For more than a decade, licensed architects and engineers have enjoyed the privilege of self-certifying their building plans with a minimum of interference from the city’s Department of Buildings. But on February 13, in an effort to improve its efficacy—not to mention its image, damaged by abuses of the program—the department announced that it is developing a new set of qualifications for designers to complete in order to self-certify their work.
The self-certification program, known as Professional Certification, was created during budget cuts in the mid-1990s to allow any licensed architect or engineer to waive plan examination by the department. Instead, the designer signs off on the documents, guaranteeing their compliance with the city’s Building Code and Zoning Resolution.
The program streamlines the filing process but also gives designers more freedom to bend and even break the rules, an increasingly common problem causing embarrassment for the department. The department audits only a small percentage of the certified plans, making it easy for abusers to sneak through, such as Brooklyn’s infamous Robert Scarano, who has misfiled self-certified plans throughout the city that were in violation of the code.
Last year, when some 37,000 projects were self-certified, the city passed legislation empowering the department to punish the handful of designers who wrongfully file plans, but the next step is to prevent them from self-certifying in the first place. Phyllis Arnold, the department’s deputy commissioner for legal affairs, said the new qualifications program has yet to be defined but will seek to provide oversight. “The idea is to pre-qualify rather than rely on prosecution at the back end,” she said. “We’re hoping to weed out problem filers at the beginning to keep them from ever getting into the system.”
The program, in the earliest stages of development, grew out of last year’s overhaul of the Building Code, which mandates the creation of compulsory qualifications for designers to self-certify. The program will function somewhat like a driver’s license points system, wherein designers will apply to the department to self-certify, demonstrating their compliance with the qualifications. There will be a monitoring component, and should a designer breach the criteria, the department will take action commensurate with the violation. This could range from a warning, to the suspension of professional certification privileges, to a petition to the state to revoke the offending designer’s license.
Above all else, the department insists the new program is not a citywide license. Instead, Department of Buildings spokesperson Kate Lindquist said that the new program is akin to an additional layer of legal oversight. “What will change is, in addition to adhering to the law, you will have these qualifications to adhere to,” she said.
“It’s long overdue,” said Councilmember James Oddo, a department critic who pushed for the new program. “When Giuliani introduced self-certification, it was as a carrot-and-stick operation. The carrot was speed, one-stop shopping. The stick was, ‘If you abuse this, we’ll come down on you, and you will be punished.’ I’m not sure if the carrot worked, but the stick certainly hasn’t worked.”
Without specific recommendations available—they are due by July 1, with an application deadline of December 31—AIA New York State president-elect Burton Roslyn would not say whether the inevitable changes will be good or bad for architects, but he does hope to be involved in crafting them. “As long as the guidelines as drafted and agreed upon are fair and equitable, there would be no conflict,” he said. “If they are arbitrary, then you start to have problems.”