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The Secrets of Scaffolding

Falling bricks, sidewalk sheds, rising prices, Local Law 11 – all a board needs to know to preserve life, limb, and property.

Leslie Jay, a freelance writer, wrote about parking in our May issue. She is the former secretary at her Brooklyn co-op and currently works as a copy editor at Crain’s New York Business.

Falling bricks, sidewalk sheds, rising prices, Local Law 11 –
all a board needs to know to preserve life, limb, and property.

When a 14-story supported scaffold collapsed at 215 Park Avenue South in October 2001, killing five masonry workers and seriously injuring another four, a jittery New York reacted warily. But illegal construction techniques, not terrorism, caused the disaster. Nearly two years later, contractor Philip Minucci, owner of Tri-State Scaffold and Equipment Supplies of Deer Park, Long Island, pled guilty to second-degree reckless manslaughter after admitting that he had erected the 130-foot scaffolding without consulting an engineer or an architect. Building codes require one of these professionals to design any supported scaffolding that is taller than 75 feet.
With the arrival of warm weather, co-ops and condos throughout the city are getting ready for roof and façade repairs – projects that involve some form of scaffolding and often, sidewalk sheds. Meanwhile, to comply with Local Law 11’s sixth two-year cycle, concluding in February 2007, buildings over six stories are arranging for exterior inspections, which must be conducted from a hanging scaffold. Although these fixtures are temporary, their installation and use can have long-term consequences. Here’s what boards need to know to preserve life, limb, and property.

Hanging Out

The first step is to understand the terms as construction professionals employ them. “Scaffolding is used to go up along a façade to make repairs,” explains Stephen Varone, president of Rand Engineering and Architecture. There are two varieties: suspended and supported scaffolding. Suspended scaffolding hangs off a building by means of cables; the platform is raised and lowered by electrical motor. (The edge of the platform that faces the building should be wrapped or padded so it doesn’t scrape the masonry.) Supported scaffolding, also known as “pipe” or “outrigger” scaffolding, stands by itself – not counting the netting that may drape it to catch debris. Meanwhile, the enclosure that covers a sidewalk isn’t a scaffold at all, but a “shed” or a “bridge,” albeit one that people walk beneath.

What kind of scaffolding should be used outside your building? That decision depends on such factors as the condition of the property, the scope of the work, and the pace at which it’s supposed to proceed. Generally, suspended scaffolding, which is cheaper, is limited to small-to-moderate restoration jobs. Because certain suspension systems put direct stress on walls, an engineer must examine the parapets first. If those are not strong enough, supported scaffolding is the only option. Another issue is whether the contractor wants to focus on a single façade at a time, or tackle the entire building at once.

The space in which the crew has to operate can make a difference, too. “Sometimes the building’s structure is such that you can’t use hanging scaffolding, or the job is too complicated,” observes Tal Eyal, president of Cooper Square Project Management. In tight quarters, contractors may need access to an adjoining structure, whose owner may not be inclined to cooperate. Board members can appeal to the landlord’s sense of civic duty – a damaged façade puts all pedestrians at risk, wherever they live. Or, directors can point out that when the owner has to repair his building, they’ll put up with his installations. If all else fails, they can take their neighbor to court.

That’s what Pinette Housing Corp., a 25-unit cooperative in Brooklyn Heights, had to do over a year ago. The co-op had planned an extensive restoration project comprising the roof, the walls, and the windows. “The contractor needed one day’s access to our neighbor’s building, which is attached to ours, to stage work on the roof,” recalls former board member Amy Klein, who was then the president. The owner withheld permission, and Pinette’s directors made an unpleasant discovery: no city law compels a landlord to facilitate next-door repairs.

“We had to waste time and money suing her” to get the crew on the roof, says Klein. Apart from the potential for budget-busting litigation, “You always try to choose the least expensive and fastest method,” says Eyal. When soliciting bids for projects that entail scaffolding and sheds, boards should insist that these costs be broken out, so directors can compare apples to apples and eliminate any proposal that carries a suspiciously low price tag.

Accidents Happen

Money shouldn’t be the only consideration. Although many contractors have in-house scaffolding teams, others sub out some or all of this work. Buildings need to confirm which crew is doing what, and whether they are qualified to do it at all. Bad practices are dangerous – and they’re not uncommon. In a paper released last year, the New York State Trial Lawyers Association reviewed every construction site inspection conducted by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in New York State in 2003. The majority of the sites had significant safety violations; the incidence of lapses was worse in New York City and at elevated heights, including scaffolds. A second study of statistics compiled by OSHA found that since 2001, in two out of three New York City construction accidents in which a worker died or at least three workers were hospitalized, the victims were immigrants. (All of the dead and injured at 261 Park Avenue South were immigrants; most of them were undocumented.) Scaffolding firms with a penchant for hiring illegal aliens may simply dissolve after an accident and then reorganize under a new name.

Unscrupulous operators may take advantage of co-ops and condos, too. Pinette had its first bridge installed overnight, after the co-op’s agent at its management firm, since replaced, notified the directors of a dangerous condition that required immediate attention. The problem (ostensibly reported to the police): heavy icicles dangling from the eaves. The management firm directed Pinette to a company that put up 70 linear feet of shed for $14,000, which included three months’ rent. Thereafter, the scaffolding company wanted to charge monthly rent equal to 7.5 percent of the installation costs. Upon learning that typical rentals ranged from 3.5 percent to 6 percent, the co-op negotiated that fee down to 5.5 percent for eight months before lining up another company in time for its restoration project.
To avoid situations like this, exercise caution. It’s important to request references and find out how long a company has operated under its current name. (Pinette belatedly realized that its former managing agent was in cahoots with the owner of the scaffolding firm.) The board should also get proof of insurance – consult your lawyer, management firm, and insurance agent about the amount of coverage – and check licenses and permits required by the city.

Admittedly, that’s easier said than done. A bewildering assortment of regulations governs scaffolding and sheds. For example, no permits are needed for suspended scaffolding. But the platform itself must be hung and used under the supervision of a licensed rigger. “Ask to see the license,” suggests Peter Demb, senior architect at Rand. “It has the rigger’s picture on it.” A hanging scaffold supported by an outrigger beam must be filed with the New York City Department of Buildings’ cranes and derricks division before work begins. Furthermore, no one, whether engineer, architect, or tradesman, is supposed to set foot on the platform without completing a training program approved by the buildings department. Graduates of these programs receive cards, which they must show to employers.

For supported scaffolding, different rules apply. If the structure is going to rise 75 feet or more, the plans have to be designed by an engineer or architect and filed with the city, which issues a permit. A copy of that document – which has the name, address, phone number of the permit holder, the permit number, and its expiration date – has to be posted at the site. But at the moment, no training is required for the people who actually climb the scaffolding.

Changing Laws

New laws are scheduled to take effect this fall. “In November, people erecting, using, or dismantling pipe scaffolding 40 feet and above will need training,” reports Kenneth Buettner, president of York Scaffold Equipment Corp. in Long Island City and past president of the Scaffold Industry Association, a trade group headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona. “Buildings department permits will be needed to put up scaffolding of 40 feet or higher.” A qualified individual, with credentials yet to be determined, will have to sign off on the plans.
“We are still tweaking the legislation,” says buildings department spokeswoman Jennifer Givner, in reference to Local Law 52 of 2005. “Portions may be amended.” The current wording does not apply the regulations to a specific height.

Then there’s the shed, a local invention for shielding pedestrians from falling debris and construction material. “About 95 percent of its use is in New York City,” observes Buettner. “We need sheds because sidewalks are so crowded; you can’t just tell people to cross the street.” These bridges are required if work is being done on buildings higher than 100 feet. They are mandatory not only in front of the work site, but also for as much as 20 feet in front of an adjacent property. (A tip: if the owners of a building next to yours want to bridge your sidewalk, ask for the firm’s certificate of insurance.)

Like taller pipe scaffolding, sheds must be designed by either an engineer or architect, who receives a permit from the city. Bear in mind that the purpose of a bridge is protection. Bricks, mortar, and other supplies should not be piled on them, however briefly. “Sheds are normally not constructed with the intent of holding material for storage,” says Buettner. “Special design is needed for this function. Signs should say, ‘Storage not permitted.’”

Installation is frequently outsourced to firms that specialize in the business. Once a shed is set up, it’s probably going to linger for months. If possible, directors should visit sites rigged by the same people, to see how aesthetic questions have been addressed. Some of the impact can be reduced in the design stage. For example, “the minimum height is eight feet,” notes architect Joakim Aspegren, principal of Architecture Restoration Conservation, a firm that specializes in exterior restoration. “To avoid having the bridge block lower-floor windows, you might want to make it taller.” Entrances and awnings may call for double-height sheds.

The area under the enclosure must be lit to 200 watts or 3,400 lumens at all times, so artificial lighting has to be placed at 15 feet intervals to supplement natural sunlight. Incandescent bulbs should be set in vandal-proof fixtures. Building-wide security is an additional concern. It’s fairly easy for someone to climb over a bridge. As a deterrent, “barbed wire isn’t allowed anymore,” says Eyal. Instead, he recommends video cameras or alarms connected to the building.

Costs, Communications

Given all the effort involved, sheds are costly, running roughly $100 a linear foot, with a minimum of several thousand dollars, says Rand’s Varone. “You rent them for one minute, you rent for three months, because you’re paying for the labor,” he continues. “After three months, you pay monthly rental.” But contractors can, and do, cut better deals. “Nothing is written in stone,” Eyal insists. “If you need it for ten days, you bet I can get it for cheaper than for three months.”

One way to defray expenses? Boards can let advertisers post signs on bridge walls, for a fee. Companies that specialize in outdoor placements are particularly interested in installations in busy, upscale neighborhoods. In most of Manhattan, it’s rare to find a shed that isn’t plastered with promotional material.

After all these issues have been addressed, the remaining challenge is communications. “Give the building at least a week’s warning before the scaffolding is to go up,” says Varone. “Let everyone know which façade will be first.” For a Local Law 11 inspection, no bridge is needed, but two crew members should be stationed on the street, to cordon off the area.

Eyal has notices and charts posted in building lobbies to keep residents informed. On each day, before work begins, he directs his foreman and the building superintendent to make sure windows along the active areas are closed, to keep noise and dust out of apartments. Before crews pack up in the afternoon, they’re expected to clean up. The goal, concludes Eyal, “is to make construction less difficult on residents.”

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