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Elevator Replacement

So you need to replace your elevator? It’s constantly breaking down, or slowing down, or making those funny noises that bring out your old fear of being in enclosed spaces. But don’t take on this task expecting it to be a walk in the park. Replacing the elevator can be a ticket to hell – or at least the cause of a bad headache.

Ask David Goodman, a senior executive at Tudor Realty. “People yell and scream and complain the entire time it’s going on,” he warns. Adds Bram Fierstein, president of Gramatan Management: “I hear these horror stories where a notice goes up that says, ‘The elevator is going to be out for the next month,’ and people go nuts.”

There is no way around it: when a building’s elevator breaks down, residents complain. But when that elevator needs to be modernized, a capital project that can take an elevator out of commission for several weeks, a temporary inconvenience turns into a major problem. Elevator modernization projects happen once every 20 or 30 years, but when they do happen, the process is long and grueling. Buildings with only one elevator – and even those with two – have to invent creative ways to ease the pain. Many of the solutions cost money, making an already expensive project even more costly.

What steps should a board take to reduce the inconvenience and increase the cordiality in an elevator upgrade?

Communicate

Trudging groceries up six flights of stairs for a month can make anyone irritable. However, board members and property managers can curb the rage by keeping residents in the know. If building management can help residents understand that the enormous inconvenience will ultimately make their lives more convenient, the payoff can be worth the temporary torment. The board, through building management, should “explain that you’re sensitive to their needs and you know this is a real hardship,” says Fierstein.

Elevator modernization projects involve months of planning. Take advantage of the lead-time and use it to inform residents early. Hold a shareholder meeting or send out letters as soon as a contractor has been selected, which is usually about three months before work begins.

And keep communicating. Information reduces angst. Send residents regular updates by e-mail or slip notes under their doors. Post updates in public places – particularly near the offending elevator. Inform the fire department that an elevator will be out of service, especially if elderly residents live in the building or if the building has only one elevator.

Pay More, Get More

An elevator modernization project generally takes six to eight weeks to complete. That means the elevator will be out of commission for the entire time – and that doesn’t include the period when you are waiting for an inspection by the city. However, a building can shave two or three weeks off the timeline by requesting an expedited schedule. “If you can afford to pay the premium, do it. Even for buildings with multiple elevators, having to wait longer drives people crazy,” says Fierstein.

Because an elevator is a small, enclosed space, only a limited number of people can work on the equipment. However, by expediting the project, a crew can spend ten hours a day, six days a week on it. In essence, a building pays for overtime to get the job done faster. But remember: the savings in time come at a steep price. Expect to pay a 10 percent premium for the job, says Robert Schaeffer, president of D&D Elevator Maintenance. Modernizing the elevator in a typical, seven-story building costs about $125,000, according to Schaeffer. Expediting the job would raise the bill by another $12,500.

Even with an expedited schedule (and especially without one), build an extra week or two into the schedule. Unexpected complications like a missing part or an inspection delay can add a week to the timetable. If residents expect the work to take six weeks and it stretches into seven, tensions flare. “If you underestimate the time, you are better off dead because they will absolutely crucify you,” says Rosemary Paparo, director of management at Buchbinder Warren. On the other hand, if the work finishes sooner than anticipated – or sooner than residents think it’s supposed to be finished – “then everybody’s a hero,” says Paparo.

Staff and Bridges

Hire extra porters and doormen – or schedule more hours of overtime for the ones already on staff. Let residents know when extra staff will be available to help carry groceries or strollers upstairs. If elderly residents need help climbing stairs, an extra porter could help. Expect to budget for the extra hours. Non-union porters can cost about $12 to $15 per hour. Union porters cost more, especially for overtime. A building is likely to spend about $300 a week on overtime, depending on its size.

Consider the roof as a possible access to the stairs. If residents can use a different elevator to get to the rooftop, they can walk downstairs, which is easier than walking up. Sometimes, you can find unusual solutions. Five years ago, for instance, an Upper West Side co-op had its only elevator modernized. Tudor’s Goodman managed that building and the neighboring co-op. He worked out an agreement between the two buildings so residents could take the other building’s elevator to the roof, cross over it, and then walk down the stairs of their own building. Goodman placed a porter on the roof to assist residents. The manager says he was able to negotiate the relationship by encouraging a good rapport between the two properties. “It’s quid pro quo,” he notes. “We try to encourage neighborliness and friendship between buildings… sort of committing to cooperation.”

Schaeffer of D&D Elevators used a similar bridge technique at a Westchester co-op that had two elevators, one for each wing of the property. Residents in the wing without a working elevator took the other elevator up to the roof and then walked across a temporary wooden walkway that the property constructed to make the walk easier. Some properties build temporary covered walkways, he notes.

Reduce the Use

For a building with more than one elevator, urge residents to stagger their commute schedule so the only operating elevator isn’t overloaded at 8 A.M. Residents should also avoid renovations or work like carpet cleaning during the upgrade. Some boards go so far as to restrict renovations entirely during an elevator repair project.

Ask residents to avoid moving in or out of the building during that period. If a move does have to happen and one elevator is still working, place a porter in the elevator to keep it running to other floors when the movers aren’t using it. But, by and large, property managers try to keep moves from happening during the upgrade. “We try to avoid it like the plague,” Anton Cirulli, managing director of Lawrence Properties, says of move-ins.

If a building has more than one elevator, schedule maintenance for the working elevator before the modernization project begins. It reduces the chance that both elevators could be out of service simultaneously, a situation that would guarantee a flood of angry phone calls from residents.

Consider the culture of the building when scheduling work. If residents tend to vacation during the summer, that could be an ideal time to take an elevator out of commission, as fewer residents will be around. And residents tend to be out most of the day in the warmer months and home less. However, the summer is also hot and for the residents who are home, climbing several flights of stairs on a steamy August day can be miserable. So, the more temperate fall or spring seasons are a good alternative. Avoid doing the work during the winter or the holidays when everyone is bundled up and walking up six flights of stairs can be a greater discomfort.

Consider the Elderly

For elderly or disabled residents, losing an elevator can be more than an inconvenience – it can be dangerous to their health. Instruct porters to help residents to and from their apartments. Place a chair at every landing so a weary resident can stop and take a break if necessary. But make sure the chair is not a fire safety hazard. Cirulli suggests that buildings buy an emergency chair for use in the event that a sick resident needs to be brought downstairs. Mutual Housing Association Inc., a co-op in the Bronx, installed a second railing on its stairwells so residents who had difficulty walking could hold onto both sides for support.

Porters should check in on elderly residents and could even provide them with temporary cell phones should they get stuck in the stairwell or need assistance getting out of their apartment. Mutual Housing set up floor representatives for each floor to check in on residents. “It’s a great opportunity for community building,” says Ann Gordon, president of the co-op.

Gordon’s two-building complex actually has another, unusual problem. When the structure was built, someone had the bright idea of programming one of the two elevators to stop on even-numbered floors and the other to stop on odd-numbered floors. If one of the elevators breaks down, residents have to walk down a flight to catch the working elevator.

When a building has only one elevator, many residents consider alternative accommodations for the work period, particularly older or disabled residents who may struggle with the stairs. Giving residents plenty of time to make plans helps. Some residents choose to stay in a hotel, with family, or plan a vacation during the time.

Goodwill doesn’t cost anything. Let residents park strollers in the lobby or keep packages and groceries downstairs until they can be brought up later. Losing an elevator is an enormous inconvenience, but a little compassion goes a long way.

“What people want to know is that they’re not on their own,” observes Fierstein. “They want to know that there’s assistance, that you appreciate the inconvenience, and that we’re all in this together.”

Adds Goodman: “Once it’s done, all the pain is forgotten. And then you end up with a better elevator.”

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