Our cooperative building on the Upper East Side is undertaking an exterior repair program, which includes Seventh Cycle Local Law 11/98 repairs and roof replacement. Our engineering firm informed us that as part of the project, we are required to have “special inspections” conducted on structural steel, concrete masonry walls, brick veneers, and other construction elements. Fellow board members and I don’t recall having to do any special inspections on previous repair work at the building. Are these inspection requirements new? What do they entail?
Special inspections have been part of the New York City Building Code since 2008, superseding what used to be called “controlled inspections.” Performed at critical points during most repair and upgrade projects, special inspections verify that construction work critical to safety and property protection has been conducted according to the project’s approved plans and specifications, as well as to New York City Building Code standards. The purpose of these inspections is to enhance the safety of construction projects by improving the integrity of inspections and tests, and prevent unqualified technicians from evaluating material installations.
While the term “special inspection” has been in the Uniform Building Code since 1961, it took on greater significance after the collapse of the Hyatt Regency walkway in Kansas City in 1981, which killed 114 people. Special inspection requirements were introduced to the code in 1988 and incorporated into the International Building Code in 2000, first with an emphasis on structural safety and gradually expanded to other areas.
Special inspections cover such items as materials, equipment, installation, fabrication, placement of components and connections, and construction methods. They are typically more rigorous than “progress inspections,” which are performed at specified intervals during the course of construction to verify that the work substantially complies with the building code and with the approved construction documents. (Special inspectors can also perform progress inspections in some cases.)
Traditionally, the project engineer or architect performed controlled inspections – and special inspections, following changes in the city’s building code – as part of their construction administration role. The inspections were not presented as a separate requirement to the building owner or manager, which is why most owners and managers are not that familiar with them.
Over the past two years, however, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) has tightened the requirements for special inspections. Specifically, in a May 2012 amendment to Title 1 of the Rules of New York City, a comprehensive special inspection program must be performed by qualified special inspectors working for a Special Inspection Agency registered with the DOB. As a result, many engineering and architectural firms that had already been performing controlled and special inspections had to undergo extensive additional training, and the firms needed to register as Special Inspection agencies to continue performing inspections.
The amendment also requires a special inspector to be either a professional engineer or registered architect in New York State, or have a degree in architecture or engineering with substantial experience for the given inspection, in addition to relevant certifications to perform specific inspections.
Types of Inspections
There are four categories of special inspections:
(1) General Building Construction
(2) Fire Protection Systems and Fire-Resistant Construction
(3) Plumbing and Mechanical Systems
(4) Structural Materials and Construction Operations
The special inspections required for a particular project depend on the type of project. For example, an exterior repair program may require special inspections of the masonry, concrete, and brick veneer. A boiler replacement project could entail special inspections of the heating system, fuel oil storage, and piping. A roof replacement project that includes the roof deck would probably require special inspections of the structural framing members and their connections.
The design applicant for the project (professional engineer or registered architect) identifies the special inspections required for a project. He or she lists those inspections on the TR-1 form (the DOB’s Technical Report Statement of Responsibility). The building owner is responsible for hiring a registered Special Inspection Agency to perform all of the required inspections.
The Special Inspection Agency certifies its inspection responsibilities on the TR-1 as the inspection applicant, and the owner (or the owner’s expeditor) then submits to the DOB the completed TR-1, with the names of the Special Inspection Agency and the inspections it will perform. The DOB will not issue a work permit until the completed TR-1 is filed and accepted.
Special inspections cover a wide range of items. In general, the special inspector looks at such things as: is the contractor using the right products and installing them in accordance with the approved plans? Are materials properly stored at the site (e.g., does the cement meet the specified standards, and are bags of cement kept dry, or are they left out in the rain)? Is the contractor mixing and placing concrete as indicated on the drawings and in applicable codes? Are technicians qualified to perform the specific tasks (e.g., is the welder licensed for the type of welds specified)?
For a typical façade project, the special inspector would check such specific items as the alignment of the supporting structure, inserts, framing components, anchors, welding, drainage elements, joints, dams, sealants, and gaskets.
Special inspections on certain items (such as cast-in-place concrete) are typically performed multiple times throughout the course of a project. The number of inspections required depends on the contractor’s sequence of work and the quality of the construction. A foundation wall, for example, may require only a single inspection if the contractor forms the entire wall before pouring concrete and the work conforms to the approved drawings.
Conversely, the same wall may require several inspections if the contractor builds it in stages. For example, the special inspector would observe steel reinforcement and formwork for each section before the concrete is poured (and the reinforcement is concealed). Follow-up inspections could also be needed if the contractor did not properly perform the work.
The tests special inspectors conduct also vary from project to project. Some jobs, such as simple façade repairs, may be checked solely via visual observation. Others, such as concrete construction, may require several physical tests, which could be destructive, nondestructive, or both. A certified inspector may test concrete each time it is poured to confirm that the temperature, air content, and slump conform to the design specifications. The same inspector would also cast concrete cylinders to test for compressive strength in the lab. Other possible tests include (but are not limited to) x-ray imaging and magnetic particle inspections of steel welds, compaction tests for soils, and adhesion tests for spray-applied fireproofing.
Throughout the project, the special inspector submits periodic special inspection reports to the building owner and the contractor. The special inspector is obligated to immediately notify the contractor of any discrepancies observed in the work. If these deficiencies are not corrected, the special inspector must bring them to the attention of the owner and the design engineer/architect. At the end of the project, the Special Inspection Agency certifies that the necessary special inspections have been performed and that the work does or does not conform to the approved construction documents.
Keep in mind the means and methods of construction, including construction sequencing and site safety programs, remain the contractor’s responsibility. The special inspector does not have the authority to stop a contractor from proceeding with construction. As always, this must be done directly by the owner.
The cost of the special inspection program for a project depends on the number and type of inspections required, the number of inspectors required for the project, and the required qualifications of the special inspectors. Projects that require many types of special inspections may require more than one Special Inspection Agency.
Design professionals typically have broader expertise than technicians skilled in just one or two specialties, which may enable design professionals to concurrently perform multiple inspections, consequently reducing the overall cost. In addition, if the engineering or architectural firm that designed the repair project also serves as the Special Inspection Agency, the inspectors are more likely to have a comprehensive understanding of the drawings and the intent of the design, which should improve the quality and efficiency of the special inspection program.
While the DOB’s more rigorous special inspections program does add to the up-front cost of repair and upgrade projects, the cost is typically small compared to the overall cost of construction. The special inspections requirement forces contractors to improve the quality of their work, ultimately benefiting everyone.