From Design, Filing, Construction, to Inspection: All you need to know
Engineering involves many technical fields, but they all have a common goal: delivering projects and products that offer high performance and safety for the end user. New York City has codes for all fields of engineering involved in construction projects, and they apply for new constructions and modifications to existing buildings. The engineering process may seem complex and tedious at first, but it ensures that performance and safety are built into the project; in addition, there are legally binding requirements that make some steps of the process mandatory.
In general, the engineering process can be broken down into four sequential steps: design, filing, construction and inspection. In particular, the design phase is characterized by involving decisions that can greatly simplify all subsequent steps.
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1) The Design Phase
Although the project is still a concept during the design phase, there are several key decisions at this point, which have effects throughout the entire life cycle of a building and its systems. This is the ideal stage for the project owner to request changes, since they only represent modifications to project plants and specifications; on the other hand, changes during the construction phase may involve modifying an existing structure or system, which is normally expensive.
Ideally, the design process should involve all stakeholders that will be involved throughout project construction and operation, so that all needs and specifications can be made clear from the start, avoiding changes during subsequent steps, when they are more expensive and disruptive.
The following are some recommendations to achieve the best results during the design phase of a project:
- Make sure you are working with a qualified engineering firm. You must submit the project plans to the NYC Department of Buildings, and they are immediately rejected if the required drawing format is not followed.
- Consider that mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) installations tend to be the most complex building systems. If you hire a separate firm to design each system, coordination will be difficult and you will face issues such as conflicting equipment locations. On the other hand, if you hire a firm that offers integral MEP design, you can delegate system integration.
- Work closely with the engineering design firm to take the best decisions regarding building systems. For example, there is a broad range of HVAC options available, each with advantages and disadvantages. A design firm will meet your needs more effectively if you state them clearly.
Another advantage of working with qualified professionals is that you get both design and consulting services: they can provide recommendations to improve your project before it is built. For example, there are considerable energy saving opportunities in building systems such as lighting, heating and air conditioning.
At the end of the design phase, you will receive two main outputs: project plans and technical specifications. Both serve as the basis for your project to be reviewed and approved by the NYC Department of Buildings, and are then used by contractors during the construction process.
This stage consists on submitting your project to local authorities for review and approval, and here is where you will start to see the benefits of working with a professional firm – the modifications required will be minimal, or perhaps even zero, if you worked with qualified professionals during project design. In the case of New York City, there are four types of permit applications:
- NB: New structures
- ALT1: Major alterations that change use, egress or occupancy
- ALT2: Multiple alterations that don’t affect use, egress or occupancy
- ALT3: Minor work that doesn’t affect use, egress or occupancy
In the specific case of new constructions, the NYC Department of Buildings requests the following documentation:
- ZD1: Zoning Diagram
- PW1: Plan/Work Application
- PW1A: Schedule A – Occupancy/Use
- PW1B: Schedule B – Plumbing, Sprinkler, Standpipe
- PW1C: Schedule C – Heating & Combustion Equipment
- TR2: Technical Report – Concrete Sampling and Testing
- TR3: Technical Report – Concrete Design Mix
It is important to note that the PW1 application must be filed individually for each set of plans: general construction, sprinkler protection, fire alarm, standpipe system, boiler, plumbing, pavement, foundation and earthwork, electrical and elevator/lift.
Of course, the plans themselves must also be submitted for approval, and the process can only be initiated by a Professional Engineer (PE) or Registered Architect (RA). Basically, the Department of Building reviews three aspects:
- Code compliance
- Safety standards
- Zoning requirements
After the plans are approved, the contractor or an appointed representative may apply for a construction work permit, and the project can proceed to the next stage.
The NYC Dept. of Buildings also offers the Professional Certification Program, which allows professional engineers or registered architects to approve the plans by themselves, where all project stakeholders sign a binding document. However, this approach is only valid for simple projects.
The above procedure is carried out completely with the NYC Department of Buildings. In the case of new constructions, the PE or RA carrying out the process will also request a Sewer Availability Certification from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Once the contractor for the project has been hired, a licensed master plumber must request the Sewer Connection Permit, also from the DEP.
The project can start once the contractor has a work permit from the NYC Dept. of Buildings. If the project involves any activities that may cause disruption in public roads, a permit from the Department of Transportation is also required. The contractor must also notify the owners of all adjacent plots about the project five days in advance, and the DOB must be notified 24 to 48 hours in advance.
Construction work will then proceed according to the plans and specifications completed during the design phase. However, having a project plan is equally important at this stage, since it provides a roadmap for the sequence and interdependence of activities, as well as their timeframe. The construction phase typically involves three different parties:
- The project owner.
- The contractor, who executes the work. There may be subcontractors for specific systems such as HVAC or electrical installations, but they are hired and managed by the general contractor. Ideally, the owner should have a business relationship with a single contractor to simplify the project – managing multiple contractors is not recommended because it reduces accountability.
- The supervisor, who ensures the contractor’s work complies with the approved plans and specifications. The design firm is the best candidate to carry out this role, since they will be highly familiarized with the project design.
Project management is a science by itself, and the best results can be achieved by following the guidelines and practices in the Project Management Body of Knowledge, by the Project Management Institute. The project manager will typically be an engineering professional appointed by the general contractor.
The construction phase involves a series of progress reports, prepared by the contractor and reviewed by the supervisor, where intermediate payments are calculated based on the percentage of work completed in each report.
- Some projects involve an upfront payment, calculated as a fixed percentage of the total project sum, which is then deducted gradually from intermediate payments.
- A percentage may also be withheld from each intermediate payment, and paid to the contractor at the end of the project. The purpose of this retainage is ensuring project completion.
- Depending on contract terms, there may be penalties for late delivery and bonus payments for early delivery
Once the project is completed, is must be inspected and approved by several local authorities, including the NYC Department of Buildings. If the project is properly designed and planned, and qualified firms are hired for all main roles, the construction phase should be completed without major hurdles.
After the project is completed, it must be inspected and approved by various local authorities:
The final inspection, which is carried out by the NYC Department of Buildings, takes place after these three have been approved. Basically, the DOB evaluates compliance with the approved plans and with building codes in general. If any non-compliance is found, it must be corrected by the contractor and another inspection must be requested.
Once the project has approved the final inspection, the Department of Buildings emits the certificate of occupancy. As implied by its name, this document describes the occupancy and legal use of the building. The project owner cannot occupy the building before this document has been emitted.
The construction process in New York City can be complex, but it is necessary to ensure safety, especially when the city’s population and number of buildings are considered. It is important to note that the entire process can be simplified during the design phase, so hiring a qualified firm for this task is of vital importance:
- An engineering design by a qualified firm who is familiarized with NYC Codes is more likely to get approved without modifications.
- Project plants and specifications are the instruction manual for the contractor to execute the project. The best design firms not only consider the end use of a project, but also its construction process.
- If the construction stage proceeds without major issues, meeting plans and specifications, the changes requested during the final inspection will be minimal.
Mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) installations are generally the most complex building systems, especially in vertical constructions like those found in New York City. Consider hiring a firm specializing in integral MEP design to simplify plans and specifications, and you will receive both high performance and simplicity.