One of the unique things about designing in New York is that every job involving major work requires an expeditor. If you have to file a job with the Department of Buildings, you need an expeditor to shepherd you through the process.
Years ago, I went to the DOB to see what the fuss was all about. I had no idea that it would be like a scene from Fellini Satyricon. It’s a disorganized mess, and I don’t know anyone short of a magician who could navigate the system.
My “magician” is Malcolm Kaye of Malcolm Kaye Architecture. We’ve been working together for twelve years. He is levelheaded, and extremely good at getting things done. He has also become an invaluable part of my process. When I am in the design phase I review all the plans with Malcolm. He knows all the ever-changing codes, what the city allows, and most importantly what it doesn’t. It saves a lot of wasted time for me and it means I will never show a client anything that they can’t ultimately have.
Since every client asks, “Why do I need an expeditor?” I thought it would be useful to explain it once and for all. I sat down with Malcolm to discuss what he does. I include the plan of the maisonette I’ve been writing about, because Malcolm worked on it with me.
What is your background?
I have a Bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford and a Masters in Architecture from Harvard. I first came to New York because a friend got me a summer job working for Nate McBride, an architect here. Nate now has an extremely successful practice doing high-end residential design and is one of my favorite clients. Since school my entire career has been in NYC. I worked for architects and designers as well as doing a stint at Clark Construction, which also became a great client. Eventually I started my own practice in 1993, which is now Malcolm Kaye Architecture, PC.
How did you get into expediting instead of designing?
When I first went out on my own I did a lot of apartment and townhouse renovations. This has served me very well because when I work for architects and designers because I really understand things from their perspective and can better help them. In the beginning I used an expediter to file my projects with the DOB. Then a townhouse project with a very tight schedule wasn’t getting approved and the expediter stopped returning phone calls. I had no choice but to go to the DOB myself and sort things out.
It turned out that I have a knack for this kind of work. When other architects found out that I was doing my own expediting they asked me to do theirs, too. Eventually the expediting grew to be the majority of my practice. I still do a little design work but not much. It’s taken me years to master New York City’s construction laws. Being a designer and staying on top of code issues are both full-time jobs—I can’t imagine anyone being able to do both well. I get to do something I love, and also work with some incredibly talented architects and designers.
What is it that you do for clients?
Each project is a puzzle; my job is to help them fit all the pieces together. The big pieces are design, time, and money. Usually, I can tell someone what Zoning, the Building Code, the Multiple Dwelling Law, and Landmarks will allow him or her to do. Existing buildings are subject to whatever building code was in effect when they were built, plus retroactive of the more recent codes. It gets complicated quickly. For instance, people may think that they can build all the zoning floor area until they find out that other restrictions make that impossible. Is it more efficient to build a three-story building that requires two egress stairs or a two-story building that requires only one? Is it possible to add a garage to a Manhattan townhouse? How much can Landmarks approve without a public hearing? The other part of what we do is putting the applications together and submitting them to the various agencies.
Why can’t designers or their own architects do it themselves? What can you do that they can’t?
You really need to be committed to keeping up on the current laws. I am a member of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Building Codes Committee and the New York Society of Architects; I go to industry meetings with the DOB Commissioners; and I regularly present projects to the Landmarks Commission. It just isn’t realistic to do this and also be fully engaged in a design practice and all that that entails.
In terms of expediting, we have people downtown every day shepherding projects through the approval process. You really need someone who knows what they are doing or the paperwork will just get lost in that enormous bureaucracy. The DOB processes a staggering amount of paper every day and there are tricks to getting to the top of the pile. It feels a lot like the DMV, only more confusing if you don’t know your way around. We work with city agencies every day and our relationships can be invaluable.
We put as much information as possible on our website, www.mkarchitecture.net, but you really need someone who knows what they’re doing to interpret it.
What is a Certificate of Occupancy and how do you help designers get one?
Zoning tells you all the possible uses that a particular property can be used for. A Certificate of Occupancy tells you which of those uses are authorized on each floor of building. It is illegal to use a space for anything that is not authorized on the Certificate of Occupancy. (Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions.) If the proposed occupancy, egress, or use differs from what is shown on the existing Certificate of Occupancy, a new one will be required.
Do you offer drawing services for interior designers who need architectural services?
Yes, we can draft projects in a way that will be easier for the DOB to approve. We also act as “architect of record” for designers, out-of-town architects, and property owners.
How many in your office, who are they, and what do they do?
Peter Rissetto is the other principal here—he has about 25 years experience in design and construction management so we complement each other nicely. There are 12 of us altogether in our office. We have three licensed architects plus two project managers, a full-time drafter, expediters, and support staff. Our office really functions as a team so in practice everyone does a little of everything. This also helps all of us stay up to date with current practices at the various City Agencies.