Georgia Lombardo-Barton was venturing into uncharted territory. At the condominium she manages on Bridge Street in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, restless owners who had been forced to put major apartment renovations on hold during the shutdown of nonessential construction were itching to restart. Should they get the green light all at once? Or . . .
“These people have been out of their spaces for months but are still paying common charges, so it’s been quite a financial hardship for them,” Lombardo-Barton explains. But the board at the six-story, 100-unit building, concerned about the spread of COVID-19, was cautious about moving forward – which meant Lombardo-Barton, the president of Barton Management, had to come up with a road map through this uncharted territory.
“We not only needed a process that would meet safety guidelines but also had to take steps to minimize any possible breach,” she says. “And, of course, we had to put everyone’s minds at ease.”
Under the city’s phased reopening, co-op and condo boards have been facing daunting new challenges as stalled alterations kick back into gear. It’s anything but business as usual. In addition to meeting the usual codes and regulations, construction projects now demand a whole new level of attention and oversight, whether it’s monitoring work crews, training staff or minimizing disruption to residents, especially with more people working from home.
“It’s an unprecedented time, and there are a lot of moving parts that have to be coordinated,” says Geoffrey Mazel, a partner at the law firm Hankin & Mazel. “Boards need to be more diligent than ever – and have the right procedures in place.”
The first step for boards that decide to allow alterations to resume is to get written confirmation from contractors that they will comply with state COVID-19 safety guidelines. Boards can ask contractors to draw up and provide a document, or they can get their management companies to draw up a detailed protocol (the state’s Business Reopening Safety Plan, at https://bit.ly/SafetyPlanTemplate, can be used as a template). Boards can also ask shareholders and unit-owners to submit the form, signed by their contractor and vendors, to the management company before work is permitted to proceed.
“We’re actually adding riders to all alterations agreements going forward, explaining exactly what contractors need to do and where they can get the information,” says Howard Landman, the vice president at Siren Management. “That will eliminate any confusion.”
Managing the Workflow
Keeping the numbers down is another smart strategy. Staggering projects, rather than having work being done on numerous apartments simultaneously, makes it easier to control human traffic in the building’s common areas. Boards can set additional limits, including how many workers are allowed on the job and where they can go in the building.
“Before, we typically had as many as eight people in an apartment, but now we’re limiting it to three,” says Gustavo Rusconi, the director of management operations at Argo Real Estate. In addition to capping the number of employees on an elevator at the same time, buildings can minimize the number of trips by requiring workers to stay inside the apartment for the entire workday, which means bringing meals and using the bathroom inside the unit. If work is in the demolition stage and there is no bathroom, there’s a simple workaround.
“In some cases, we’ve arranged for portable toilets and set up washing stations and construction sheds outside,” says Andrew Lazarus, the senior vice president at Tudor Realty. “That cuts down on traffic, but still allows vendors to do their job.”
Timing Is Everything
A hard-and-fast schedule also helps ensure a safe operation. “We’ve set things up where contractors can get building materials delivered only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., which is also the period they can remove garbage from the building, so those activities don’t coincide with commuting hours,” says Rusconi, adding that a fixed window also lets everyone else know when to steer clear. “And when possible, we have pushed back the start time to 9 a.m. instead of 8, and we’ve limited demolition work to between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., to make it easier on residents in terms of noise.”
Before the hammering even begins, of course, management needs to train superintendents, resident managers and other on-site employees how to ensure daily compliance. Some buildings require that foremen enter the building first to provide written certification to the resident manager that no employees have been exposed to the virus or are showing symptoms. The resident manager will then go outside and ask workers individually about their exposure to COVID-19.
“In addition to checking that everyone is wearing full personal protective equipment, it’s also wise to register each employee coming in and take their temperature,” Mazel, the attorney, advises. “If all the requirements aren’t met, you have to deny people access to the building and then notify management.”
Once workers are inside, a staffer should accompany them in the elevator to the worksite, make sure that all work materials are promptly taken inside and the door stays closed, except for removing debris, which should only be permitted with the manager’s consent. A staffer can also swing by during the day to check on things and accompany workers back down in the elevator. Once they’ve left the building, elevators and all other common areas should be sanitized.
“Designating a point person will reduce the number of staffers exposed to outside workers,” says Lombardo-Barton, “but we also bring the concierge or assistant supers up to speed in case they need to play backup.”
At one of Landman’s properties, the super was not only doing the monitoring but also acting as liaison with residents every step of the way. “He informed everyone on the two floors where work is being done about the projects in advance,” Landman explains. “That was to reassure people that safety measures are in place, and to let them know that they could contact him about any concerns, especially noise. But if there’s an upside to this pandemic, it’s that there are fewer people in the building, so fewer people are affected.”
When it comes to the possible fallout of alterations during the pandemic, the biggest unanswered question is whether a co-op or condo can be held legally responsible if residents or staff are infected by outside workers. “This is totally new ground, because there is no established case law,” Mazel says. “What I’m telling boards is that as long as they’re acting with due diligence and fully complying with city, state and federal guidelines, they can minimize potential risk.” Still, he advises boards to include a hold-harmless clause in construction contracts. “That way, if something happens and it’s the contractor’s fault, he has to reimburse the co-op for any losses.”
Checking All the Boxes
At the Bridge Street condo in Dumbo, the cautious board initially allowed just two unit-owners to proceed with their alterations. But thanks to the protocols the board and management put in place – their road map through this previously uncharted territory – the work has gone so smoothly that the board has given the green light to a third renovation project.
“Honestly, we’ve had no problems, and there have been no negative comments from residents whatsoever,” Lombardo-Barton says. “Every building has different considerations, so boards, resident managers and property managers have to work together to come up with best policies to keep everyone safe. You have to develop a regimented, proper process that is really monitored and followed. All the boxes have to be checked.”