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Let’s not wait for disaster to happen before we react

By Terence O’Brien  

The horrific condo collapse in Surfside, Florida, leading to 98 deaths, should make us pause and reflect on the safety of our buildings and infrastructure. This tragedy sparked responses by policymakers urging more regulation by way of stricter building codes and stronger oversight including more frequent inspections.

Buildings and infrastructure have failed many times over the last 15 years around the country. But let’s hope that Surfside was an anomaly and not the beginning of a disturbing and regular trend.  

TERRANCE O’BRIEN

New York City has a strict—some say burdensome—Construction Code. But NYC arguably has the strongest codes with the specific goal to enhance safety; therefore, most of the burdensome requirements are justified. Much of the Construction Code focuses on the design and construction phases, not necessarily maintenance of existing buildings which have been around for 20+ years.  

City electeds and the NYC Department of Buildings, as well as industry professionals, should be commended for all the work done on these comprehensive—and leading—NEW building construction codes.   

With that said, policymakers have a tendency to react to a problem in the aftermath of tragedy rather than foresee an issue and implement proactive measures. For example, the NYC Council passed gas safety laws following two deadly gas explosions in East Harlem and East Village (image top) in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

However, there are still some gaps in our Construction Code for the one million+ buildings in NYC.     

New York’s policymakers may not be unique in their response to tragedies, but NYC is unique in other ways, so why aren’t we engaging in more preventative measures rather than being on the defensive? Many industry associations warn policymakers about potential building integrity and construction safety concerns based on unclear Codes or the lack of regulation, or sometimes due to the absence of enforcement (which may be based on manpower or budget constraints).

Many times, these associations only find themselves getting through to policymakers after something tragic has happened. Organizations like the Plumbing Foundation of NYC would rather see our trusted elected officials and regulators taking necessary steps ahead of tragedy to prevent death and injury.  

Proactive action by policymakers includes strengthening and enforcing gas safety laws, like amending Local Law 152/2016 which requires inspections of building gas piping, to make it clear that the point of entry and commercial tenant spaces must be in the scope of the inspection. Additional relevant policy includes, regulating modular construction so that it is held to the same safety standards as stick-built construction, increasing fines for not installing mandatory back flow devices, or mandating testing of potable water to prevent Legionella. Policymakers are in the position to do these things BEFORE tragedy erupts.  

The lives lost in the Surfside collapse, above all else, are no doubt the worst-case scenario when the integrity of a building’s structure is compromised. Yes, let policymakers and experts work together to determine how to improve the built environment to prevent future occurrences, but more must be done proactively, especially when we know the consequences.  

Terence O’Brien is the Executive Vice President of the Association of Contracting Plumbers of the City of New York, Inc. and Senior Director of the Plumbing Foundation City of New York, Inc.  

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