Good Expediter = Smooth Sailing @ DOB

We got a VERY good call today… After a lot of frustration earlier, our PAA was approved! There’s still some paperwork that has to be processed before it’s all finalized in the system, but it’s been a world of difference dealing with our new expediter / code reviewer – Levi Reznicek of William Vitacco Associates (lreznicek @ vitacco . com). He knows his stuff, and he and his company are trusted by the plan examiners. That makes all the difference. They know how to book appointments closer together, the plan examiners don’t mind if they stop by for quick things without an appointment, etc. It’s a completely different experience working with them. DOB used to scare me – it seemed so arbitrary. But now I feel like we have someone on board who can truly expedite things.

At the end of the day the solution to our construction classification problem was to revert back to the previous building classification, which was a 1938 classification. That means we’re now being reviewed under 1938 code. 1938 code requires 5 story buildings to have a 3 hour separation between the basement and upper floors (e.g. a thick concrete floor). But we got around that by being fully sprinklered (sprinklers didn’t exist in 1938).

The one thing we’ll have to change is that the rear deck has to be fully non-combustible. There was some question as to whether Trex (the plastic wood) was non-combustible. Some of it has a Class A fire rating, but it’s not quite “non-combustible”. So we’ll have to go with an all-steel deck.

I should mention that our architect has worked with a lot of big expediting firms. The reason why he had us go with William Vitacco is because to him they seemed like the most responsive and proactive of the big firms. And that impression was confirmed as we worked with Levi to prep for today’s meeting.

We’re using Levi / William Vitacco for our C of O process – so hopefully that will be smooth sailing as well…

Problems With DOB Continue

The insane bureaucracy at the Department of Buildings is causing us huge problems, AGAIN. Near the end of every job there are a host of little things that have to be corrected on the filed plans so when the final inspection happens, what the inspector sees matches what’s on the plans. The most critical issue in our case is that the sizing of the gas pipes wasn’t specified in the original plans, and the plumbing inspector won’t sign off on the work until they’re shown. Without his sign off we can’t get our “blue card” and without the blue card we can’t get gas service and without gas service we have no heat. Without heat we can’t really put water throughout the building for fear of frozen pipes. But pipe sizing is just one of many issues that need to be corrected on the plans – there’s a bunch of other stuff – none of which is major.

When we filed for a Post Approval Amendment (PAA) we were told our original plan examiner had been promoted – he’s now part of some centralized watch dog oversight group. The problem is the new plan examiner has to sign off on everything – not just the things that are changing. He found a pretty fundamental flaw with the original filing – the “construction classification”…

Construction Classification:

The problem is 1D with 1 hour fire protection isn’t what we’re doing – that would require all floors/ceilings and significant walls to have a 1 hour fire rating – the job should never have been filed that way. The plans clearly show that only certain parts of the building will have 1 hour fire rating – between the units, around the boiler room and the stairwell in our unit. The architect and expediter got it wrong, I didn’t notice it, and the original plan examiner missed it. But it makes a difference. Apparently construction classification is something FDNY relies on when they go to fight a fire. They don’t send fire fighters in after a certain amount of time unless they know the building will be safe.

The problem compounds itself since certain things that are allowed in fire rated construction aren’t allowed in non-fireproof buildings. For example closets and storage spaces under egress stairs aren’t allowed since a fire could start in the closet. So now we have to go back and pick the best/correct classification, and then see if there’s anything we’ve built that doesn’t comply with that classification. It’s fortunate at this point that we’re “fully sprinklered”, but my worry is that additional sprinkler heads might be required since “fully sprinklered” means different things depending on the situation. For example our power room on the parlor floor is under the stairs. Will it now need to be sprinklered?

The plan examiner made it clear that he wasn’t going to stop with the construction classification. Our appointment wasn’t as long as it needed to be and he had just started in on other items by the time it was over. He pointed to the stairs off the rear deck that go down into the garden and asked aloud if that they were a “permitted obstruction”. Because our rear yard is a couple feet below the level of the basement/ground floor the staircase from the rear deck goes (a couple feet) “more than one story” and that changes things. UGH… For god’s sake – it’s essentially one story – is it really that big of an issue? I’m thinking we may need to create a berm in the back yard that’s level with the basement/ground floor and have the stairs touch down at that point in the yard. IMHO, that’s just bureaucratic insanity, but we gotta do whatever it takes to get things done and signed off…

Unfortunately, you can’t get individual sheets approved. In our case we need the gas riser diagram approved, but all the other things are holding it up. On a larger project you’d file the plumbing as a separate job so you could do narrower PAAs, but that generally isn’t cost effective in project our size. If we could just get that one sheet signed off, things wouldn’t be so dire right now.

The bottom line when we left the plan exam was that, unless we do something drastic, it will probably take months of appointments to get the PAA approved. The new plan examiner is just going to keep finding one thing after another and draw out the process as long as possible – all things that have been signed off on in the past. We don’t have months to complete the project. We need gas, we need heat, and we need to move in so we can stop paying rent and storage fees on top of mortgage.

Our architect has worked on some really large, big budget projects and as a result knows expediters with decades of experience who have a much easier time getting things through DOB. We’re hiring one of those people to do code review and take over expediting. It’s going to cost us pretty big money, but delays and problems could potentially cost us even more. When we have our next plan exam, I’m hoping the plan examiner will know and trust our new expediter and when the plan examiner does bring up issues I hope our new expediter will show he knows the code as well or better than the plan examiner. And if competence and experience aren’t enough, after decades of working with DOB, I’m guessing the new plan examiner will be friends with enough senior people at DOB that the plan examiner will know that just being arbitrarily difficult could backfire on him.

I was thinking ConEd was worse than the DOB. Now I’m back to thinking DOB is worse. I’ll just be happy when things are signed off and we can move in.

DOB Booked Appointment w/ Retired Plan Examiner

DOB never ceases to amaze me… Yesterday we found out that the appointment we had today for a sprinkler PAA had been canceled because the plan examiner retired a month ago.

In the grand scheme of things – I’m glad he retired – his level of incompetence was dumbfounding (our engineer said he’s never seen him review a set of sprinkler plans correctly). But it’s also a bit dumbfounding that DOB would book an appointment to meet with someone who no longer works for them and not catch the error until the day before the appointment. I mean how many people had to show up to meet with the guy before they figured it might be a good idea to stop the appointments and contact the people who had appointments scheduled?

Thanks DOB – more completely unnecessary delays…

The NYC DOB Is Completely Broken

Given all the grief the Department of Buildings has given us, I was a bit bowled over recently when a building in our neighborhood got a new C of O after a renovation that included ripping out the sprinkler system and not replacing it.

I’m sorry, but multiple people at DOB reviewed this project – a plan examiner, a C of O inspector and the DOB’s FDNY rep just to name a few. How did this happen? The information was right there staring the DOB folks in the face. A quick look at the “Actions” section for the building on the DOB’s own web site shows that there was an existing sprinkler system in the building…

Building actions section showing sprinklers existedThat shows that a sprinkler system existed in 1941 and 1945. But when the homeowner submitted the paperwork to the DOB they flat out lied and said they were not permanently removing sprinklers…

No permanent sprinkler removalNow, I don’t blame the homeowners. Having been through the process your architect hands you a pile of papers and tells you to sign at the X. If you find the paperwork overwhelming you might not look at what you’re signing. Ultimately I blame the architect – they signed the paperwork as well (and even stamped it). I think architects who lie about life/safety issues should have their licenses revoked.

Still, it’s the job of the DOB to find problems like that. If they’re not there to find life/safety issues like ripping out sprinkler systems, why do they exist? If multiple people can’t find a really obvious problem like that, then they’re just completely broken.

Sprinklers Approved! (FINALLY)

The big item holding everything up lately has been approval for our sprinklers. The plans were submitted June 28th and the DOB was supposed to get them reviewed within 2 weeks. SEVEN weeks later they were approved. Just to put things in perspective – 5 weeks of mortgage payments is about $7,500. So a dud of a plan examiner just cost us $7,500. (Thank you DOB).

In the end there was nothing of any real substance wrong with the plans we submitted back on July 28. The plan examiner was just incompetent (IMHO – $7,500 later I feel I’ve paid enough to put it that bluntly). He didn’t seem to have the faintest idea of what he was actually looking at and he couldn’t even count – he insisted we had 68 heads when we had 38 heads and then gave us an objection for having too many heads on a 3″ water main connection when our sprinkler calculations are based on pressure – the number of heads and the size of the connection are irrelevant if the pressure is sufficient to support the load.

The ONLY thing that changed between the original filing and what was approved was the sprinkler schedule. Here’s what what originally submitted…

Sprinkler schedule submitted to DOB

And here is what what was approved…

Approved sprinkler schedule

Yes, there’s a bit more detail on the approved plans but the original one had the MEA number which is the unique identifier for the sprinkler head. That’s all that’s really important since the specs are based on the particular sprinkler head. If you have the unique identifier for the head there’s no real question about the specs. But I didn’t get the sense that the plan examiner understood the concept of a “unique identifier”. He was saying the inspectors in the field wanted to see things like flow rates. I can’t imagine that’s true – they’d just want to match the part number up to what was spec’d. It’s not like an inspector is going to sit there and do flow rate calculations in the field.

This is the problem with the DOB… Plan examiners need to specialize. Plan examiners for sprinkler systems should have degrees in mechanical or civil engineering. It does no one any good to have a plan examiner review something they don’t understand. If I didn’t trust our mechanical engineer I’d be wondering whether our sprinkler system will work properly when there’s a fire – it’s not like the plan examiner checked the substance of the plans and verified that it will work.

Oh, and on top of everything the plan examiner pads his time sheet. We had 20 minute appointments both times and at the end of everything he was there entering 1 hour into his time sheet. This time he didn’t even bother to discuss anything with Dan and our expediter. He just glanced at the formatting of the sprinkler schedule and then handed our expediter his stamp. Then he signed the sheets once they were stamped. For that he said he worked an hour. “Working” like that, he can get an 8 hour day done before lunchtime.

Now that the sprinklers are approved we can move ahead. The first thing that will get done is a new water main connection (we’ll be digging up the street). At that point we’ll have water, which will be a huge help. Once that’s done ConEd will put in gas and electric. The lack of electricity has been a big problem for our contractor – he’s been doing everything with generators – which gets expensive. Then there will be plumbing inspections and once those are done we can put in insulation. Once the windows are here (in 4-6 weeks) we can start on sheetrocking.