Streamlining the process of obtaining a certificate of occupancy from the N.Y.C. DOB

By William Gati

The Building Department’s main role is to regulate and standardize construction throughout the city.  To that end, they have created the Certificate of Occupancy, which is a document that “certifies that the premises described herein conforms substantially to the approved plans and specifications and to the requirements of all applicable laws, rules, and regulations for the uses and occupancies specified. No change in use and occupancy shall be made unless a new Certificate of Occupancy is issued.” My experiences of practicing architecture for more than 25 years has taught me to review the Certificate of Occupancy or lack thereof, prior to giving any potential client any advice or proposal. My experience has also taught me to start thinking about the C/O (which it is nicknamed) from day one of any project. I have also learned that obtaining this document is not easy and there are many ways to streamline the process. Every bit of data entered in the DOB (Department of Buildings) computer system has to be consistent and correct to make the C/O accurate and truthful. The expeditor and architect lead this process and must be certain to prepare accurate and truthful filings because the Building Department rely on the experience and competence of the professional applicants to be sure that the plans and specifications meet all applicable rules and regulations. There are thousands of stringent rules and regulations to be followed and complied to. An architect or engineer (known as design professionals) must have a thorough grasp and understanding of these in order to avoid serious pitfalls. Members of professional organizations often spend hours discussing new codes at their meetings. We also serve on advisory boards to the city to streamline the whole process. The creation of the Internet has made this so much easier by allowing us to cross-reference rules and regulations by finding them with search engines. This makes it much easier to comply with the Building Department requirements once you know what they are. The main problem is that these requirements change daily and sometimes, departmental memos and opinion letters influence the interpretation of the rules and regulations. There is also a process of getting “Reconsiderations” and “Variances” which modify and amend these rules and regulations on a project specific basis. The Building Department has done a great deal of work to streamline the process of obtaining a C/O. They created HUB filing which can be done digitally. There is no need to even meet a plan examiner face to face with this method. They allow “Self-Certification” which gives professionals an option to certify their applications. Regardless of which filing method is used, the C/O still has to be reviewed by the DOB for all Alt 1 and NB applications. Transparency is achieved by way of accountability through the DOB website and ease of public access.  One can easily see all the required items for the C/O right on-line. As the items are completed, they get dated and marked received.  Design professionals state that to the best of their knowledge and belief, all work shown on plans and application conform to the N.Y.C. Administrative Code and other rules. This puts the responsibility for the plans and specifications on the applicant. Since once the plans are approved, the owner and contractor are responsible to build according to the approved plans, obtain the necessary permits, obtain the required inspections, obtain the final documents and ultimately obtain the C/O.  The applicant has a limited role in this process but may need to do controlled inspections and amend the plans and application if there were any changes in the construction. The city is issuing the C/O based on the architects testimonials, plans and submissions that the building is safe for occupancy for the certified use. A C/O is the key document used to certify the legal use and occupancy of a building. Gino Long, AIA, architect, chair of building department issues for the AIA Queens, believes that the applicant must be certain that the project conforms to all applicable laws and regulations at the time of filing. He does not recommend filing an application with the DOB to see what they say. He believes that the applicant is fully responsible for their application and approval. He mentioned that a new building should not be occupied without a valid C/O. There is a pilot program that allows issuance of a C/O even though there are outstanding non-hazardous violations. Obtaining a valid C/O is a result of a properly and accurately submitted application. William Gati, AIA, is the president of Architecture Studio, Kew Gardens, N.Y.

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