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The Facts About FISP

As the new cycle for Local Law 11 inspections begins, new regulations, previewed at an industry meeting staged by the Department of Buildings (DOB) on April 18, are causing consternation among building owners and their professionals. The upcoming requirements for Local Law 11, formally known as the Facade Inspection Safety Program (FISP), will affect about 14,000 buildings over six stories high throughout the city, and will be, in the words of Howard L. Zimmerman, president of Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, “more involved, more intense, more expensive.”

There are already signs of trouble. For instance, Eric Cowley, president of Cowley Engineering, has prepared and sent out a number of job proposals, which may have to be amended to reflect the new FISP directives.

Co-ops and condos with enclosed terraces will also face increased scrutiny, which may ultimately lead to many of the terrace enclosures being removed. That’s because many were installed without a permit and may exceed allowable zoning square footage. The DOB is raising the cost of the permits, which used to be about $2,500. They’re now up to $6,500.

Finally, the new requirements will give less discretionary power to architects and engineers. Says Zimmerman: “Where, in the past, the architect might have said, ‘Well, you can fix this in three years,’ the buildings department is now taking a harsh look at that and saying, ‘Are you really sure about that?’ There’s a tremendous amount of liability. I think most professionals are going to err on the side of caution now.”

Adds Cowley: “We used to give [our clients] time to build up funds [by not requiring immediate repairs]. The engineer had more options. Now, the DOB is going to challenge our assessments of the condition more than they did in the past. You get a 30-day cure rate. Nobody can cure anything in 30 days.”

The proposed new regs are being issued in response to a pair of high-profile accidents in Manhattan last year – one involving the death of a two-year-old girl from falling terracotta on West 74th Street, the other involving bricks falling from an East 63rd Street high-rise.

“The buildings department is on high alert for older buildings with decorative stone,” Zimmerman notes. “Any buildings with such decorative stone will call for a higher level of inspection” to satisfy the FISP safety requirements.

The new rules will require:

More scaffold drops. While one inspection of the exterior (typically by scaffold drop) is the minimum currently required, Zimmerman notes that the DOB is now saying that one drop may not be enough. Depending on age, construction type, repair history, and observations, additional drops may be necessary. “We’ll be doing more facades than sides,” says Cowley. “You’re required to do one side drop. I think more sides will have to be checked. Maybe even two on the street side, and it could be four drops instead of one, probably at about $3,500 a drop.” In extraordinary cases, scaffold drops can cost up to $25,000 apiece.

More probes. Cowley says that the DOB believes the recent accidents were caused by poor original construction and/or problems with the construction as it aged. “Therefore,” he says, “it’s not so much what you can see from the outside anymore. It becomes more of what you need to uncover through probing and more thorough examinations. But if our findings are inconclusive, or we find [problems], then we’ve got to tell the boards, ‘Listen, this entire section of wall has to be rebuilt.’”

Some also worry about fines from DOB when problems are not corrected fast enough – due to a possible shortage of professionals to perform inspections.

Gene Ferrara, president of JMA Consultants, an engineering firm, fears that the new regulations will force boards to turn to supposedly less costly architects and engineers who will actually end up being more expensive. Because he has handled some buildings for as long as 36 years, he says he’s aware of their idiosyncrasies, which might not be the case with a new professional brought in to save money.

“This just happened to me,” Ferrara says. “A building left me. They hired somebody who they thought was cheaper. Now they’re facing a $300,000 or $400,000 job because he found [‘problems.’] All the conditions that he noted were conditions that we knew about and had no problem with because we’ve been up on the building for 15, 20 years. The original Local Law 11 inspection techniques and processes left a lot up to the engineer. What they’re finding is that many of these new engineers are just doing a very surface look at things.”

That may be true, but the bottom line, says Zimmerman, is that the city is “ratcheting up the requirements, and I think it’s going to cost more. How much more, I can’t tell you at this time.”

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