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What Are the Terra-Cotta Issues?

Howard L. Zimmerman, Founder
Howard L. Zimmerman Architects

The Lay of the Land

I have lived in a prewar building for 35 years and have been on my board for the past 32 years. Being on the board, I thought it prudent to recommend that we hire another engineering firm to assess the various components of our building in order to give us a roadmap – a blueprint for the future – for the projects we need to do and the amount of money that would be necessary to implement those programs.

We reviewed the engineer’s report and planned to do many of the items recommended. One item, which had been budgeted for $500,000 in a previous Local Law 11 report, was now sent out for bid. When the estimates came in, it had jumped to $1.2 to $1.5 million. The reason for the dramatic increase was that the Department of Buildings (DOB) rules had changed regarding terra cotta. They now want it replaced, instead of merely repaired.

Now What?

Terracotta is found mostly on prewar buildings. Previously, a lot of professionals felt that repair was a reasonable and a cost-effective approach. For hairline and minor cracks we used to apply caulking and sealant to bridge the gap and keep water out of it. That was a 5-to-10-year remedy in most cases that we were all comfortable with. That was the methodology for the past 20 years.

Terracotta becomes more fragile with age, and now the DOB very clearly frowns upon a caulking, sealing, or patching repair. Even if you do a significant patch, the DOB wants us to justify how we’re doing it, with what material, and show them the manufacturers’ assurances for the material and structural calculations for the metal we’re putting in there to bond the patch to the original terra-cotta. This becomes very time-consuming and a big liability for us and the building itself. The DOB doesn’t want the terra-cotta removed from buildings, but they do want it to be replaced with new material. That said, there are only two major vendors in the country that can provide the reproductions, and they have backlogs of at least eight to ten months.

The takeaways are:

•    Make your building repairs in a timely manner; acting sooner rather than later assures a lower cost to repair.
•    Evaluate acceptable materials to replace terra-cotta, including cast stone, micro-cotta, or glass fiber reinforced concrete, which may be more cost-effective and may save time.
•    Make sure you are working with an architect or engineer who is a specialist in assessing your building conditions.

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