Get Ready for New NYC Building Codes: COVID Edition

Get Ready for New NYC Building Codes: COVID Edition

By Austin Regan, R.A.

Hello, everyone. Like many of us, I have been quarantining. My quarantine included a hiatus from newsletter contributions because, as everyone knows, a good internet article can go viral, and we all need to tamp down on these viruses.

In all seriousness, this year has been tough for all, and the consequences of this pandemic have not hit everyone equally. My prayers go out to those who have lost loved ones or who have suffered serious illness. This experience has made many of us reassess work-life balance—hopefully, in a positive way. As things get back to “normal,” may we not forget those lessons.

A New NYC Building Code

Let’s talk codes. Just like those masks we hope to permanently toss soon, we will be tossing aside the 2014 NYC Building Code for the latest, greatest 2021 NYC Building Code. This edition was supposed to be the 2020 NYC Building Code but . . . COVID.

The code was introduced as a local law and went through City Council public hearings in June. No launch date has been announced, but this code will likely be enacted sometime in the fall. For those far into the design process, it would be prudent to move up your DOB filing date to ensure you get in under current code. For those in the early stages of design, it makes sense to review the local law on the DOB website to see how changes may affect your design.

Having served on several sub-committees, I can confirm that some significant changes were made, such as flood zone egress design and the treatment of large residential amenity spaces, as well as some welcome clarifications regarding curb cuts for parking garages. We will cover these changes in future newsletters.

Today, we are going to talk about the pre-COVID committee process that created the 2021 Building Code and the COVID committee process now wrapping up for a brand-new code that will debut sometime in 2022—the NYC Existing Building Code (NYCEBC). While we will have lots to say about the NYCEBC once it goes to the City Council, that is most likely months away.

The 2021 Code Revision Process

The committee process for the 2021 code pretty much followed the same process that produced the updated 2014 code. Subcommittees of 30 or more professionals would meet regularly at a member’s office for 2 – 3 hours and review the code and proposed DOB changes, line by line, section by section. The participants represented a diverse cross-section of the industry, with representatives from all relevant city agencies and many volunteers from the private sector.

Even with such a diverse group, the only way a code section could be accepted by the committee was if all parties agreed. Amazingly, a unanimous decision was reached on almost every item reviewed by the committees on which I served. There were many spirited debates and many modifications made to suggested text, but in the end, all committee members agreed to items that made the code better—not perfect.

This was a time-consuming process. The in-person meetings required private industry volunteers to devote large chunks of their business day to a non-revenue-producing task. Often, business conflicts prevented members from attending. After dozens of meetings, the committee’s work was done. DOB staff then spent many more months finalizing the presentation for submittal to the City Council.

The Existing Building Code (EBC)

Even before wrapping up the 2021 code, the DOB was anxious to start on the Existing Building Code (EBC). Since 2008, the NYC Building Code has been based on the International Building Code (IBC). The EBC is a companion code to the IBC but has never been adopted by New York City. The purpose of the EBC is to standardize the code compliance process for older (prior code) buildings. Currently, prior-code buildings can follow the code they were originally built under with some exceptions. Once the EBC is adopted, the 1938 and 1968 codes will go away.

The complexities of adopting the EBC dwarf the current code updates, but the adoption process is the same. Multiple code committees need to review their relevant material line by line. Each section of the proposed code needs to be agreed upon by unanimous consent.

With the pandemic making in-person meetings impossible, the EBC committees had to meet virtually via Zoom. This was no different than the way all of us were communicating with co-workers and clients except the meetings would last multiple hours, with 30 or more participants per meeting. Once everyone mastered using the mute button, the meetings went surprisingly smoothly. With committee members able to attend from their workspaces, plus the flexibility to being able to leave and return when work conflicts arose, participation was actually greater than it was pre-COVID. It is likely that, even when the pandemic is far in the rearview mirror, future code committees will continue to meet virtually.

With the EBC committee work wrapping up, the members can take a bit of a code breather. DOB staff has a lot of coordination work ahead of them to craft the EBC into a local law that can go before the City Council before the year’s end.

What’s Next

We, as code consultants, have a lot of work ahead, keeping the industry updated on what changes lie ahead and how they will affect current and future projects. We have been blessed that technology has allowed us to work through the pandemic. Some of the changes that were forced upon us will probably never go away because they turned out to be good changes.

Many of the changes that will be introduced in these new codes are also good changes. They will make buildings safer and more efficient. As always, some of the changes will have an associated cost, making it imperative that owners and consultants understand what they are so they can prepare.