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May 11, 2017 Better Late than Never - Not True for Plan Reviews

By Austin Regan

To better protect the public and ensure good construction practices, the DOB has created several specialized inspection units. Areas of specialty include foundation/excavation and concrete placement—critical structural elements.

In the past, inspection units were staffed with former construction workers, who would review approved plans on site to ensure the contractor was adhering to approved plans. Today, inspectors will question the validity of details and methods shown on approved plans. They will refer the plans to professional engineers in their units and place Stop Work Orders on construction during these plan reviews.

Unfortunately, these plan reviews typically result in objections. Work cannot resume until the objections are resolved. The delay in resuming construction activities causes a tremendous economic cost to the owner, contractors, and workers on the job.

When Is a Plan Review not a Plan Review?

The department has allowed professionals to self-certify their work for the past few decades, avoiding the delay of a plan exam, but with a caveat: the DOB can audit the job and issue objections at any time. While professionals and owners who choose to self-certify accept that risk, the scenario described above can occur on jobs that passed a full DOB plan review. Ironically, audits on professionally certified jobs rarely lead to Stop Work Orders.

The design community does not always understand what a "full" plan review means. More than 95% of the review is limited to zoning and building code review of egress and occupancy issues. Structural and MEP drawings receive, at most, a passing glance. Most plan reviewers do not have the technical expertise to assess engineering drawings. Often, they simply confirm submission of these drawings.

Costly Consequences

No one disputes DOB’s right to question a proposed design at any time. However, the current situation—where the first real structural review may occur well after a project is underway—is not an ideal way to ensure that buildings are constructed correctly. Before the DOB engineer even opens the plans, the construction team starts losing money. The pressure to get back to work is tremendous. Consultants like Metropolis press the DOB daily to finish their review.

Once comments are issued, project engineers must respond quickly. If the two sides disagree on methods or concepts, the project engineer does not have time to develop rebuttals or to seek second opinions from DOB superiors. Often, they are forced to "give the examiner what he wants" so everyone can get back to work.

The repercussions are long lasting. Owners, contractors, and design professionals will spend tremendous amounts of time defending their designs and methods, each claiming the costly delay was not their fault. Relationships will sour.

One Suggestion

In fairness to the DOB, many of these plan reviews begin after an incident occurs on the construction site. While it is better late than never to stop faulty design and construction that is in progress, wouldn’t it be better to prevent that construction from ever starting? Many of these occurrences might be avoided if DOB would thoroughly review engineering drawings during the plan review phase—before approving a job. As with energy code compliance, a separate examiner could do a parallel review that, in theory, would not lengthen the approval process.

Everyone wants buildings to be safe and well constructed. It is not unreasonable for those funding construction to desire timely completion—and confidence that DOB approval actually means that, if one builds as per approved plans, the finished product will meet the agency’s criteria.

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