The building had certainly seen better days. When the 15-story, 75-unit co-op at 130 East 63rd Street in Manhattan’s Lenox Hill neighborhood was constructed in 1960, its white-brick exterior – designed to make the structure stand out from the traditional red-brick masonry of its pre-war neighbors – was very much in vogue. But over the decades, those white bricks lost their luster, in more ways than one.The property was one of many built in the 1950s and ’60s that were covered with glazed brick, which was supposed to keep the inner walls dry by repelling moisture. But as Ed Adler, the co-op president at 130 East 63rd, learned, things don’t always go according to plan.
“The reality is that moisture always seeps in, whether from behind, from the ground, or through the mortar joints,” he says. With the city’s freeze-and-thaw cycles of winter, the water trapped in the brick expands, putting pressure on the glaze. The result isn’t pretty. “The exterior surfaces crack and pop off, splinter, or chip – the technical term is spalling – requiring more and more repairs, not just aesthetically but structurally as well,” explains Adler. “Even a small piece dropping on the sidewalk could be a danger to pedestrians. We had to put aluminum sheeting on the parapet walls to make sure that didn’t happen.”
Getting Rid of an Albatross
It was a makeshift solution for a much bigger problem. During a routine inspection of the building’s facade, which is required every five years under local law, the board’s engineer, Eugene Ferrara, president of JMA Consultants, delivered the bad news. Significant areas of brick, not just on the facade but also on the terraces and roof, had deteriorated to the point where they needed to be replaced, not merely patched over. Ferrara suggested a radical fix – reskinning the building, which meant removing the entire exterior and replacing each and every brick with a more durable alternative, which would run into millions of dollars. “It’s a huge project, and it is expensive,” admits Ferrara.“But for glazed-brick buildings, where the problems just get worse and worse, it’s cheaper in the long run to do a total reskin rather than deal with the headache of constantly making spot repairs. It’s like getting rid of an albatross.” The co-op’s board, however, needed some convincing. “Our first reaction was that we wouldn’t be able to afford to reskin,” says Adler. “As it was, our reserves were small and would cover only a fraction of the repairs that needed to be made.”
That was when Ferrara stepped in, solicited bids, and crunched the numbers. “I priced out a standard restoration project and a total reskin, and showed them that the added cost wasn’t nearly as much as they thought,” he says. “They originally had a price of $3.5 million for a basic facade, roof, and terrace triage job. I got a reskin price of $5 million, which was only a 40 percent increase. That’s a big bang for the buck.” Adler and his four fellow board members quickly came around, realizing that doing basic, piecemeal repairs would mean they would just be facing new problems 10 or 20 years down the line. “With a reskin, we’d be in much stronger position for the long haul,” he says. “Technologically, we’d have more advanced brick and better installation, so everything would hold up better. And it would certainly enhance the look of our building, which had become pretty tired. There were all sort of advantages.”
But there was also the matter of money. The cost of reskinning translated to about $100,000 per apartment, far too expensive for a building-wide assessment of the co-op’s mostly older, middle-income residents.
“Fortunately, we were underleveraged and had only a $2 million mortgage, which made it easy for us to get a bigger one,” says Adler. “We got a $7.5 million loan from National Cooperative Bank at just 5 percent, which allowed us to impose a modest maintenance increase of 13 percent, which was very palatable to our shareholders.”
The Work Begins
With financing in hand, the board had several meetings with Ferrara, who took them through every step of the process, including potential contractors, insurance coverage, and which permits and approvals would be required.
“A lot of money had to be paid out, and it was key that board members had the maturity to consider all the costs, soft and hard,” Ferrara says. “They also had to go to the shareholders to explain the benefits and downsides, including how much disruption there will be and for how long.”
The board did just that, and more. “We presented residents with different brick samples and grout colors so we could get their input on the aesthetics,” says Adler, adding that the reskin came with a bonus. “There was a hodgepodge of air conditioners – some were longer, wider, squarer – and Gene said it would be a shame to put on a new facade without standardizing the sleeves. We told the residents we were going to do that – and that we would work with them to buy new units.”
The project was expected to take two and a half years (factoring in four-month shutdowns during the winter months), and things proceeded on schedule. In a reskinning, bricks are removed from the top down with chipping hammers and hand-held jackhammers. “Which means there’s a lot of noise in the beginning but it’s relatively quiet when the new brick is going up,” says Adler. “Thanks to Gene, we knew what to expect, and we were able to inform our shareholders. Everyone took it very well. The complaints we had were minor – dust, etc.”
Because of the reskinning, maintaining the structure will now be a breeze. “They’ll have to start to work on the caulking about 20 years from now and general pointing repairs in 40 years, and they won’t have to face another big job like this for at least 100 years,” says Ferrara, who has some words of advice for others who live in white-brick buildings. “If you’re doing major repair projects every five years and you haven’t asked questions about a total reskin, then you should. You’ll get longevity by thinking outside of the box.”
Adler agrees. “To this day, everybody is delighted with the results,” he says. “For the longest time, we were never a building you’d point to and say, ‘What a beautiful place.’ But now we are. Was reskinning worth the cost and hassle and angst? Absolutely. It was the smartest thing we ever did.”