Building Codes, Building Permits, and Certificates of Occupancy

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Framed house under constructionBefore starting construction on a new building or altering an existing building, you must first secure a building permit at the local Department of Buildings.  Before issuing the building permit, the local Department of Buildings verifies that the plans conform to all applicable codes and regulations, and that the plans meeting zoning and other codes.  A municipal building inspector from the local Department of Buildings may periodically check the site as construction progresses.  When the construction is completed, the Municipal Building Inspector performs a final inspection.  If the construction passes the final inspection, a Certificate of Occupancy is issued.

Building permit

Blueprint for a buildingIf 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 local Department of Buildings.  This application may require plans be filed, site studies be conducted, etc.

The local Department of Buildings then issues a permit, recommends changes to the plan that will allow a building permit to be issued, or denies the application.  No work may begin until the local Department of Buildings issues the building permit.

Framed house under constructionYou 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:

  1. New construction.
  2. Alteration of an existing building.
  3. An addition to an existing building.
  4. Change in use of a building.
  5. Cutting of part or all of a wall or partition.
  6. Removal or cutting of any structural beam or bearing support.
  7. Removal or change of any required means of egress.
  8. Work affecting structural or fire safety.
  9. Work that increases the nonconformity of an existing building.
  10. Work that affects public health or safety.

You should contact the local Department of Buildings to see if a building permit is required for your planned construction or alteration.  Note that building permits are generally not required for buildings constructed on lands designated as Indian Reservations.

Department of Buildings

House plansThe local Department of Buildings performs many functions.  Some of the functions include:

  1. Building permit application and plan review.
  2. Issuing building permits for approved plans.
  3. Providing information to contractors, Professional Engineers, Registered Architects, and the public on applicable building codes and other regulations.
  4. Providing advice to other municipal agencies regarding building codes and other applicable regulations.
  5. Dispatching the municipal building inspector to review construction at the appropriate times.
  6. Reviewing changes proposed during construction.
  7. Performing the final inspection when construction is completed.
  8. Issuing a Certificate of Occupancy when all construction requirements have been met.
  9. Maintaining records on all construction within the municipality.
  10. Enforcing regulations and issuing violations when appropriate.

Building codes

Metal studs in a house under constructionThe building code sets the minimum construction standards for a house or building.  Because of the way that building codes have evolved over the years, the minimum building code standards are usually sufficient.  Exceeding the minimum building code requirements does not necessarily give you a better building.  Often, exceeding the requirements will just increase construction costs and delay construction.

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.  For more information, visit the International Code Council web site.  You can also find information about the City of New York Building Code and the State of New York Building Code.  Note that these codes apply to new buildings, and may or may not apply to existing construction.  Remember to contact your 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 Building Code.  In many cases, it is necessary to exceed these minimum Building Code standards to achieve the stated purpose of safeguarding safety and health.

Building codes and fires

Building fireBuilding code changes often come from major tragedies.  Significant building code changes were made after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Saturday, March 25, 1911 in New York City and the Cocoanut Grove Club fire on Saturday 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.  They 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 accidentally ignited.  The side fire exits had been sealed shut by the club owners to prevent people from leaving without paying.

World Trade Center memorial lightsUnfortunately, 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 attacks on New York City's  World Trade Center (along with other 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.  These deficiencies were later addressed to try to reduce the risk of injury and death in future situations.

While no Building Code 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

Courthouse buildingIt is important to accurately determine which building codes (and other codes, regulations, and standards) are applicable to a specific building.  When a building is constructed, it is constructed under whatever codes, regulations, and standards 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 what codes, standards, and regulations are applicable.

New building codes are issued from time to time.  However, codes evolve.  By the time the new codes are issued, the changes contained in the codes 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 building codes, standards, and municipal regulations may become applicable.

Even if the building is unaltered, it may not have complied with the codes, standards, and regulations in effect at the time the building was constructed.  Many older codes, standards, and regulations are not as explicit as their more modern counterparts.  Note that failing to maintain a building or site in a safe condition is never "grandfathered".

Municipal Building Inspector

A man and a woman looking at house plansThe municipal building inspector performs many functions:

  1. Examines building permit applications for the Department of Buildings
  2. As a member of the Building Department, advises Professional Engineers, Registered Architects, other municipal agencies, and the general public on applicable building codes and other regulations.
  3. Conducts inspections during a construction project.
  4. Monitors construction site safety.
  5. Helps keep the public safe by making sure that protective equipment such as safety fencing and sidewalk sheds are provided as needed.
  6. Issues building violations, if necessary.

Certificate of Occupancy

Certificate of OccupancyWhen all the requirements of the building code and all other local municipal requirements have been met, a Certificate of Occupancy is issued.  The Certificate of Occupancy generally means that the building complies with all  codes and regulations 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 from the Department of Buildings that the building is perfect.  The inspection is limited to areas that could be examined during the municipal building inspector's inspection.  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 issued prior to construction, and the building inspector was not called in during 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.

Fire prevention

Fire ExtinguisherContrary 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 about issues such as required fire rating, required exits, exit lighting, etc.

Many of the building code sections were written 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 sections of the building codes deal with life safety issues, hazardous conditions, required ventilation, lighting, etc.  For more information on fire protection and life safety, visit the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA™) web site.

If one were to use the Building Code as a manual of how to build, the resulting building would have many problems.  While the Building Code is essential information to anyone building a home, It should be viewed as a reference document and not a how-to book.

Building codes and personal injury accidents

Woman being examined by a doctorHeimer Engineering's Professional Engineers provide consultations on how Building Code violations (as well as violations of other municipal standards) contributed to:

  1. Parking lot slip, trip, and fall accidents and injuries
  2. Playground and playground equipment accident and injury investigations
  3. Step, stairway, and handrail slip, trip, and fall accidents and injuries
  4. Walkway, path, and sidewalk slip, trip, and fall accidents and injuries

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