Garrison Apartments has a lot of history. Established as a co-op in 1929, the six-floor, 29-unit building has been home to such Harlem luminaries as poet Countee Cullen and civic leader Adam Clayton Powell. It sits in the middle of the Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Historic District. And it’s got an old boiler.
Every co-op, including historic, storied buildings like Garrison, has to deal with the frustrating, headache-inducing and, sometimes, costly aspects of co-op life like repairing old windows, boilers, leaky roofs, and crumbling facades. These capital projects are a strain on resources, both financial and human, and require a great amount of planning and coordination in order to be executed properly. For self-managed buildings like Garrison, the challenges can sometimes seem overwhelming.
Capital projects, from the most routine to the most complicated, require management and oversight from the board. Even the little details, such as letting contractors into the building in the morning, must be taken care of. To properly keep tabs on a project and keep the entire board up to date about its progress means that someone, either an individual or a committee, must commit a significant amount of time.
Managing agents can serve as the interface between contractor and board, and can offer experience and know-how about project execution. But the absence of an agent means that the board and whoever is responsible for the project have to get very involved, always checking up on the contractors, understanding the complications as they arise, and being able to translate the issues to the rest of the board at large.
At Garrison, that responsibility fell on the shoulders of the vice president, Carson Phillips. He was the board’s “go-to” man for the project, which included asbestos abatement, installation of a brand-new dual-fuel (gas and oil) burner and all the related pumps and pipes, and the addition of a temporary boiler. Working in conjunction with Rand Engineering’s project manager, Jamey Ehrman, and the contractor, S & J Thermal, Phillips says he has been there almost every step of the way.
“If you’re on the board, you really have to be willing to devote your time to managing and handling the projects,” Phillips says, describing the standards of dedication the Garrison board expects from its members. He stays in nearly constant contact with Ehrman, and reports to the board about the project’s progress. “The assimilation of accurate information is very important. I don’t give a go-ahead on anything major without the approval of the board. And I keep the board very informed as to what stage the project is in, and about the kinks that may come up as it continues to unfold.”
At the beginning of a project, the board should delineate responsibilities and set up a chain of communication and command. That makes information flow consistent and the decision-making process easier to accomplish. Once a project begins, there are always changes to the scope of the job that emerge, and the board must decide how to proceed regarding each and every one of them. “The key to this entire project was communication,” says Rand’s Ehrman, who describes the project as “pretty up there” on the complexity scale. “I always kept Carson in the loop, and we established a chain of communication that we never broke. And this helped us to work through all the logistics and the rough edges that came up during the project. We kept the molehills as molehills and wouldn’t let them become mountains.”
Quality control is another issue. While board members may not have the technical know-how to make sure a boiler is set up properly, Philips says that continually double-checking the contractors reinforces the sense that the residents care about the outcome. “I go down every morning, speak to the superintendent, speak to the project manager from the contractor,” he says. “It’s important to the contractor to see that there’s someone in the building that really cares. It creates a personal contact. They have a sense of the building through their contact with the superintendent and me. It helps in terms of the end product.”
Volunteers make self-managed buildings thrive. In Deborah Sue Lorenzen’s Park Slope co-op, the eight-unit building relies on volunteers every time a new project comes up. After the board has agreed to initiate a project, it looks for volunteers who are willing to oversee different parts of the work. Instead of focusing on one person to handle everything, the co-op strives for an equitable distribution of responsibilities. The board first tries to draw up a comprehensive list of steps involved in executing a project, and then starts the process of divvying up those steps among the directors.
Ultimately, she says, getting as many people involved in handling projects has long-term benefits. “To me, the less attractive option is to have all the tasks dumped on one person,” she says. “As wide a pool as possible should understand the steps that have to happen, and what’s involved in making it happen.”
Getting a team of volunteers together to work on a project can make things run smoothly. If someone goes to work late in the day, he or she can be responsible for giving a contractor access in the morning and making sure he and his men get settled. If you need to survey contractors or vendors, divvy up the list of phone numbers so that the information comes in more quickly. The more experience everyone has with the process, the more things will be easier when it comes time to make tough decisions. Lorenzen’s co-op is currently reviewing an engineer’s report about the building, and the board will soon have to decide which projects it wants to pursue. “Do we agree or disagree with the report? Where do we spend our money? How much money do we have to spend?” she says. “It’s very difficult to find consensus.”
If the right balance of volunteers can’t be worked out, one approach is to appoint one resident as a project manager or supervisor, and supplement his or her time with a small stipend. That’s what Marc Hirshfeld has done in the past at his 10-unit Clinton co-op. Hirshfeld, a cameraman who works in the film and television industry, has a knack for understanding mechanics and the technical aspects of capital projects, and also has a flexible time schedule that allows him to be at the building in the daytime fairly regularly.
The most recent project undertaken at the building was a bulkhead repair. Hirshfeld says that his job was to interface between the workers and the co-op, acting as a representative of the building and communicating progress to the residents. “I notified the tenants on the top floors when the work was beginning what they should be expecting in the way of noise,” he says. “Making sure that there was a proper clean-up in the hallways. Making sure that all supplies were secured on the roof. Making sure that the doors to the building were closed after them.”
He says one of the main thrusts of his work was to make sure that the workers understood that the co-op was going to pay close attention to the quality of their work. “The main thing was letting them know that there’s somebody that’s always going to be around, checking in on them a couple times of day,” he says, “taking the tenant’s perspective on it, which is not always the contractor’s perspective.”
At some point, all boards will encounter a capital project that needs to be undertaken. Self-managed boards should plan out responsibilities and roles regarding the execution of the job before things get underway. Divvying up tasks among board volunteers makes sense for the early phases of work or more straightforward undertakings, but if a project is more complicated and complex (like Garrison’s boiler installation), then centralizing communication with one person is a sensible approach.
The board needs to understand its role as well. As the final decision-maker, and most importantly, the signatory of the checks, boards have a responsibility to be informed of a project’s progress and status. Even though there’s a capable and experienced liaison working with the contractors, the board must still stay active.
If a project feels like it may be too daunting or complicated for a board’s own resources, consider bringing in an architect or engineer. It will add to the cost, but will almost certainly guarantee that the job will turn out successfully. Professional specifications and plans will help a board sort through the contractor bids, and the engineer can play an invaluable role throughout the length of the task – overseeing the work, translating the technical issues to the board, and acting as a board adviser on decision-making. With so much at stake in a capital project, you want to make sure that your board has the best resources at all times.