For Buildings Commissioner, Demand the Real Thing

Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn introduced more than a dozen pieces of legislation targeted at reforming the beleaguered Department of Buildings. Much of the legislation had been introduced last month, prior to last Friday’s crane accident, but among the new initiatives was one of great concern for the city’s designers and for its residents as a whole.

The administration has been trying for some months to alter the requirement that the Buildings Commissioner be a professional engineer or registered architect. The mayor contends that it provides necessary flexibility for running a bureaucracy of the city’s own making, and the mainstream press has begun to agree with him.

As architects and engineers well know, this is fallacious logic, writes Fredric Bell, executive director of AIA New York, in a Protest column in our forthcoming issue. AN presents his argument in full below.

There are 41,000 professional engineers (PEs) and registered architects (RAs) in New York State. One of them should be the next commissioner of the New York City Buildings Department, replacing Patricia Lancaster, an architect who resigned in April.

Some in New York’s City Hall are questioning whether a professional license is needed or even desirable to effectively run the largest and most complex buildings bureaucracy in the country. In answer, architects and engineers have sent mailbags full of letters and emails to the City Council chambers to explain why—with safety concerns on our sidewalks paramount—now is not the time to relax the professional qualifications needed for this difficult job.

Noting that the Surgeon General must be a doctor, and that the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., should be an architect (although that, too, is currently being questioned by a congressional oversight committee), registered architects and professional engineers were heard chanting “No PEs, no justice” on the steps of City Hall in late May. The commissioner of the Department of Buildings must have the knowledge and experience that comes from being a registered architect or professional engineer. The current city law, which requires this level of tested expertise, is both logical and necessary.

Members of the Council’s Governmental Operations Committee heard many of the reasons why the head of the agency that guarantees safety on construction sites must be trained and tested in how buildings come together, how they rise, and how they stand. The process by which an architect or engineer becomes licensed by the state of New York is arduous, arguably harder than passing the state bar exam. It tests comprehensive knowledge of codes, zoning, building practices, and environmental standards, to name but four of the many constituent issues that are important in neighborhoods from Co-op City to Gravesend, from Midwood to Central Harlem, from Ozone Park to East New York.

Professional architects and engineers have an unparalleled combination of education, on-the-job training, licensure, and professional experience that makes them uniquely qualified to ensure the safety and security of the public. Professional architects and engineers understand the integration of structural, technological, and life-safety elements into buildings to assure their usefulness. Through their training and practice, they are capable of balancing the requirements of building codes with the goals of historic preservation, energy efficiency, sustainability, and accessibility.

In addition to technical training, architects and engineers, by law, are personally responsible for their work and have a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the health, safety, and welfare of the public. As licensed professionals, architects and engineers bring to the task a special degree of commitment crucial to the position of buildings commissioner.

This year, after long deliberations, New York City brought a new and modern building code to fruition, replacing rules mired in 19th-century construction practices. At the same time, in many neighborhoods, people have questioned whether some of the taller buildings going up fit into the context of their communities, and whether development pressures and the city’s double-digit growth have led in some instances to deliberate misinterpretation of zoning regulations. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will interpret and enforce the city’s zoning codes, guaranteeing that political pressures and expediency do not engender neighborhood-busting mistakes.

Mayor Bloomberg’s administration and his friends in the City Council have pushed for progressive reform of Buildings Department operations, enforcement, and communications, insisting that building practices be forcefully regulated and made more transparent. The former commissioner, Ms. Lancaster, to her credit, got Buildings Department records out of dusty boxes and posted on the city’s website for all to see. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will provide our communities appropriate scale and comfort, someone who knows about the economic and material determinants of buildings, not just how to manage a large and complicated bureaucracy.

Most importantly, through a wide variety of environmental initiatives including PlaNYC, our elected officials have insisted that New York City attain a greener future and carbon-footprint reduction by, among other things, regulating building materials and construction processes. An architect or engineer at the head of the department will enforce these laws—not just spout greenwash rhetoric—and assure our children and our children’s children that future buildings will help, not hurt, the environment.

There are some, though, in City Hall who insist that the business of New York is business; that any agency, any department, can be run like a Fortune 500 company. They say that good management skills are more important than mere credentials, stale tradition, or a philosophy that knowledge matters. They are half right. This is not about tradition, or a return to the bow-tied past. This is not about credentials or elitism or silly glasses. This is all about professionalism, and the knowledge needed for the person heading the Buildings Department to make the tough decisions when there is nobody else to call, nobody else to consult.

You would not want your kids treated by doctors who learned their medical skills by watching Grey’s Anatomy on television, nor public defenders and district attorneys who learned their legal skills from reading John Grisham novels. You want the real thing for a Health Commissioner and for the public counsel. Just so, you would not want the person who oversees all aspects of zoning, site safety, and the quality of construction in our city to have borrowed his or her word choice from management case studies at Harvard Business School or Brooklyn College.

We need the real thing for our Buildings Commissioner. And New York needs a Buildings Commissioner who not only knows how the government operates, but how buildings stand up.

Related Stories