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Faulty Towers

As an architect, you’re constantly running into surprises in your work. Even a routine facade inspection on a newly constructed building can reveal surprising things. Tell us about that.

We have, over the course of 35-plus years of looking at New York City buildings, encountered a number of situations where relatively new construction shows some surprising problems. This particular case is a new condo in the West 50s that was designed by a reasonably high-end Manhattan architectural firm. It was built by a competent builder in 2018. It's a rather beautiful complex. When we did the first Facade Inspection Safety Program inspections in 2018, we expected it to be pro forma and to verify that everything was in good shape. We were surprised to find out otherwise.


What did you discover? Was it faulty materials, faulty construction, both?

It was a combination. The building has a unique exterior wall system called a rain screen, something that has become more popular in contemporary construction. They’re a very good solution to building envelopes. No building wall is waterproof, and the rain-screen strategy is to keep as much water off the building wall as possible. The real waterproofing happens deeper in the wall assembly. This particular rain screen was a high-tech cementitious panel system, looks like cement, a flat modern material that’s bolted onto the wall assembly of the building. When we came on to do our facade inspections, we noticed that the corners of these panels were cracking off, and these falling chips posed a safety problem. We went back to the board and reported on this. I would describe the initial meeting as one of shock and anger.


It was not a happy condo board.

It was not. There was initial denial – and anger with the messengers, as there often is. We presented the best case we could to help them understand the situation. No one could believe that they had bought into this wonderful building, and there was a systemic fundamental flaw with something as important as the exterior envelope. We encouraged the board to seek a second opinion, as we often do. It's always good for a board to hear from someone else so that there's no suspicion that the architect has other motivations than absolutely presenting an accurate story, or perhaps that the architect even got it wrong.


Did another firm corroborate your findings?

Bone: This board went back and forth and ultimately decided it wasn’t necessary. As the board members studied the problem, as they met with us periodically, they began to see what was going on. As we got deeper into the problem and as we began to understand why it was happening, the board began to come around and understand that it was going to have to address this problem, and the members began to ask: How do we best address this? What is this actually going to take? Are we going to do spot repairs, or is this a larger problem that we want to eliminate for the future so we're not coming back every five years to do a few more panels? This kind of discourse went on for maybe eight months before a scope of work was settled on between the board and the consulting architects and the managing agent, who also played a critical role advising the group.


How did the board decide to proceed?

Bone: The costs, the logistics, the scaffolding, the insurance, the mobilization, the inconvenience to the residents of the building –  all of that is really big, and you don't want to be going through that every five years or every seven years. Once we had learned that there was basically a design and execution flaw, we knew that this problem would go on if we didn't address the larger underlying nature of how these panels were attached to the building, and the panels themselves.


Is there a lesson here for other boards?

Bone: Yes, I would say there are a couple of lessons. It’s very important to have one plan that’s about solving the physical problem and one plan that's about financial recourse. But do not tie the two together. I've seen this mistake made where boards say, "OK, let's get our settlement [from the developer], and then we'll do the job." What happens then is you have a building that has a fundamentally flawed condition that is perhaps contributing to other problems in the building. It’s certainly contributing to a diminishment of value of the real estate if sidewalk bridges are constantly on and off and whatnot. So it's good to address the problem, and whatever financial recourse you may seek should be an independent question. I always encourage boards to think for the long term.

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