Renovating? Don’t Forget the Expediter

Renovating? Don’t Forget the Expediter

Renovating? Don’t Forget the Expediter

By JOANNE KAUFMAN

An excerpt from a post that originally appeared on www.nytimes.com on Dec 12, 2014

 

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When Mark Brotter dies, the inscription on his tombstone will read simply: “Thank God — no more plumbing Schedule B.”

Mr. Brotter, 55, is an expediter, an imprecise term that is used to describe the men and women whose workdays are spent queuing up at theManhattan branch of the New York City Department of Buildings to file the documents and pull the permits that allow construction projects — your kitchen renovation and the high-rise next door — to go forward.

Mr. Brotter’s business card and stationery describe him as a “Buildings Department liaison,” but he’ll go with “architectural consultant” when strangers ask about his occupation and he doesn’t have time to explain. Those who want to annoy him call him a messenger. Those who really want to annoy him call him a runner.

“I’m basically a middleman,” he said. For its part, the Buildings Department insists on the title “filing representative.”

Expediters are hired by contractors, architects, homeowners and managing agents. Some are solo practitioners like Mr. Brotter, although on a large project he may take on a helper — an expediter for the expedite

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Mark Brotter, a Buildings Department liaison a.k.a. expediter. Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

Others are employed by large firms that do nothing but expediting, or are on the staffs of architectural or engineering firms. In the early 1990s, expediters numbered 300 to 400; today there are more than 8,300. (Filing representatives must register with the Buildings Department and pay a $50 annual fee for the right to stand on lines at department offices.)

Fortunately, there’s plenty of work to go around. The number of jobs filed at the Department of Buildings in fiscal year 2013 rose by 4.9 percent from the previous year to a total of 72,288. In fiscal year 2014, 82,551 jobs were filed, a jump of 14.2 percent.

“The residential remodeling market follows the real estate market, and as we all know, the residential real estate market in New York City has been on fire,” said Marc Kerner, a general contractor and the owner of Infinity Construction. “The renovation purse strings have been loosened because people are feeling more confident about the economy.”

The keys to expediter success include comfortable shoes, optimism, an awareness of just which long line is the right long line and a willingness to show up at the Buildings Department long before dawn to be first on this or that list to see this or that examiner — the agency staff member who can green-light a construction job or stop it cold.

The impediments: ever-changing rules, delays in processing forms — though according to Department of Buildings data, wait times are growing shorter — and the fact that expediters are limited to three pieces of business each time they get up to a service window, whether that means three tasks for one project or one each for three discrete clients. Then it’s back in line.

“Nobody really wants to go down to the D.O.B.,” said George Quinn, 51, an expediter for 30 years. “A lot of people compare it to the D.M.V., but it’s much more complicated and there’s much more involved. The city has its ways. There are forms and they have to be filled out in a certain way. There are processes and procedures.

“You have to have a certain type of personality and some thick skin,” Mr. Quinn continued, “and know that if you don’t get it done today, you’ll get it done tomorrow.”

Architects and engineers can file their own plans, and some do. Contractors also can get their own permits if they choose. There is a special line for professionals. But through day-in, day-out exposure to the vagaries of the Buildings Department, expediters have a nuts-and-bolts grasp of the minutiae that may elude their bosses.

“They save us a lot of time,” Mr. Kerner said. “And they’re willing to go down to the Department of Buildings.”

Mr. Brotter’s life is a welter of forms: PW1 (plan/work application); TR1 (a technical report); TR8 (a technical report related to environmental issues); ACP5 (an asbestos report); PW3 (an affidavit that breaks down the cost of a job); and of course that infernal Schedule B.

“It has to be very exact. There are only so many ways to get it right and lots of ways to get it wrong,” said Mr. Brotter, whose jobs right now involve renovations on Central Park West and several apartment combinations, currently among the most popular projects.

So what precisely is the holdup with that kitchen renovation of yours? The architect’s plans and assorted documents (PW1, et cetera) have to be assembled. Certain documents have to be signed by the architect, the homeowner or shareholder, the building’s managing agent, and in some instances, the co-op board president. Sometimes, paperwork needs to be notarized. When Mr. Brotter is the expediter on a project, he’s the fellow filling out the forms, tracking down the signatories and, if the proposed project warrants it, collecting the appropriate documents from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“Then, when the package is together, I bring it to the Buildings Department,” Mr. Brotter said.

And that’s when the lines and the waiting begin. According to the Buildings Department, the average time between filing a plan package and meeting with an examiner is 3.8 days. The paperwork may be approved at that appointment, “which doesn’t happen too often, but it happens,” Mr. Brotter said. “Or you get objections.”

Perhaps a form was filled out incorrectly. Perhaps the architect’s rendering didn’t clarify an egress or show handicap access to a bathroom.

So it’s back to the buildings department to pick up the package, make the necessary adjustments and schedule another meeting with that same examiner “to try to get him to remove the objections,” said Mr. Brotter, who moved 35 years ago to New York from Scranton, Pa., to work in the music industry and became an expediter because it fit in with his performing schedule. “And sometimes,” he continued, “they’re like, ‘This isn’t what I wanted,’ so you have to go back.”

Scott Schnall, an engineer whose office employs the services of expediters. Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

Scott Schnall, an engineer whose office employs the services of expediters. Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

The expediter’s fee varies depending on the outlay of time and the complexity of a job. The charge for securing a permit for a contractor ranges from $200 to $400; for filing a project, $1,500 to $3,500. Plans that must go before the Landmarks Commission are a more costly proposition, as are projects that involve the conversion of a commercial space to a residence.

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About the Editor:

RJ Diaz is a renovation and remodeling construction management executive in New York City. RJ is passionate about high quality, well-crafted construction and started RenovatingNYC in 2010 to share news and information specific to the industry as well as profile the best resources essential for a project’s success. For advice about your own renovation or remodeling plans, preliminary cost estimates and project opportunities, please contact RJ using the form below.