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The Art of Softening Unwelcome Surprises

The Problem. We have a pre-war building on the Upper West Side that needed facade repairs for Local Law 11, or the Facade Inspection and Safety Program. And we did our site visits and noted that there was a fair amount of cracking at the building corners. In buildings from this era, that indicates deterioration of the structural steel behind the corners, behind the masonry. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad corrosion, it’s just because the brick was packed so tightly to the steel in this era of building, even the slightest bit of corrosion can cause cracking.

In our bid documents, we included an allowance for structural steel repairs, which was basically just a lump sum. Since we didn’t know the configuration of the steel, there were no details in this set of documents.

The Epiphany. Some of the corners were fine – surface deterioration and no big problem. But then we came to locations where the steel did need reinforcement, so we had to call in a structural engineer to get a proposal. Then we had to get the proposal signed by the client, get pricing from the contractor to do the reinforcement, get a special inspector onboard to come and look at the work while it was going on. And we had to file post-approval amendments at the Department of Buildings.

Fortunately, this building is not in a landmark district, so that didn’t come into play. But all of this added up to a fair amount of time that I don’t think the board members were really expecting – even though we’d warned them that we suspected they had structural-steel problems. Plus, all of the layers of bureaucracy that are part of any exterior project really added up.

Execution. What we needed to do was to get people talking, communicating, so the board could understand what was going on. This board is very reasonable. The project is still ongoing, and the board understands because it has really been laid out. It’s one thing to get a letter at the beginning of a job saying, “You might have steel problems.” It’s another thing when the surprises come into play.

So there was communication with the board and also communication with the contractor and the special inspector. Fortunately, the guy we use for special inspections is very responsive, but we had to get the contractor in the habit of calling him and saying, “Okay, on this day I’m gonna be ready for you.” That helped the work flow more smoothly so we could get it done faster. We also had the consulting structural engineer on a retainer, and that got us through a few instances where he had to go out to the site and design a new detail. That made things move more smoothly, too.

The Result. A lot of your job when you’re doing exterior restoration work is to soften the surprises and prepare the client. This facade project is working out well because everybody’s talking, and we’re all on the same page. But in the beginning, when this stuff starts happening, people get very nervous about money and time. I believe that in any job, as long as everyone is talking, then things are bound to move more smoothly.

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