Location: You just finished writing a proposed revision to the city’s building code—the first time the code has been comprehensively revised since 1968. Why did it take 40 years?
Ms. Lancaster: It’s an enormous effort, and there hadn’t been the political will to do it. Now, that said, this was generated by the industry—I didn’t think this up. The [American Institute of Architects] came to me, for example, and said, “You have to adopt the International Building Code. You have to do it now, because there is a special nexus after 9/11 in the industry that drew everyone together.”
So I said to them, “If we are going to do the building code, you’ve got to help.” And they have, big time. We had 13 technical committees, and we had over 400 professionals working on these committees. We figured that about 300,000 hours were donated by the industry toward getting the code done.
Each of these groups—unions, contractors, architects, engineers—has its own interests and points of view, so how did you get them all to agree?
It was a striking thing in that, to a large extent, the stakeholders duked it out in committees. There was a mandate that the new code could not be made more expensive. So they sort of knew that if they didn’t find the answer in committee, the answer was not going to be found for them.
Does that mean this was a consensus report?
Yes. The new code is a consensus document—hard-fought consensus.
Does that mean there will be no tinkering with it until it’s passed by the City Council?
No, there will be tinkering. I think some of the unions will come out of the woodwork once the thing is submitted. We are working with a few of them that I do not want to discuss on the record.
How will the new building code make building less expensive in the city?
We did hard-cost analyses of four prototype buildings, and there are things that add to the cost and things that take away from the cost—but, basically, if you take them across the board, they net to zero. We are adding to safety with things like emergency generators in high-rise buildings. To cover for that is the fact that the soft costs will be less. By that I mean the ease of use [and] competitiveness will take down price.
We are allowing materials and technology that have been approved by national-standards authorities to be used in New York City for the first time in 20 years. Last year, one of the big HVAC contractors submitted 100 products for our consideration at a cost of several thousand dollars each for testing, results and so on. Many manufacturers just don’t bother, so you cut down on competition in New York.
I’m sure this will change life for architects, builders, etc., but will the average New Yorker be able to see the difference the new building code makes?
It will matter a great deal in ways that the average New Yorker cannot see. The analogy that I like to think of is that, two years ago in Florida, some houses had been built under the International Building Code—and when hurricane season was over, those houses were still standing, and the other houses were not.
Last year, six workers were killed when they were working on scaffolds while not using or misusing required safety harnesses. I understand that you are hiring or have hired 10 new inspectors and are spending $6 million for a new scaffold-safety unit. Can you explain what that will do?
The unit will be involved in proactive inspection, and it will involve bringing court cases or writing violations for people who are not being safe on scaffolds, as well as outreach. So: training, outreach and enforcement.
How many scaffolds can a 10-member crew inspect?
You’d be surprised. I can’t say all, but a good number of them—because we don’t get notification of C-hook usage. We do now because of legislation. A C-hook scaffold is the one that is used for maintenance on buildings. It’s a C-shaped hook that fits over the parapet, and its overturning moment is resisted by resistance from the building. It’s possible that there are tens of thousands of C-hooks in use.
My reading of the statistics is that almost half of the accidents last year were due to other types of accidents, but not due to scaffolding. What are you doing to address those?
We have a stop-work-order pilot in Queens, which means once we issue a stop-work order, we go back and check to see if you are working anyway. We also are doing an after-hours variance program pilot, where if we get a complaint about after-hours construction, we go immediately—and if we catch you, we prosecute you. We are doing a low-rise safety program, whereby we inspect buildings between seven and 14 stories high once a week.
Are you satisfied with safety improvements so far?
Well, I would say if one person dies, it’s too many. We have been more proactive than in the history of the agency in my administration, but we will continue until the deaths are down to zero.
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