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Two Cracks or Pops

Now you have to do more. Board members are discovering that there is suddenly another layer of scrutiny beyond what they’ve done under Local Law 11 (LL11) – and it’s potentially significant. It applies even if you completed LL11 work in Cycle 7.

Railings on balconies, terraces, roofs, and even, in some cases, fire escapes and enclosures must now be inspected for structural safety during LL11 work, or as it is now known, the Façade Inspection and Safety Program (FISP).

The change was prompted primarily by the horrific accident involving 35-year-old advertising executive Jennifer Rosoff. Relaxing on a date with a guest this past summer, she sat on the railing of her apartment’s balcony. Moments later, as newspapers reported, the guest heard “two cracks or pops” as the railing gave way. Rosoff plunged 17 stories to her death – and in the fallout from that incident, further inspections were mandated.

“Property owners are required to inspect the structural integrity of balcony railings and their components and ensure they are secured against upward movement by welds, bolts or screws,” says Department of Buildings (DOB) spokeswoman Kelly Magee.

Those buildings with balconies, terraces, roof decks, enclosures, or fire escapes that filed their FISP for Cycle 7 now have until February 2, 2015, to file an addendum stating that those structures are safe. The DOB says that 13,500 buildings citywide filed in the seventh cycle, but it’s unclear how many of those have balconies. As in many matters of inspections and local laws, buildings are faced with a familiar proposition: be overly cautious and spend a lot of money on an inspection, or be a little more lenient and open yourself up to possible liability.

Stephen Varone, president of Rand Engineering & Architecture, says each inspector will determine what is reasonable to do when looking to see that balconies are structurally sound. He offers an example of how one might approach a balcony inspection: “[Say a] building has 16 lines of balconies with 12 balconies on each line, they’re all the same design, and the visual inspection seems good. Then I pick 12 at random to check each one physically.”

Cost Estimates

It is difficult to ballpark the cost of doing the railing/guard inspections. “Our inspection engineers and architects in charge of these reports earn $215 an hour,” Varone says. “Do the math. If it’s one building and a few hours of checking and a few hours of writing a report, it’s one thing. If I have to access 15 or 20 balconies and get access to all those apartments and examine roof railings and 10 fire escapes, it can wind up adding 20 hours to the cost of the report.”

Leon Geoxavier, project manager with Walker Restoration Consultants, agrees that it’s hard to estimate how much more it will cost to add balcony inspections. “Depending on the size of the building and the condition, I’d say it could add up to 15 to 20 percent to the cost of the report,” he says.

The details of each building will dictate how much time it will take to return and confirm stability of the components, even if the expert is just checking a sample, says Varone, who asks: “Is it a seven-story building with one exposure and one balcony, or a fifteen-story building with four exposures, forty balconies, roof decks, multiple setbacks, etc.? In all likelihood, I would expect owners are looking at about $2,000 per building minimum to return this [seventh] cycle and issue the affidavit. In the eighth cycle, since everyone will know in advance what now needs to be done, perhaps it won’t take as much time.”

The cost to go back and do Cycle 7 balcony affidavits will be about $2,000 or $3,000 for each of two of buildings – one a condo and the other a co-op – with which he works, says Mark LiCalzi, president of Luke LiCalzi Consulting Engineers.

The cost to include a balcony inspection in Cycle 8 will likely be mitigated, in part, because professionals may be able to inspect the balconies from rigging that already has to be erected for FISP, says LiCalzi. That avoids the time-consuming and costly practice of having to gain access to individual apartments, he says.

If there are problems found with balconies during the inspection, the cost to fix it will vary. LiCalzi says fixes could be as simple as replacing screws or as complicated as replacing masonry. A common area for problems is the “pitch pocket,” the area in which the railing meets the deck, where water often sits.

“In the worst possible case, the management would have to notify occupants that they cannot use their balconies, and secure the door from the exterior side so that no one can accidentally use their balcony,” says LiCalzi. “If there is a real danger of the balcony falling, then a sidewalk bridge would be required.”

The cost to repair balconies also varies depending on the materials used, says Geoxavier. “Is it an older brick building with balcony walls that are similar to the parapets? Then it could be $500 to $750 a linear foot,” he says. “If it’s an aluminum railing or glass system, it’s something else. Are you repairing concrete railings at $400 a post? It depends on a lot of factors.”

Not Just Balconies

The change to include balconies in FISP was made official in May 2013 and is technically not a change to Local Law 11, but an amendment to the requirements for technical reports. Additional amendments were outlined in a DOB memo to FISP consultants in September of 2013. “The new rule mentioned only balconies,” says Varone. “The [September] memo clarified that ‘balconies’ in this context included terraces, walkways, corridors, fire escapes, roof, and setbacks [among other things].”

Another issue involves how many balconies must be inspected. Dennis DePaola, executive vice president of the management agency Orsid Realty, says the May rules indicated that “balcony railings must be inspected. The initial reaction to this language in the industry was that 100 percent inspection of all balconies was required, and thus the inspection alone would cost five figures. The September memo clarified that the consultant may determine that all balcony railings should be checked.”

Still, DePaola wonders whether there will be more guidance forthcoming from the DOB on how many balconies must be inspected. He estimates that he has about a dozen buildings in his portfolio that will have to do the follow-up report.

In an e-mail, DOB spokeswoman Magee says the exact number to be reviewed and inspected is up to the consultant, who will take into account “the configuration of the buildings, total number of appurtenances/balconies at the building, age of construction, materials used (steel, aluminum, masonry, wrought-iron, glass, Plexiglas, etc.).” LiCalzi says the issue is clear: “It’s up to the professional to determine the sampling.”

In December, seven months after the change to include railings/guards, the DOB met with engineers and architects to give guidance on how to implement the new standards. Another meeting was just held on March 6, 2013.

Clarity in the Law

Another issue raised at that time was what a building must do if, during the FISP process, it is determined that a balcony railing is not up to code in height or in the distance between railings. And if the balcony is otherwise structurally sound but is not up to code, must the building now make code? And what code? The standards that were in place when the building was constructed? Or current standards?

Gene Ferrara, president of the consulting firm JMA Consultants, believes that a balcony would have to be brought up to acceptable structural stability standards if the deficiencies rendered it unsafe. “However, code compliance for its own sake is a whole different item,” Ferrara says. The DOB will be issuing its final memo in a few weeks.

Magee confirms that the DOB’s primary concern is structural stability, regardless of what code the building was built under. “If the height or spacing of a balcony railing is in compliance with an older version of the building code, it should be noted in the technical report and the property owner [should be] made aware,” she says in an e-mail. “To the best of their ability, consultants should note if balconies, appurtenances, etc….are in compliance with the codes under which the building was constructed, or substantially altered. Balconies can be identified as SWARMP [Safe With a Repair and Maintenance Program] and ‘brought up to code’ in the next cycle. What code they are ‘brought up to’ depends on the amount of alterations that have been made to the building. It could be the current code, or the code that building was built under.”

“At Rand, we had encouraged our clients to hold off because there were still so many questions within the industry,” says Varone. “We did not want to have to return and reinspect yet again if new directives were issued. Indeed, the scope of the required reinspection greatly expanded from the initial scope of just balcony railings to encompass all railings and also all fire escapes throughout. We are now in the process of advising our clients of the new regulations and anticipate beginning the additional railing inspections in the near future.”

In early March, the DOB clarified that the determining factor in balcony repairs will not be code compliance, unless not complying creates a significant safety issue.

So is it fair to ask buildings to make a deadline of February 2015 (for those filing in Cycle 7) when clarifications have been trickling in over the past few months? Says Magee: “As we get feedback from individuals, we go around and give memos and clarifications. This is how it happens all the time. We have received many [Cycle 7 affidavits], so people are filing them.”

Rand is urging its clients to be proactive, asking owners to have the building staff go around and do repair checks themselves, before the pros do theirs, says Varone. Another key is to communicate frequently with residents about possible problems, reminding them to report issues with balconies and terraces.

“Have your maintenance staff keep an eye on these components on an annual basis, and make that statement to me and I can make that part of my report and that minimizes the amount of time it takes me,” he says. “It can be a situation where I used to have to charge you $4,000 but now I charge you $5,000 but at least I don’t have to charge you $20,000.

“It really should be seen as an owner-maintenance thing,” he adds. “That is the way to minimize cost. If you are regularly checking it, you are avoiding big problems and also not having to pay as much of those $200-an-hour fees for architects and engineers. And, of course, you are also avoiding what we all want to avoid: someone having an accident.”

 

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