes come into play depending on the type of project. In such cases, the engineering, architectural, or contracting firm hired for the job will be able to guide you through the intricate web of building regulations.
Our building is finally getting around to addressing a host of overdue repairs, including repainting the hallway, replacing light fixtures, replacing loose brickwork, and fixing a leaky roof. Since we have a modest repair budget, can the Board directly hire a contractor we've worked with before to save money, or should we hire an Engineer or Architect first?
As a rule of thumb, jobs of limited scope and cost, with little element of risk, and which do not require a permit can usually be undertaken safely without the services of an Engineer or Architect. Most straightforward maintenance work, such as painting, replastering, replacing light fixtures, and the like would fall in this category. In such cases, hiring an Engineer or Architect is often unnecessary, and the fee could even exceed the cost of repairs.
For more extensive, higher-risk repair and capital improvement programs, however, such as facade restoration or roof replacement, it is highly recommended that the Board hire an Engineer or Architect.
The role of an Engineer or Architect is to determine the proper repairs that a building requires and how they can be made in a cost-effective way. As such, Professional Engineers (PE) and Registered Architects (RA) act as independent representatives on behalf of the Board to make sure it gets good value for its funds.
All but the smallest repair jobs require a plan for carrying them out. The first step in that plan is an Engineer's or Architect's report that explains the recommended scope of work and provides preliminary budget projections on the anticipated cost of implementing the program. After discussing the different options for undertaking the work based on the Board's priorities and funds, the Engineer/Architect next compiles detailed drawings (blueprints) and technical specifications (instructions) that spell out exactly which work items will be performed, where on the building they will be undertaken, and which materials and construction methods are to be used. These "construction documents," as they are called, are also used to solicit competitive bids from independent contractors. They serve as a set of standards on which the bids can be fairly and accurately compared, eliminating the confusion resulting from contractors quoting prices based on different project scopes.
The drawings compiled by the Engineer/Architect for the competitive bid process are also used as the basis to apply for a Work Permit from New York City's Department of Buildings, which is necessary for most repair and upgrade projects. In addition, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission requires detail drawings and material submissions (e.g., the type of brick that will be used) before approving repair or maintenance work on landmark buildings or on properties in designated historic districts. (See "What Permits Do I Need?" above.)
Once a contractor is selected and the work begins, an Engineer/Architect often is retained to act as the Board's eyes and ears throughout the program. Regular site visits are conducted to evaluate whether the contractor is adhering to the project plan and to alert the Board of any potential problems. The Engineer/Architect will also review payment applications and change order requests to report whether the required work was completed as designed and to confirm that any proposed modifications to the project scope are legitimate.
In the case of your building, because there is range of work to be addressed and at least two of the projects are major ones, an Engineer or Architect can help you determine which of the jobs can be handled directly by a contractor and which would benefit from engineering or architectural services. That way, the Board's maintenance and repair funds can be allocated efficiently, with the larger, more involved work receiving the necessary guidance and oversight.
Stephen Varone, AIA is president and Peter Varsalona, PE is principal of RAND Engineering & Architecture, PC. This column was originally published in the November 2002 issue of Habitat Magazine.
More Ask the Engineer articles