Ask for a Consult Before your Design Before Your Fees Wash Away

By Austin Regan

We have written before regarding the legislative and administrative changes that have come to be in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. The slew of local laws with their corresponding zoning and Building Code changes are fully in effect and are being enforced by the Department of Buildings.

Every filing that occurs on a building located in a flood zone is affected. Regardless of the magnitude of the proposed work, and regardless of which floor that work is proposed on, the applicant is now required to identify that the work is in a flood zone, include both the official FEMA Firm map (2007 version) and the Advisory Firm map (2013 version) and determine if the project’s cost along with the combined costs of other’s work in the building classifies the building as being “substantially improved.” (as defined by Appendix G)

Prepare for a figurative hurricane if your 25th floor apartment renovation tilts the building into the “substantially improved” category. Your office can pick the short straw to see who gets to face the Coop board and tell them that their pre-war building must be upgraded to meet today’s flood standards.

There is much confusion on both sides of the plan examination table as to how to apply these new presentation requirements to the relatively minor applications that obviously have no impact on the flood worthiness of a building. Unfortunately, the confusion extends to new buildings and major additions where both sides of the table agree that flood zone regulations apply but neither side is sure if the proposed design appropriately addresses the flood zone requirements.

There is one group of folks who seem a lot less confused than most on how to apply the flood zone regulations – the Sandy Consultation team. Headed by a team of DOB technical staff, they will meet with the architect and his team and review a proposed building design to analyze its compliance with flood regulations. While they have much knowledge at their fingertips, even the Sandy team gets stumped on some issues. In those cases they will perform the proper research and return with answer.

I have been involved in some recent new buildings where they were either close to approval or already approved and we were referred to the Sandy Consultation team by plan examiners or inspectors. Of course, having in essence another plan review late in the process can destroy long-established construction schedules and cause anxiety. In every case, however, this extra review was well worth it.  Design mistakes were avoided that could have been extremely costly or impossible to address once the building was under construction.

The project architect does not have to wait to be referred to the Sandy Consultation team. Rather, they can request the consultation. That said, the design has to be far enough along and documents must contain a complete Flood regulation analysis in order to make the consultation worthwhile.

Many parts of the DOB have taken the position that it is not the Department’s job to teach architects and engineers the Code and zoning, but the stakes are so high here that it appears that they have decided to expend the resources to become at least a small part of the design team. The industry should take advantage of the Department’s outreach and make a Sandy Consultation part of the design development schedule.

As the stakes are so high, I suspect that all new developments will be scrutinized by the Sandy Consultation experts. Smart developers and architects will want to have this consult on their terms and schedule. Metropolis is happy to coordinate such a meeting.