New York City’s Department of Buildings wields great influence over how structures in the city are built and maintained, presiding over everything from building inspections to permits, building codes and materials. While that area of governance might seem rather pedestrian, a resident doesn’t need to look any further than the city’s sidewalks to get some measure of the impact that DOB is having on the overall aesthetic—and safety—of New York City.
Laws to govern buildings had their start when New York City was still the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. In 1625, the Dutch West India Company established rules for the types and locations of houses that could be built by the early colonists, the DOB explains on its website. This pioneering attempt at meeting public safety and sanitation needs evolved into one of the most comprehensive building and zoning codes in the country. By 1674, extensive laws governing construction, fire prevention and sanitation were in place. In 1860, after a tenement fire took 20 lives, New York City's building laws were extensively revised and strengthened. At that time, the position of "Superintendent of Buildings" was created within the Fire Department to enforce the new structural safety laws. An independent "Buildings Department" in Manhattan was later founded in 1892. Each borough president's office had an autonomous Superintendent of Buildings until 1936, when a citywide Department of Buildings was created. Thus the modern DOB was born.
Since that time, the DOB has gone through many transformations resulting from new laws enacted to give it more muscle and to protect the populace. The first building code in 1898 had a measurable effect on the DOB’s ability to enforce standards. Later, building code revisions mandated in 1938, 1968 and 2005 strengthened that departmental authority. The department’s mission is to ensure the safe and lawful use of buildings and properties by enforcing the building code and zoning requirements.
According to DOB spokesperson Ryan FitzGibbon, “We oversee the safe and lawful use of 75,000-plus buildings and construction sites in New York City’s five boroughs.”
How They Help
As the DOB has evolved and developed, its administrators have worked hard to make the department more transparent in its operations. The idea is to be a more responsive government entity that is helpful to its constituents, DOB leaders say. Such a businesslike approach is expected of the DOB because of its location and size. The organization now has 1,100 employees, including 350 inspectors.