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Tales of the Unexpected 1: Falling Cornice

Elizabeth A. Jensen, a freelance writer, is currently the vice president of the board of her Upper West Side condo. She has written for The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review, the New York Daily News, and others, and is a former staff writer for The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.

 

 

How a falling piece of brickwork led to a $1.2 million construction crisis.

 

Stuff happens. But when it happens to you, it can make your head spin. In my building’s case, to the tune of $1.2 million.

It all started with a cell phone call from the managing agent while I was on a brief break from jury duty in July 2001. He told me that we had an emergency at our 90-year-old condominium on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A large chunk of decorative terra cotta from the parapet had plunged 12 stories and narrowly missed hitting two pedestrians. The president of the condo board was on vacation in Paris and, as the vice president, I needed to approve spending $45,000 to erect a sidewalk bridge. It wasn’t the kind of sum one drops easily every day, but not approving it wasn’t an option. I gulped, said “Okay,” and by midnight, after the police intervened to calm irate neighbors, the bridge was up.

 

Two-and-a-half years and $1.2 million later, my 63-unit building and the board were well-versed in “terra cotta-alternative GFRC,” the frustrations of condo financing, and the necessity of creating consensus. We had weathered the heated debates (orange protective netting or black with an orange stripe?), and learned you can never communicate too often with owners and residents.

In a perfect world, of course, every building would conduct preventive maintenance checks every three months so that no emergencies could arise, while every building would have a multi-million dollar reserve fund to cover the costs associated with repairs (ours was certainly adequate but not close to being large enough to handle this project). And owners would all have the same opinion about what they wanted done. But that’s not how it works in the real world and, even with a savvy managing agent to guide things along, boards can be easily overwhelmed.

The expensive sidewalk bridge turned out to be the easy part. Indeed, we were soon dizzy with questions. How many engineers’ reports to get? How many architects to interview? As a condo, we couldn’t go out and get a loan, so how to finance what was turning out to be an extensive repair? How to get consensus from owners? Scopes of the work were conflicting and projected costs varied widely.

An immediate inspection turned up more loose chunks ready to fall, caused by water seeping into the terra cotta. To save money, an earlier sponsor, had ripped off the decorative cornice and replaced it with smooth concrete that was funneling water into cracks. A previous fix – thought to be architecturally sound at the time – had instead caused added damage.

We solicited multiple architectural and engineering opinions, but our timing was unfortunate: it was now mid-September, soon after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and many firms were busy with larger structural emergencies. Eventually, the experts we did consult convinced the board that an expensive repair – tearing down and replacing our architecturally unique parapet – was needed rather than the cheaper patch jobs that had gotten us into the current trouble. But we had to convince the owners. Not an easy task: they could be assessed as much as $30,000 per apartment.

We had all heard every nightmare story of projects that went over budget and took years to complete. Indeed, along the way we ran into a couple of major glitches, including a delay in getting the brick we needed, because of a region-wide shortage that hadn’t been foreseen. But we also had some great luck; most notably, our super had the foresight to save pieces of the destroyed cornice in the sub-basement. That meant the architects had an exact model to cast from, rather than just a photograph.

While I wouldn’t pretend that we have all the answers, the trial-and-error approach we took yielded some strategies that are applicable to other projects, large or small, emergency or not. Here are the seven major lessons we learned:

 

7 Pillars of Wisdom

 

1 Get lots of opinions, even if you have to pay for them. Our first call was to the architect the building had worked with for several years. He was able to help us stabilize the situation quickly. At our request, he also rendered an opinion on how to deal with the situation long-term. But we soon decided that we also needed to get outside opinions that wouldn’t be encumbered by any possible conflict of interest.

Our managing agent helped us find one firm, whose assessment of the problem diverged somewhat from the first opinion we had received. Then we decided to do something unusual: instead of presenting the problem as a fait accompli to the professionals, we sought out opinions about the scope of the work. Getting those opinions wasn’t easy; the terrorist attack meant that many of the city’s top engineers were tied up helping evaluate the downtown Manhattan buildings surrounding Ground Zero. I ended up soliciting names from everyone I could think of, and eventually got some calls returned. Two firms, when they didn’t have the manpower to perform inspections themselves, agreed to examine the reports that had already been prepared. Both concurred on the action that needed to be taken.

We subsequently decided that this situation offered an architectural opportunity. Putting a cornice back would not only protect the building from future damage, it would also return it to its original splendor. We could make a tangible case to the owners that the investment would also improve property values. New technologies – most notably the synthetic GFRC, which can be made to mimic terra cotta – would make the cost feasible.

Not every professional in the city is willing to render a professional opinion when he or she isn’t also being asked to bid on the job. But in our experience, it is worth seeking out those who will, and the several hundred dollars that each opinion costs is money well spent if it saves you from taking the wrong approach.

Once we figured out the scope of the work, we solicited formal bids from architectural/engineering firms to oversee the job. Again, we insisted on having at least three bidders. Two were firms that had also rendered an earlier engineering opinion for us; one wasn’t.

 

 

2 Don’t panic; take your time. Understandably, there was lots of pressure from owners to quickly come up with a plan of attack. They wanted to know how much it would cost, how long it would take, and when the unsightly bridge would come down.

Our first delays were unavoidable, but the board felt strongly that we should hold out for multiple opinions so we decided to weather the heat from a few owners. In the end, it took us six months from the day the terra cotta first fell to our choosing an architect – longer than ideal but nonetheless better than having rushed into something we might regret later.

 

 

3 Have lots of information meetings for shareholders/owners. Coming up with consensus is never easy and it wasn’t simple for us. Our reading of the bylaws led us to believe we could make many decisions on our own. Nonetheless, we decided to limit complaints down the road by involving owners in the big decisions as much as possible.

We held meetings to talk about architectural options and then more meetings to talk about financial options, and even when owners wanted to stretch the debate for hours, we kept on going. We involved the architect as often as feasible, even though we had to pay for his presence. He explained what was going on much better than we ever could. When consensus really wasn’t there – most notably about whether to do a historically accurate rebuilding of our parapet or a less-expensive simpler version – we put it to a vote of the owners.

 

 

4 When it comes to financing, offer options, if possible and give owners or shareholders plenty of advance notice. Once the project got underway, we had a pretty good idea of what it was going to cost but we were leery of the unknowns, since the architect kept warning us that he wouldn’t know the full scope of the problem until he was able to get at the structural steel hidden under the terra cotta and masonry.

While we had built plenty of contingency money into the estimated cost, we were still worried. Owners, meanwhile, had an opposite concern: they wanted to make sure that they weren’t being assessed more money than we needed.

We investigated a number of options, including bank financing, which at the time was almost impossible for a condo (unlike now, when there are starting to be a few products available). Eventually, we realized that we had to impose an assessment. But because it was a long job, we wouldn’t need to assess for all the money up front.

So, with the blessing of our finance committee, we decided to assess in two phases. In the first phase, we collected 75 percent of what we estimated we would need. Owners could pay each month over 12 months, or they could pay the lump sum up front, and get a small discount. We would collect the final 25 percent – which could be adjusted up or down once the job was nearing completion – in a year. We ended up assessing for exactly what we said we would, but felt comfortable by the second portion of the assessment that we weren’t going to have to go back to the owners with a request for additional money.

Many owners told us that the most important thing for them was having advance notice of the assessment. Some needed to take out loans; others just wanted to be able to plan their finances. We tried whenever possible to give at least two month’s notice.

 

 

5 Sometimes, it’s good to trust instincts and not just the numbers. The three architectural/engineering firms that bid on the job came in one after the other in a marathon early morning session of presentations that left us spinning. But once our heads cleared and we got some distance from their selling jobs, we realized that we had a consensus on which firm we wanted to hire.

And it wasn’t the one that promised to get the job done for the least amount of money. In fact, the least expensive bidder was also the most vague. The person presenting for that firm seemed to have spent very little time reflecting on the problem and what it would take to solve it. His attitude was “Let’s get started and see where it goes.” Another firm had given it more thought but the person doing the presentation didn’t seem particularly engaged or creative.

The firm that won us over was the one that really wanted the job – passionately – and had apparently given it much thought. The architect had a very definite idea of what needed to be done, but he agreed to work up alternatives when we said we were worried about selling his expensive ideas to owners. Even though we were out of our league when it came to the architectural and engineering challenges, what we finally agreed on was we just liked the guy. That’s important when you will be spending the next year or more with him.

We had a similar experience with contractors. Six were solicited; five bid. One jumped out as having the right terra cotta experience and approach to detail; he was also willing to work through the winter – as long as the weather cooperated. We were relieved when the bid came in at an affordable level, although it wasn’t the rock bottom lowest. Still, it was low enough for us to feel we could choose the firm we liked and still be acting within our fiduciary responsibility.

 

 

6 Once the job is underway, go to the site meetings. On big projects, reputable architects will hold weekly job meetings with the contractors, to review where things stand and any problems that have come up. The managing agent and a board member can reasonably ask to be included, if they aren’t routinely invited.

Attending the meetings was a burden but in our case it was also an investment that paid off by helping us avoid a number of problems. For one, the board was kept abreast of complications – such as a brick shortage – and had a better understanding of the options than if the information had to be communicated second- or third-hand after the meeting. Moreover, seemingly every week the contractor or architect needed a judgment call and our board representative (usually me) was able to quickly turn around and query board members, so the contractor wasn’t delayed, and the job kept moving.

Finally, attending the meetings lowered the chances of severe miscommunication. At a friend’s building, a major roof repair job recently ended without the architect ever becoming aware that the leak had extended to one area that he should have known about all along. The board member who had agreed to attend the weekly meetings never did; it seems likely that the architect or contractor would have been made aware of the problems had that person done so.

 

 

7 Build in as much flexibility as possible and remain open to the unforeseen. Damage to the structural steel, which couldn’t be accurately predicted until the parapet was removed, was discovered and fell within our contingency budget. Once we felt comfortable that we knew those issues, we could turn our attention to other unforeseen repairs that came up along the way.

Eventually, we decided to handle some façade repairs that would need to be done in a few years anyway to satisfy Local Law 11 requirements. Although these could have been put off, we figured we should take advantage of the sidewalk bridge and the complete scaffold that had been built up to the penthouses, which would save us from having to pay for them again down the road.

Likewise, well into the job, a few owners came to us with an unexpected proposal. Some small windows in two apartment lines had been bricked over decades ago when the apartments had been cut up to make smaller units. Now the owners wanted to take advantage of the access that the full scaffold gave to reopen the windows, something the board had never allowed before because of the liability of falling bricks. The contractor was amenable and, with unit-owners picking up the extra costs, several people were able to take advantage of the unforeseen opportunity.

In the end, it was a combination of careful groundwork, gut instinct, and some luck that got us to the conclusion we wanted. Because of the brick problem, the job came in several months late, but we did come in on budget (albeit having used up every bit of contingency that we had built in).

And, while we couldn’t have known this in advance, our decision to conduct a historically accurate repair job paid off when the project won two prestigious architecture acknowledgements: a Lucy G. Moses Award from the Landmarks Preservation Council and honors from the New York chapter of the Victorian Society in America.

As for whether our decisions turned out to be architecturally sound… check back with us in 10 or 20 years.

 

 

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