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Demolition contractors: should they be licensed?

In the wake of two serious demolition accidents in which passersby were injured, the New York City Building Department is preparing legislation to force the licensing of demolition contractors.

Discussions had already been underway within the department to begin licensing for gut rehab and other interior demolition work.

While other trades such as plumbers, electricians, welders and crane operators are licensed, in theory anyone is now able to take down an entire building without any training as long as the proper procedures are followed to receive the permit.

Although violations and stop work orders can be placed on the sites, the Building Department says it has no way to keep records of past performances nor can they refuse to grant permits for prior problems.

Those trades that are licensed carry some burden of responsibility to see that the work they do conforms to the requirements of the technical and safety areas of the building code, said Building Department spokesperson Vahe Tiryakian.

"We have found that the trades that are licensed appreciate the fact of the license," he said. "It keeps them on their toes; they carefully follow the code and look to us to enforce the licensing concept."

George Chironis, first vice president of Tishman Construction Corp. of New York, and President of the Building Contractors Association had mixed feelings about the licensing because he did not see what it would achieve.

"I'm not at all certain that licensing of contractors will lead to any safer conditions during the operations in that type of work or in any type of work," he added.

The formal details of licensing would be worked out in rules and regulations after legislation is passed by the City Council. Formulating the requirements will not be easy as there are many variables and kinds of work performed on a site and it is not as straight forward as licensing a plumber or crane operator.

Demolition licensing would be complicated by the various kinds of jobs performed on the site and the kinds of tools that would be used. Would the principles need to be licensed or all the laborers as well? Would you need a license to work with a small demolition tractor called a "bobcat" or one to work with a sledgehammer or jackhammer?

Additionally, two unions -- the mason tenders and the laborers -- are involved and contractors say they are at their mercy as to the qualifications of those sent to do the work. With not much work available in this economy, presumably the contractors are currently obtaining the most highly skilled workers, but that might not be the case in future years.

Chironis said the unions qualify the personnel sent to do the jobs.

"You have many people doing manual work with crow bars, and sledge hammers," he said. "Many of these people are guided by the foreman and many have been taking buildings down for years and know what they are doing in the immediate context they are working with. I'm not sure what the city would indeed accomplish demanding that the demolition contractor have a license."

Other jurisdictions are mixed as to their licensing requirements. California and Boston, Massachusetts require demolition licenses while Dallas, Philadelphia, and Chicago do not. Connecticut also requires the licensing of demolition firms.

V. & Ciampi & Sons Inc. is a Mt. Vernon, New York-based firm licensed as general contractors in Westchester and licensed in Connecticut to do demolition work. Richard Ciampi said there is not much of an investigation prior to licensing, but it gives the 62-year-old firm credibility.

While there is no exam, he said, the State of Connecticut requires a certificate of insurance, references from three people saying they are qualified to perform, and lists of previous jobs performed as well as the names of the officers of the company. The Class A license costs $750 per year and covers all kinds of demolition while the Class B license, permitting demolition of a building up to two and one-half stories or 35 feet. The certificates are issued quarterly while annual renewal fees are $600 for Class-A and $200 for Class-B.

"I think everyone should be licensed," Ciampi said. "There are too many people out there who do not complete the work and are not responsible people."

He did not, however, think the license would help make conditions safer. "Unfortunately," he said, "you have many people [sent by unions] that are not trained with demolition."

Ciampi noted that even now to raze a structure in New York City there are many steps needed prior to obtaining the permit.

Since the city does not require a license for a demolition contractor, the Department of Buildings must issue a permit when an application is submitted that states the company has followed all the requirements.

To receive the permit, a building must be vacant. A Buildings Department inspector sees that it is and notes if extra safety precautions have been taken on the adjoining structure. The contractor must submit letters from the utilities stating the electricity and gas have been shut off.

Another letter from the Department of Health must say it has accepted rodent control measures. The contractor also signs an affidavit that they have sent five-day notice letters to adjoining owners.

"Once they have applied there is no way for us to withhold a permit," Tiryakian explained. "There license to issue that would allow us to keep records of past performance and we can't lift a license."

If required, there will be some cost to the industry for licensing, including a license fee, testing mechanisms if any, and a layer of Building Department bureaucracy.

Draft legislation that had already been conceived for interior and gut rehabilitation work by Commissioner Rudolf Rinaldi will merely be expanded to include the building demolition contractors and submitted to the City Council within the next few weeks. It will not be a complicated piece of legislation, Tiryakian said, but merely outline the rules and regulations. "We're moving very strongly on it," he said.

There are also so many small alteration jobs it would make it very difficult, Chironis said, to try to define what these workers must do to obtain a license.

Chironis believes the Building Department has all the ammunition it needs now by the threat of a stop work order.

"What the Building Department normally does is call the construction manager and it very effective way of getting something corrected," he said.

He said Tishman checks the qualifications of contractors before putting them on a list to bid. They also review the methodology, the scheduling and the procedures used to access the building and debris removal.

"More and more we look for and insist on certain safety precautions be taken and, certainly, that they comply with the code," he Chironis noted it would be foolish on the part of the demolition company's principles not to have a safe environment. "He has-insurance and claims that could arise, so all these things are enough inducement to make the contractor work in a proper manner. Unfortunately, even when they do, there are times that an accident might occur. They happen in new constructions and in the demolition of new buildings."

"I don't believe it is fair to say we're going to be up in arms because the city is asking for licensing," Chironis said. "It's just that I'm a bit curious as to whether it will create a safe environment. I don't see that occurring. The way to have a safer environment is to make sure you are dealing with people who are knowledgeable and are complying with all the code requirements."

"Our primary issue is safety for the public," Tiryakian agreed.

The demolition of the top 12 floors of 108 East 96th Street is the next project for Big Apple Wrecking, one of the demolition contractors involved in the accidents that have fueled the city's concern. According to Tiryakian, Big Apple Wrecking may not be performing this job if it had been licensed because the license might have been temporarily suspended. Because of the previous accidents, however, the Building Department said extensive safety measures are being taken on 96th Street, including a thick steel mesh net surrounding the upper floors.
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Author:Weiss, Lois
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Oct 7, 1992
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