Thousands of cooperative and condominium buildings in New York City may have a dirty little secret in their basements. “I would say 50 percent of buildings have illegal laundry rooms,” says Jamey Ehrman, senior engineer at RAND Engineering & Architecture.
Andrew Rudansky, senior deputy press secretary at the city’s Department of Buildings, notes that washing machines and dryers use gas that can ignite, and washers use water that can cause a flood. Improperly maintained lint vents can also become clogged, adding to the fire risk. “Illegal electrical and plumbing work associated with a laundry room will not only be subject to DOB enforcement actions, but could pose a significant fire safety issue,” Rudansky says.
It can cost more than $150,000 to make an illegal laundry room safe enough to pass inspection, Ehrman says. It should have fire-rated walls, which can cost more than $100,000 to retrofit, and vents that carry hot air outside. If the vents have to be longer than 14 feet, the air in the duct will need to keep moving via specially constructed fans. A safe laundry room will also need rigid gas lines, a sprinkler system in case of fire, and drains in case of flooding.
Most New York buildings built after 1938 need a certificate of occupancy that designates the uses allowed in the space. To get a new C of O that allows a laundry room, a building would have to get an “Alteration Type-One” (Alt-One) permit from the DOB, which can open a can of worms. Before the DOB will issue the permit, it typically requires the building to clear all of its outstanding violations and open building permits – which often include open permits for alterations to individual apartments that were started, finished, and forgotten decades ago.
“The great majority of buildings have open permits or violations, and the process of clearing them can take anywhere from three months to a year,” says Ehrman. Many boards hire expediting companies to clear them.
Owners of older buildings should consider hiring a professional to examine their laundry room and write a letter for their files certifying that it meets the requirements of the code – or identifying any problems that need to be fixed. Ignoring this problem will not make it go away.