Diane Drey was among the first residents at 353 Central Park West when the 21-story, wedding-cake-style condominium opened in the mid-1990s. But it wasn’t until she became board president in 2018 that Drey realized how much boards need to know — and often don’t — when it comes to facade repairs. That’s when the 65-year-old New Jersey native, who previously ran a family business, hit on the idea to write “A Step by Step Guide to Navigating the Facade Inspection Safety Program (FISP),” a how-to manual that covers everything from preparing requests for proposals to access agreements to project management. Drey spoke with Habitat about the challenges of FISP repairs, how she brought herself up to speed and the lessons learned along the way.
Sticker shock. When I first joined the board, we had just gotten a $1,500 fine from the Department of Buildings that had something to do with FISP. I had no idea what that was, so I called the DOB. Someone walked me through the program and explained how buildings are required to have their facades inspected every five years and file a report. It turned out we had done an inspection and had a report, but there was a snafu and the engineer didn’t get the paperwork in on time.
Help wanted. The last time we did a major FISP project was about 10 years ago. The board members from those days were no longer at the condo, so there was no institutional knowledge. We looked at the report and had no idea of the costs we might be facing. We didn’t know about construction drawings, how to go out to bid, what to ask contractors or engineers. We didn’t even know that it’s a really good idea to get a second and third opinion. We were all newbies, and we were clueless. As it turned out, we were very fortunate because our building is only 30 years old. We have a cavity wall, and sometimes in older buildings the metal ties that connect the two layers of brick need to be replaced, and you have to remove the entire outer wall. But we did not have a serious issue — just some loose mortar, especially up near the water tower.
Running tab. It seemed like a pretty straightforward project, but the costs added up. First there is the mobilization — putting up the scaffolding and outriggers just so you can get to the bricks. Then there is the known work from the hands-on inspection. And then there’s the unknown work that you discover along the way, which can really throw you for a loop. If your engineer doesn’t budget in an adequate allowance for that, that’s when boards can really get into trouble. Again, we were lucky, because we didn’t run into any unexpected problems. We ended up spending $18,000 for the initial inspection and construction drawings, $60,000 for engineering and project fees, $15,000 for expeditor fees, testing and permits, and $446,000 for the actual construction work. So about $540,000 total.
Cost controls. We came in within 2% of our budget because we kept on top of things. Our management company, R.E.M. Residential, was absolutely phenomenal and had a representative participate in the weekly construction meetings with the engineer and contractor to track the progress of the project, discuss unforeseen conditions and any additional things that might incur costs beyond the original contract and require a change order. Then the rep would report back to the board. I also participated in all the weekly project update meetings.
Extra, extra. But the other key thing we did was negotiate a bonus. When we were doing the bidding with the contractor and talking about liquidated damages and getting a refund if the work wasn’t done on time, he joked that we should give him a bonus if they did a good job and finished on schedule. And I said, “Guess what? We will.” He said, “Wow, nobody had ever done that before.” And let me tell you, a 5% bonus will make things happen. The job was supposed to start in March 2020 and be done by September, but then COVID hit. We were given the go-ahead to start work three months later, but that pushed our finish date back to November, when wind and rain can bring things to a dead halt. On top of that, concrete can’t set in very cold weather. But the contractor hustled to get the work done, and he earned every penny of that bonus.
For your amusement. While the project was still going hot and heavy, I started to make notes of the things I learned. Pretty soon I had 20, 30 pages. That’s when I began to think that I could put something together in a more organized fashion to educate boards when it comes to FISP. But I knew that nobody was going to want to read this book unless I made it fun. That’s when I got the idea of putting in comics and silly little jokes as a way to keep people awake because this is, you know, terribly boring stuff.
The whole story. I did a lot of research on websites and spoke with architects, engineers, contractors, material specialists and construction attorneys. I pestered the DOB so much, I’m sure they couldn’t stand me. I even contacted the Scaffolding Association — I mean, who even knew that existed? Then I had everyone look over the book and make corrections. There were lots of them, especially with anything having to do with DOB requirements. I also included five case studies, because all of this only makes sense if you have real examples and real numbers. What I’m trying to bring home is that the repairs almost always take twice as long as expected. And in many cases, the cost overruns went anywhere from 10% to almost 100%.
Happy ending. The book is self-published. Engineers, architects and particularly contractors have a really difficult job educating customers about what they do, and so I’m hoping they will buy the book and use it as a sales tool and give it to their clients. The sales on Amazon so far are pretty minuscule, but that’s OK. If somebody comes up to me and says, “Diane, I read your book, and you told me something that helps me save money and save time,” then I’ve asked and answered all the right questions. The information is there, even if they only look at the cartoons and read the jokes.