Building Codes, Building Permits,
and Certificates of Occupancy
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Before starting construction, you must first secure a building permit at the Department of Buildings. Before issuing the building permit, the Department of Buildings verifies that the plans conform to applicable codes and regulations, and that the plans meeting zoning and other codes. A building inspector from the Department of Buildings may periodically check the site as construction progresses. When the construction is completed, the building inspector performs a final inspection. If the construction passes the final inspection, a Certificate of Occupancy is issued.
If you are constructing a new building or altering an existing building, you are required to obtain a building permit. An application for a building permit is filed with the Department of Buildings. This application may require plans be filed, site studies be conducted, etc.
After receiving and reviewing the application, the Department of Buildings issues a permit, recommends changes that will allow a building permit to be issued, or denies the application. No work may begin until the Department of Buildings issues the building permit.
You generally do not have to obtain a building permit to make normal repairs, although there are exceptions to this rule. Additions, finishing an attic or basement, or changing interior walls are examples of alterations that require a building permit. A wood-burning stove or an indoor hot tub typically require a building permit. Exterior additions such as a deck, pool, fence, shed, or garage often require a building permit. The following type of work typically requires a building permit:
- New construction.
- Alteration of an existing building.
- An addition to an existing building.
- Change in use of a building.
- Cutting of part or all of a wall or partition.
- Removal or cutting of any structural beam or bearing support.
- Removal or change of any required means of egress.
- Work affecting structural or fire safety.
- Work that increases the nonconformity of an existing building.
- Work that affects public health or safety.
You should contact the Department of Buildings to see if a building permit is required for your planned work. Note that building permits are generally not required for buildings constructed on lands designated as Indian Reservations.
Department of Buildings
The Department of Buildings performs many functions, some of which include:
- Building permit application and plan review.
- Issuing building permits.
- Providing information to contractors, Professional Engineers, Registered Architects, and the public on codes and regulations.
- Providing advice to other municipal agencies regarding codes and regulations.
- Dispatching the municipal building inspector to inspect construction.
- Reviewing changes proposed during construction.
- Performing the final inspection when construction is completed.
- Issuing a Certificate of Occupancy when all requirements have been met.
- Maintaining records on buildings within a municipality.
- Enforcing regulations and issuing violations when appropriate.
The building code sets the minimum construction standards. Exceeding the minimum code requirements is often necessary to achieve the safety goals inherent in the building code.
The State of New York and the City of New York have their own building codes, although there are many similarities. Many local communities have amended the state codes. Note that these codes apply to new buildings and alterations to existing buildings, and may apply to existing construction. Contact the local Department of Buildings for information on the exact codes that apply in your community.
Building codes set forth the minimum standards. Professional Engineers, Registered Architects, and Department of Buildings officials interpret the code. In many cases, it is necessary to exceed these minimum code standards to achieve the stated purpose of safeguarding safety and health.
Building Codes and Fires
Building code changes often come from major tragedies. Significant building code changes were made after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 in New York City and the Cocoanut Grove Club fire on November 28, 1942 in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire resulted in the deaths of 123 women and 23 men, mostly young immigrant garment workers. The victims died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or from falling or jumping to their deaths while trying to escape the fire. The victims were unable to escape the fire because the building owners had blocked off many of the exits to prevent workers from leaving. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged 16 to 23.
The Cocoanut Grove Club fire killed 492 people when a synthetic palm tree used as a decoration was accidentally ignited. The Cocoanut Grove Club had a legal capacity of only 460, and it is estimated that there were over 1,000 people in the club when the fire was ignited. The side fire exits had been sealed shut by the club owners to prevent people from leaving without paying.
Unfortunately, it is often tragic incidents like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Cocoanut Grove Club fire that result in significant building code changes. More commonly, events such as a small fire push the evolution of building codes. Sadly, many building code changes come after one or more people are injured or killed.
Large scale tragic events, such as September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City's World Trade Center (along with other civilian United States targets), show deficiencies in building codes. Unfortunately, there is no way to fully test how building code provisions will work until tragic events occur. Deficiencies found during tragic loss of life events are addressed in newer building codes.
While no building codes provisions could have prevented the devastation from the attack on the World Trade Center, lessons learned helped make other buildings safer.
How Building Codes are
Applied to Existing Buildings
It is important to accurately determine which building codes (and other regulations and standards) are applicable to a specific building. When a building is constructed, it is under whatever codes are in force in the municipality at the time of construction. Codes, regulations, and standards change over time, and modifications are made to existing buildings. It is important to examine the history of the building to determine which codes are applicable.
New building codes are issued from time to time. However, building codes evolve. By the time the new building codes are issued, the changes have been in effect for a while.
The term "grandfathered" is sometime applied to existing construction. Saying a building is "grandfathered" is often inaccurate. The term "grandfathered" only applies to original and unaltered construction. Once a change is made to the building, newer codes may become applicable.
Even if the building is unaltered, it may not have complied with the codes at the time it was constructed. Many older codes are not as clear as their more modern counterparts. Failing to maintain a building in a safe condition is never "grandfathered".
Municipal Building Inspector
The municipal building inspector performs many functions:
- Examines building permit applications;
- As a member of the Department of Buildings, advises Professional Engineers, Registered Architects, other municipal agencies, and the general public on applicable building codes and other regulations;
- Conducts inspections during a construction project;
- Monitors construction site safety;
- Helps keep the public safe by making sure that protective equipment such as safety fencing and sidewalk sheds are provided as needed;
- Works with the contractor and/or building owner to resolve issues;
- Issues building violations, if necessary;
Certificate of Occupancy
When all building code and other requirements have been met, a Certificate of Occupancy is issued. The Certificate of Occupancy generally means that the building complies with codes applicable at the time of construction.
Prior to issuing the Certificate of Occupancy, a municipal building inspector has probably checked the construction project several times during the project. Even so, the Certificate of Occupancy is not a guarantee that the building is perfect. The inspection is limited to areas that could be examined during the building inspector's visit. The Certificate of Occupancy gives you some assurance that the building complied with applicable codes and regulations at the time of construction.
Many banks and lending institutions require an up-to-date Certificate of Occupancy before they will issue a mortgage. In some cases, a Certificate of Occupancy cannot be issued because no building permit was obtained prior to construction. In these cases, the Department of Buildings may issue a Certificate of Alteration, Certificate of Compliance, or Certificate of Completion. A similar document may be issued for outside items like decks and pools, or inside items like a wood burning stove. Consult your local Department of Buildings for more information if you are looking at a building that has been altered.
Contrary to popular belief, the building codes are not an instruction manual of how to construct a building. Little is said in the building code on issues such as what size or type of nails should be used, required wood sizes, etc. Much is said in the building code about issues such as required fire rating, required exits, exit lighting, etc.
Many building code provisions were added in response to injuries or deaths that occurred during a fire or other catastrophic event such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the Cocoanut Grove Club fire. Other building code provisions deal with life safety issues, hazardous conditions, required ventilation, lighting, etc.
If one were to use the building code as a manual of how to construct, the resulting building would have many problems. The building code has essential information for anyone constructing or altering a building. The building code should be viewed as a reference document and not a how-to book.
Even in a well-constructed building, fires occur. All homes, buildings, condos, and co-ops should have smoke detectors and carbon-monoxide detectors.
Building Codes and
Personal Injury Accidents
Heimer Engineering's Professional Engineers provide consultations on how Building Code violations (as well as violations of other municipal standards) contributed to:
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During the inspection, the Heimer Engineering℠ examines, analyzes, and/or reports on (as appropriate based on the building):
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