Patricia Lancaster, FAIA
Photo courtesy New York City Department of Buildings
Patricia Lancaster, FAIA, stepped down as Building Commissioner of New York City on April 23.

On April 23, New York City’s Building Commissioner Patricia Lancaster, FAIA stepped down following a string of construction accidents in 2008, 13 of which were fatal. Just one week later, on April 28, a construction worker on Staten Island was critically injured on the first day of the city’s newly created Construction Safety Week. These incidents have incited a fierce debate over where fault lies that could have far-reaching implications for other cities in the midst of building booms.

Lancaster  was appointed chief of the Department of Building (DOB) in April 2002. Critics say that lax site inspections and failure to audit more than 20 percent of self-certified new building applications during her tenure led to the spike in construction-related deaths. Others argue, however, that operational problems existed long before she took the helm. David Collins, national codes committee chairman for the American Institute of Architects (AIA), says construction accidents aren’t necessarily due to poor leadership; they also are the result of careless inspectors and inexperienced builders . “It’s all of the above,” he says.

Lancaster often walked a tightrope between expediting development and protecting the public. How well she balanced the two has been a source of contention. To her credit, she re-wrote parts of the complex building code to help prevent unintentional violations, compiled an online permit database, and increased the number of building inspectors 54 percent to more than 400, according to DOB spokesperson Kate Lindquist. Lancaster also worked in concert with state lawmakers to hasten punishments for architects who flout the law—an attempt to reign in the DOB’s controversial self-certification program , which allows architects and engineers to sign off on their own building plans rather than submit them to city inspectors ("Self-Certification Crackdown Sparks NY Turf War" ).

But Lancaster made mistakes, too. Last fall the local press blasted her for being lenient toward Brooklyn-based architect Robert Scarano, who had submitted false plans for more than 30 construction sites. Lancaster agreed to not turn him over to the State Education Department, which grants and rescinds professional licenses, if he surrendered his self-certification privilege. The following months were peppered with more news-making missteps. In February, the DOB discovered that engineer Leon St. Clair Nation had submitted false documents for at least three projects, including pictures altered to make a low-rise residential building in Brooklyn appear handicap accessible. Lancaster banned Nation from submitting self-certified plans, but indicated she would consider reinstating his privileges in the future, fueling the perception that she was soft on repeat offenders. Then on March 15, seven people were killed when a crane collapsed at a construction site in midtown Manhattan. While testifying before the city council, Lancaster admitted that the DOB had mistakenly granted a construction permit for the building, which did not conform with zoning regulations. Under pressure from local officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she resigned.

For the Bloomberg administration, Lancaster’s departure is a chance to lift the city’s requirement that building commissioners be licensed architects or engineers—a tactic intended to improve operations. “The rationale is to attract people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, who have the necessary management skills, to oversee an agency with this number of employees and a large budget,” explains John Gallagher, a Bloomberg spokesman. But James McCullar, AIA New York chapter president, thinks the mayor’s plan could exacerbate the DOB’s troubles. “The commissioner needs to be someone with the hands-on experience to understand what the problems are that we encounter in construction,” he says.

Acting Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri, who will stay on until the mayor appoints Lancaster’s successor, isn’t wasting any time implementing changes. He has ordered a full review of permits issued for the site of the March crane collapse and plans to hold lower-level officials accountable for their roles in the fatal accident. He also directed $4 million toward research on concrete operations, excavation and crane operations—three sectors where he sees potential for improved oversight.

These recent incidents could certainly impact building departments across the country. Since New York City implemented its self-certification program in 1995, many other cities, including Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Denver, have followed suit and relaxed their building application procedures. How much of New York’s recent spike in construction accidents is attributed to deregulation and how much is considered the unfortunate yet normal consequence of a building boom could determine the future of self-certification.