Wet Cars Are Not the Problem
It’s a distressingly familiar sight in New York City parking garages. Compromised concrete had led to leaks and falling bits of concrete and dust in the three-level underground garage at the 356-unit co-op at 75 Henry St. in Brooklyn Heights. As a stopgap measure, the co-op board erected tarps to protect vulnerable cars. To its credit, the board realized that the problem was not wet or dusty cars; the problem was compromised concrete. The board decided to tackle the problem head-on. Instead of a patch job, it would do extensive – that is, expensive – repairs.
“It’s not a dangerous condition, but we were aware we had to take on this project,” says Allen Rosen, the board president at the 32-story building and 18 townhouses that were built in the 1960s as middle-income housing and have since been converted to a market-rate co-op.
In November 2019 the board hired RAND Engineering & Architecture to survey the garage and come up with a scope of work. The garage has 546 parking spaces, 155 for shareholders, the rest rented out by Square Parking. The projected budget to do the job once and do it right: a stiff $1.27 million. But the co-op board didn’t flinch. “We’re fortunate in that we had enough in our reserve fund so we didn’t have to take out a loan,” Rosen says. “It’s work that has to be done.”
Soon after the project began in early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic swept the city, and the shutdown followed. Work finally resumed on March 22 of this year, a lag that gave the board and its property manager, David Grillo of Gumley Haft, time to do the crucial work of communicating with all involved parties.
“There’s a lot of planning involved on a big job like this,” says Grillo, who has managed the co-op for 17 years and is intimately acquainted with the buildings and their residents. “You have to have good communication with the engineer, the contractor, the parking company and, of course, the shareholders. You have to explain the need for doing the project – to maintain the integrity of the structure. It’s all about teamwork, and the ultimate goal is to minimize inconvenience for the residents.”
The project has been divided into eight phases that will each take from four to six weeks to complete. Jason Damiano, a structural engineer with RAND, explains that in each phase, the compromised concrete is removed from the designated area, then new concrete is poured. “Then we’ll repeat this process in Phases 2 through 8,” Damiano says. “The phases are just so that the garage can keep operating, as we’re only taking one-eighth of their space at any time. After the concrete repairs are done, we go back through all of the phases one by one to install a waterproof coating. The total project time is roughly 10 months due to the size of the garage.”
Grillo is ready for the inevitable surprises. “Any construction project’s scope of work is projected,” he says. “There are always unknown field conditions that aren’t revealed until you start the work. The contractor builds in allowances – usually 10% to 15% of the budget – but sometimes they don’t come into play.”
While unpleasant surprises may be inevitable for the crews working on a capital project of this magnitude, Grillo sees his job as making sure that shareholders are not on the receiving end of any surprises. “The bottom line is that we don’t spring major capital projects on the residents,” he says. “They’re always well versed when a project is coming. We let them know that if we don’t do this now, the results will be much worse later – instead of $1.27 million, we could be looking at $3 million or $4 million. That way, they get on board with the necessity of the project and how we’re going to get it done.”
Keep the Problems Small
It started with noises and cracked walls at a postwar, eight-story co-op in Stamford, Conn., that has a two-tiered, 80-space parking garage – one at ground level, the other below ground. Shareholders in a line of apartments directly above the garage recently informed the property manager that they were hearing noises coming from below, and they were seeing cracks inside their apartments. The manager called Cowley Engineering.
“One of my guys went out and visited every unit on the F line,” says Eric Cowley, the firm’s president. “He found some cracks in the apartments on the two lower floors that seemed trivial. To his credit, he went into the parking garage and saw that one of the load-bearing columns was buckling – it had moved horizontally and dropped about an inch. My first reaction was to get shoring in there immediately.”
Then came a fraught question: Should the building be evacuated? Cowley was able to determine that the garage, with proper shoring, was not in danger of collapse. As a precaution, all cars were removed from the upper level and from spots adjacent to the work area on the lower level while 25 temporary columns, called adjustable shores, were installed.
The culprit was groundwater under the garage’s poured-concrete floor, which had migrated through the floor and corroded one of the steel columns that support the steel beams. After installing a temporary steel column, crews removed the corroded section and spliced in new steel that was then bolted and welded into place.
The problem went undetected because all the columns had been wrapped with mesh that was then coated with plasterboard – a method of fireproofing the columns as well as softening any blow from cars. It also made the buckling invisible to the untrained eye.
“What you don’t see can hurt you,” Cowley says. “A layperson wouldn’t notice that the column’s wrapping was wider at the bottom than at the top. And he wouldn’t wonder why.” An engineer, on the other hand, would wonder why. And he would conclude that the column had buckled – a dangerous situation.
Cowley’s crew inspected the other 29 columns and found only one that will require a new piece of steel. All columns on the lower level will be waterproofed up to eight inches above the floor. The job – which came as a surprise to the co-op board – will cost about $50,000. Not a backbreaker, but enough to qualify it as an unpleasant surprise.
To avoid such surprises, Cowley advises boards to take charge of their own fates. “Boards should establish an inspection program for their garage every five years,” he says. “The initial one should be the most extensive – when you establish the baseline of the garage’s current condition. Check it again in five years, and when you find out how much work is needed, you can figure out how much to budget every year for future repairs. Keep the problems small and out in front of you. The goal is to avoid an emergency like this one.”
Or, to put it another way, the goal is to keep a prized asset from turning into a costly liability.