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White-Brick Facade Replaced with Cutting-Edge Energy-Saving System

When the 20-story tower at 201 E. 79th St. was constructed in the 1960s, glazed white brick was being touted as the facade of the future — durable, functional and sleek. But while carrying out mandatory facade inspections in 2017, the board at the 158-unit co-op discovered that the brick had not withstood the test of time.


“We did probes in the exterior walls, which revealed water infiltration, spalling, masonry gaps and deterioration of the whole facade,” says Stefan Unger, the board president. Further inspections showed the shelf angles supporting the bricks also needed to be replaced. “We had to report it as an unsafe condition and put up a sidewalk shed around the building,” he says.


The board’s nightmare was compounded in 2019 when the city passed the Climate Mobilization Act — a sweeping law requiring large buildings to cut carbon emissions or pay stiff fines. “We had to figure out a way to bring our building into compliance,” Unger says. That’s when the board embarked on a project to replace the entire facade with a rain-screen cladding system that will allow the building to withstand the elements and reduce its carbon emissions by the mandated 40% by 2030.


Unger, who served on the construction committee along with two other board members, Barry Kaufman and Suzanne Oliver, brought in the construction management company CM & Associates as cost estimator. After exploring various cladding options, the board decided on durable, easy-to-replace porcelain tiles. After CMA recommended the Italian tile manufacturer Fiandre, Unger flew down to its factory in Tennessee. “The kiln was the size of three football fields, and they said they would be able to produce 100,000 square feet of tile for us in two days,” he recalls. “That pretty much sealed the deal.”


The proposed budget for the rain-screen system came in at a whopping $45 million, but the board was undaunted. “No one really knew what the cost would be because no one had ever done this kind of project,” Unger says. “And that was before we did all the due diligence.” By the time the engineer, Rawlings Architects, sent out requests for proposals, the number had been whittled down. The contract was awarded to CM & Associates for $25.2 million.


The board treasurer, Jay Hawthorn, negotiated a $38 million mortgage with the BNY Mellon. “The rate was under 3% with a balloon payment due in 2035, and we were able to retire our prior mortgage, which left us with $29 million,” Unger says. “We wanted a contingency fund in case there were unforeseen problems with the facade.”


The reserves had been depleted after the co-op completed an $825,000 elevator modernization and a $1.2 million HVAC system upgrade in 2017. Rather than imposing an assessment, the board is replenishing the reserves with a hefty 27% maintenance increase, which started in January 2021.


“Our maintenance was under market, and now we’re slightly over it,” Unger says. “In three years we’ll be back at the median, and then we’re going to start phasing the maintenance back since we have no more capital projects to do.”


The facade work started in January 2020. The white brick skin was removed, the building’s structural wall was waterproofed and a layer of non-combustible fiber insulation was installed. A non-corrosive metal assembly holds the porcelain cladding, creating a gap between the cladding and the building. “Moisture can go all the way down to the waterproof layer, but because everything is open, the air will dry it out,” says Ed Rawlings, the president of Rawlings Architects. “And the thermal insulation allows the building to meet the 2030 carbon-emission requirements.”


The porcelain tiles can be manufactured to look like wood, marble or another natural material. “We took pictures of Indiana limestone, with the veining and everything, and then pixelated it in these half-inch squares,” says Alissa Bucher, a partner at Rogers Partners Architects, who worked on the project. “Close-up, all you see are the squares, but when you stand back it looks like stone. It’s just like a Chuck Close painting.”


The project will be completed by March 2022, right on schedule and right on budget.


“This is a whole new frontier,” Unger says. “This is the facade renovation of the future.”

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