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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



If You See Something, Say Something

It started as a fairly simple exterior restoration job for a 13-story, brick and terra-cotta building built in 1917 and located in the Upper West Side Historic District. When it was built, it was considered a transitional building. Back then, buildings were beginning to be constructed with steel supporting both the outside brick and interior concrete floors. Not all architects and engineers were comfortable with this, so some buildings were built with the outside brick wall basically supporting itself, and the interior floors being supported by steel. That’s how this building was constructed. In theory, you could gut the interior of the building and the exterior would stand up on its own.

During the course of the project, we were asked to inspect a crack on the third floor that was visible from the inside. We could see the steel column behind the plaster and brick. It was a pretty extreme condition, so we asked the restoration contractor to bring in a scaffold on the exterior side of the building to open a probe and allow us to inspect the conditions further. We sounded the steel, which is when you tap it to get a sense of its condition, and the hammer literally went right through it. There was little to no steel left. Generally we see steel degradation at the upper floors where you have the highest exposure to the elements and where it’s supporting the least amount of weight. Here, we had a failure at a very low level, which was supporting a tremendous amount of weight. We had a real concern about collapse.

This didn’t happen overnight, but everyone just kind of ignored it. Previous professionals who had done facade inspections had overlooked it because they were inspecting the outside, and the crack didn’t manifest there due to the nature of the construction.

The fix was pretty major. The original exterior restoration cost was $124,000, but fixing this problem added about $1.5 million. We had to bring in a specialized shoring company to put in two separate shoring towers to temporarily support the building corner, reinforce the steel, and repair the interior. To do the shoring, we needed to carve out about five feet inside each apartment from the third floor on up, and we hired a separate interior contractor to do this. That company built a plywood enclosure that was fully sealed and dust-proof, with an access door that was all painted white to make it less obtrusive. Within this room we ran a gigantic steel beam. This allowed us to unload the weight of the entire building from the third floor up and transfer it to these outside shoring towers.

Over the course of the project we held several informational meetings with the residents. At one of the meetings, somebody asked me what would happen if we did nothing, and I stammered a bit because it seemed kind of obvious what would happen if we did nothing. The building was being held up by the grace of God to begin with, so at what point it would have collapsed I couldn’t say. But in time it absolutely would have.

Some of the shareholders were incredulous, and it helped that at our first informational meeting we had a peer review engineer with us. We both independently presented the same situation, and we both came to the same conclusion that, yes, it was that bad.

While we were planning the project and finalizing the costs, the co-op was actively searching for loans. It was successful, and I definitely think buildings need to be in a financial position that they can raise funds, because this stuff does happen sometimes. Also, even though it’s a double-edged sword, one of the most important lessons learned here was how important it is for residents to say something when they see something. Some residents always see a little something and constantly report it, but the inverse of that is a little something left unattended can become a major capital expense.

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