New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Surveying Your Building's Condition

I’m the president of a newly elected board for a 15-story, 125-unit cooperative on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Our building is about 80 years old, and many necessary repairs have been put off (or simply ignored) over the years, leaving us with roof leaks and aging electrical and plumbing systems. We know we need to undertake corrective work on several fronts, but we will have to spread the projects out over the next several years.

Unfortunately, we have only sketchy documentation on the limited repairs that were done and nothing on the systems that haven’t been touched in a while. If we hire an engineer to survey the building and provide us with a report, how extensive should it be and what sort of information should it include?

An engineering survey, sometimes called a physical condition survey, is a useful way to diagnose the overall condition of a property and its major systems and components. For buildings with neglected maintenance and overdue repairs, a physical condition survey provides a blueprint for planning major capital improvements and determining how to best allocate short- and long-term expenditures.

Unfortunately, some boards suffer from tunnel vision when it comes to their buildings’ needs, which can result in misplaced priorities. For example, boards may focus on highly visible but mostly cosmetic improvements, such as renovating the lobby or refurbishing the elevator cab, at the expense of more critical systems. Other times, a board member may push a pet project that does not address the building’s needs as a whole. Also, if the building superintendent has expertise in one or two particular areas, those tend to be the ones that get the most attention, even if other needs are more pressing.

When addressing significant problems, such as leaks, boards may opt for the obvious quick fixes, such as short-term patching work, without addressing the underlying causes that aren’t immediately apparent. A building survey conducted by an independent firm can provide the objective analysis and broad-based expertise that the board often lacks.

For smaller buildings (six stories or less, under 40 units, with one or no elevators), a single engineer should be able to conduct a comprehensive survey. For larger buildings such as yours, it’s best to look for a firm that has all the major engineering specialties under one roof, such as exterior/waterproofing, mechanical/HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and structural. It still may be necessary to hire specialists for some areas such as fire-safety systems; complex, state-of-the-art elevator systems; sound transmission; and fireplace repair. In general, however, it’s recommended that one firm handle the survey work to keep the different teams from overlapping and tripping over each other.

Before the survey begins, your board should make it clear to the engineering firm that you intend to use the report as a comprehensive survey for funding capital improvements. Known problem areas in the building and any previous repair history should be discussed ahead of time so that the engineer can make sure they are given proper attention in the survey.

Also, if the engineer has a rough idea of the building’s budget, he can suggest alternative repair and replacement recommendations in the final report. Knowing the board’s plan and budget will also help prevent the engineer from conducting unnecessary testing beyond the scope of your specific objectives, which will help keep survey costs down.

A comprehensive physical condition survey should cover all the building’s major systems and components, both external and internal, including the following areas:

• Roof and roof-level structures: roof
ing membranes, base flashing,
counterflashing, parapets, copings,
bulkheads, chimneys, caps, drains,
and vents
• Facades
• Terraces, balconies, decks, patios,
and railings
• Windows and entrance doors
• Heating, air conditioning, and
ventilation systems
• Plumbing, drainage, and
sanitary systems
• Electrical system
• Interior walls, floors, and ceilings
• Hallways, stairwells, and other
common areas
• Elevator and compactors
• Laundry facilities and other
• Site exterior: sidewalks, stairs,
ramps, courtyards, fencing,
and playgrounds
• Garages and parking lots
• Fire escapes
• Intercom/video surveillance system

As part of their site work, the engineers will probably conduct a few basic hands-on tests and probes. For example, the engineer may ride a scaffold to check facade conditions up close, sounding out loose or cracked brickwork and examining for missing mortar joints. The engineer may also conduct investigative probes on external walls to check the condition of underlying masonry and insert moisture probes on inside walls to locate the presence of leaks. Testing on electrical circuits and water pressure may also be included, as well as sample-testing for asbestos-containing material and easily removed paint chips for lead testing in properties built before 1960 (when lead-based paint was banned in New York City). For the size of your building, the site work and various tests may take several days’ worth of visits.

To supplement the site work, the engineer should provide residents with a questionnaire asking about conditions inside their apartments. The purpose of the questionnaire is not to gather a laundry list of cosmetic flaws or incidentals of individual units but rather to look for patterns that could be indicative of larger building problems.

Based on the results of the questionnaire, the engineer should then survey the inside of approximately five to ten percent of the representative apartments to get a first-hand look at any potential warning signs. Examples include discolored water or inadequate pressure; cracked, shifted, or bulging walls; loose, sagging, or creaking floors; stains or deterioration from leaks; and electrical switches that don’t work. In older buildings with original electrical and plumbing systems, increasing demands on supply (e.g., 220-volt appliances, Jacuzzis, garbage disposals) could stretch or overload existing capacities.

After compiling and analyzing the survey findings, the engineer will produce a detailed report describing the conditions of each building system and component. As part of the narrative description, the report should include a prioritized list of recommended repairs and replacements along with associated budget projections and a timetable. For those systems and components not requiring immediate corrective work, an estimated useful life expectancy should be provided. The report should include captioned photos to visually depict building conditions, particularly for out-of-the-way areas that residents don’t typically see. In addition, the report should list any active code violations, such as those issued by the New York City Department of Buildings and Environmental Control Board.

The estimated funding requirements for repair and replacement work should follow the Common Interest Realty Association guidelines established by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Repair funds are listed as current recommendations and future allowances, which should be spread out so that funds are allotted each year until the repair or replacement is made.

For example, if an aging boiler has an estimated five years of remaining useful life and will cost $300,000 to replace, then the proper way to show the funding is $60,000 for each of the next five years, not $0 for four years and $300,000 for year five. This method helps boards plan each year for future upgrades instead of putting off the issue until the last minute.

The survey report should highlight items that require immediate attention. High-priority items would include items such as active safety violations, as electrical code issues; loose bricks and other unsafe façade conditions; severely worn elevator cables; and a contaminated water supply.

Large-scale systems in dire need of upgrade should also be given top billing in the report. Outdated electrical and plumbing systems that can no longer handle the loads they were originally designed for are especially vulnerable.

Old galvanized steel pipes, for example, can corrode on the inside, causing particles to flake off and contaminate the water supply. Heavy electrical usage over antiquated wiring will overload circuits, creating a fire hazard. Replacing these systems causes a major disruption for building residents – demolishing walls, cutting off power and water, creating dust and debris, and so on.

Because of the upheaval, boards tend to put off undertaking the work, and instead choose to limp along until the aging system suffers a major breakdown. A well-prepared engineering report will spell out the steps and costs involved in undertaking such major upgrades.

Once the report is completed, it’s recommended that the board meet with the engineering team to review the findings and recommendations before presentation to shareholders at large. Most boards typically don’t have the funds to make all the repairs and replacements, so the engineer can help the board decide the best course of action to make sure the corrective work is performed based on proper priorities.

An updated survey should be performed about every five years to reassess previous problem areas and deal with future needs, especially for buildings such as yours that have suffered neglect. By staying aware of its building’s overall condition, a board can make plans for necessary maintenance and repairs now to avoid costly emergency situations later.

Stephen Varone, AIA, and Peter Varsalona, PE, are principals at Rand Engineering & Architecture, which has been providing integrated engineering and architectural services to the co-op and condo community since 1987. Rand will answer your queries about renovation issues. Send questions on building repair and maintenance to

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