The Meter is Running
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The Lafayette co-op is cooking with gas again.
AUTHORSue Treiman and Bill Morris
Thanks to stringent new inspection rules – and aging infrastructure – the dreaded buildingwide gas shutdown is becoming an increasingly common headache in New York co-ops and condos. But if boards make smart business decisions, it’s possible to get through such an ordeal with a minimum of agony. And in one recent case, within budget and ahead of schedule.
That’s what happened at the Lafayette, a 6-story, 128-unit co-op in Forest Hills, Queens, where inspectors for National Grid discovered a tiny leak in a gas line during mandated inspections in January 2019. Then they discovered another leak. And another. As soon as the utility ordered the building’s gas to be shut down, the seven-member co-op board and its property manager got down to business.
Step by Step
“The very first thing we did was to call a general meeting in the lobby, put fliers under doors, make phone calls, send emails – to let everyone know that our gas was being shut down,” says Albert Marengo, board president. The building’s dual-fuel boiler was able to continue running on gas when the line feeding the boiler tested leak-free, so all apartments still had heat and hot water.
“The next thing that came to mind was how we could make it possible for people to boil water and do some cooking,” Marengo adds. “We decided to buy 150 electric hot plates and distribute them free of charge.”
This co-op was in luck. Marengo holds a Ph.D. in economics, is a certified public accountant and recently retired from running a real estate development company. He has a thorough understanding of finances and building systems – and a lot of free time to devote to his co-op’s business.
The co-op was also lucky to have Pam Silver of Charles H. Greenthal as its property manager, a veteran who had handled a gas shutdown at another property. And the co-op had a healthy reserve fund.
“The board convened an emergency meeting with management,” Marengo says. “We immediately had to get a team on board to make decisions. We needed an architect who could recommend an engineer, and we interviewed two or three firms before we hired Melone Architects. Then the engineer, Chris Meszaros, presented an array of scenarios and started answering our questions.”
Meszaros, principal at Meszaros Engineering, says: “Their first question was about eliminating gas entirely. I explained that electricity – with its rewiring and capacity issues – is more expensive than gas 90 percent of the time.”
So a switch to electric ovens was off the table. Next to go was repairing the building’s original 73-year-old gas lines, about three-quarters of which were leaking. The cost would have been prohibitive, and the fix would have involved major demolition inside apartments. A proposal to run gas lines outside the building’s exterior walls was rejected by the city’s Department of Buildings. That left installing new gas lines as the only option.
“How do you do that without tearing people’s apartments apart?” Marengo says. “We had the architect’s staff do a set of drawings to see the least invasive way to install pipes.”
The solution was to run the new risers inside closets closest to the kitchens, which meant walls didn’t have to be opened for the risers. Lines were then run from the risers to the stoves, which involved opening some walls and repairing the plaster. Crews proceeded to work on each of the Lafayette’s 23 apartment lines, going from the basement to the sixth floor, spending about three days in each unit. The cost came to about $800,000, but the team figured out a way to keep that hefty number from mushrooming.
“Instead of re-installing a gas meter in every apartment, we decided to connect the pipes to just two meters, one for each side of the building,” Marengo says. In addition to saving on the cost of installing 128 new gas meters, this strategy eliminated each unit’s per-meter service charge, about $16 a month. Gas usage averaged about $9 per apartment. Gas costs would now be included in monthly maintenance, and construction costs could be sharply reduced.
Marengo explains the board’s thinking: “The shareholder who does an exceptional amount of cooking might use $10 or $11 worth of gas a month, while the person who orders out every night might use $4 or $5. It’s simpler to divide the co-op’s total gas bill by 128 units. People realized they’re going to end up saving money.”
The Lafayette’s healthy $1.2 million reserve fund could absorb the hit without the need to assess shareholders, borrow money, or raise maintenance. Marengo and Silver, the property manager, convened shareholders, unveiled the plan, and promised regular updates. Now it was time to finish assembling the team and get down to work.
Seeing Around Corners
“We wanted a plumber who was well versed in this kind of job,” Marengo says. “Len Williams of McCready & Rice Plumbing had a couple of similar jobs under his belt. He was familiar with the city laws, and he could see problems before they took place. And Rite Way Construction was willing to work around our schedule and stay ahead of the plumbers so the job could keep moving. We didn’t always go with the lowest bidder.”
The job involved cutting, bending, and threading hundreds of feet of metal pipe – oily, dirty work – and the board sequestered a section of the garage as a staging area. Then came the challenge of scheduling the work. Timing is everything on a job of this magnitude, and Silver got busy with the logistics. It wasn’t easy.
“Trying to get 128 people to think the same way and follow a schedule is just about impossible,” Marengo says. “You’ve got to do one riser at a time, and you can’t skip an apartment. It was crucial for the plumbers and carpenters to have access to apartments in order not to waste an enormous amount of time and money.”
Even so, people balked at handing over their keys – or they resisted having workers in their apartments if they weren’t there. So Silver assigned building employees to “babysit” workers in units when owners weren’t home, and Marengo instituted a $1,000-a-day fine for failure to grant access on schedule. “It didn’t make me popular,” he admits, “but I had to ensure repairs wouldn’t be resisted. The keys came flooding in.” Happily, no fines were levied.
Silver attended the team meetings every Friday, which allowed her to give residents precise warnings about when crews would be coming into their apartments. The board members were constantly in touch with each other by phone, email, and text.
And Marengo, the recent retiree, had the free time to keep an eye on the crews as they moved methodically through the job’s phases. The result: the job was finished on budget, three months ahead of schedule. “Because the board president was a straight shooter who acted swiftly,” says Meszaros, the engineer, “everything proceeded as it should.”
Finding the Sweet Spot
Looking back, Marengo’s biggest revelation was finding a “sweet spot” – sharing enough information with his fellow shareholders while not inundating them. “I wonder if I scared people unnecessarily by disclosing every possible problem since, in the end, damage was so minimal,” he says.
Beyond that, teamwork was key. Marengo credits Silver with playing traffic cop, arranging interviews with contractors, getting contracts to the attorney, scheduling the work, and communicating constantly with shareholders, contractors, and the board. The plumbing and carpentry crews worked in harmony. Now, thanks to Melone Architects, future boards will have accurate, up-to-date drawings to refer to when the next emergency arises.
“Other than being financially prepared,” Marengo concludes, “the most important thing is the team you put together. If there isn’t someone from the board who can oversee the job, have the management company find a contractor who can make decisions and run the job.”
The electric hot plates have left the building. Since January 9 – exactly one year and five days after the shutdown – shareholders at the Lafayette have been cooking with gas.