Chutes and Ladders: Deciphering Codes and Laws for Multiple Dwellings

Event: Multiple Dwelling Law and the New New York City Building Code
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.19.10
Speaker: James Colgate, RA, Esq. — Assistant Commissioner for Technical Affairs and Code Development, NYC Department of Buildings
Organizer: AIANY Building Codes Committee

Navigating between the Multiple Dwelling Law and the NYC Building Code is like playing Chutes and Ladders. These days, that means more headaches due to the number of renovations, which often includes tenements and other multiple dwellings. While many architects hire code consultants to decipher the myriad requirements, James Colgate, RA, Esq., described the differences between these codes and laws, although he admitted that it “confuses everyone I’ve spoken to, including my examiners.”

Most are familiar with the NYC Building Code and its various incarnations, ranging from 1939 to 1968, and the newest version enacted in 2008. The new Building Code is very similar to the New York State Building Code, which was modeled after the International Building Code (IBC). However, building in NYC presents special challenges, and our code must make allowances. For this reason, the 2008 code did not adopt elements of the International Residential Code (IRC), which primarily concerns one- and two- family dwellings of three stories or less and is “deficient for dense urban environments,” according to Colgate.

Enter the Multiple Dwelling Law (MDL). It is a state law and therefore trumps all city codes. Under this law, buildings are classified depending on when they were built, which determines the requirements for alterations. The aim is to maintain safety and quality of life by governing the details, from penthouse additions to the dimensions and materials of stair treads and fire stairs. In some cases, however, the requirements of the NYC Building Code exceed those of the MDL and must be applied.

Lack of familiarity with the NYC Building Code results in incorrect forms and re-filings. For example, when indicating the classification for converted dwellings on a Certificate of Occupancy form, respondents often check the wrong Building Code for review of compliance. This selection alters other components in the electronic form, creating a domino effect.

Colgate stressed the importance of understanding all prior Building Codes. He suggests designers start with the 1938 Building Code and then “work your way up to the 2008 code.” At the same time, you must carefully check the Multiple Dwelling Law for instances where it is more stringent and must be followed. Through this process of analysis, and sometimes trial and error, the architect can determine which requirements are best suited for the project.