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Problem Solved: Piecing Together the Project Planning Puzzle

Facade work can be complicated in one building with  one board, but when many entities are involved, things can get really messy. You’re in the middle of one such project, correct?

Yes, at the Promenade, a 40-story tower on the Upper East Side. It’s bordered by the FDR Drive, and on the east and west by a Con Ed substation. The base of the building is a school, and the roof of the base is the school playground. 


It sounds like a lot of moving parts. 

I left out another part — it’s a condominium, and the school is part of the condominium. There are six board members, with one or two seats taken up by the school and the others seats by the residential portion. Everybody has their own points of view and their own interests, their own timeframes and their own priorities. Not in any negative way, it’s just a complicated puzzle. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube.


Let’s go back to Con Ed and the FDR Drive. Getting permits and insurance must have been a nightmare. 

Con Ed is its own universe, and yes, there are insurance problems. The FDR Drive is part of the Department of Transportation. You can imagine if you’re working on a scaffold and you drop a screwdriver or a tube of caulk, you could cause a lot of damage on the drive. Con Edison, on the other hand, is definitely afraid of a tube of caulk dropping and falling into a generator and taking out part of the Upper East Side’s electrical grid. And the insurance requirements in New York City when it comes to restoration work are pretty onerous to begin with on a good day.


Did that cause problems finding contractors?

We really had to ratchet up the liabilities because of the issues with Con Ed and the FDR Drive, and also the school and the height of the building. So that in itself weeded out a lot of contractors that might normally bid a project of this size and scale. Because of the insurance requirements, we had to go to another level of contractor who could afford high premiums. And that, of course, does come with a price, and that’s represented in a higher unit cost for the construction. Also, a lot of contractors didn’t want to work above a playground. 


How difficult has it been coordinating the different parties and scheduling the work? Have there been a lot of delays?

Well, the board was very good and trying to be proactive. We started this a long time ago thinking that we had plenty of time, but we had board changes with the residential seats. We move along for nine months, negotiating with the residential board, elections come up and all of a sudden the board changes and we have to start from scratch. Similarly the school had an administrative change and board change — and they didn’t go parallel with each other. So we were on very different schedules, and it took a while, and we lost a lot of time. The school, for example, wants certain work like jackhammering done in the off-hours or off-season.


With Con Ed, we thought we were starting very early in the negotiations. But it’s just a snail’s pace because you’re talking to the guy in the field at the Con Ed plant, and you think you work everything out, and then all of a sudden he has to move it up to corporate or legal. Legal has no idea about all the discussions that went on for months. They just look at it from a contract issue and disregard any conversations or understandings we made in the field. You’re teaching or educating everybody and trying to make them understand that all of this is solvable and we’re not reinventing the wheel here. But it’s like herding cats.


Where do things stand now?

It’s taken us years with several false starts to get things moving, but it’s happening. We’re about 30% into the project. We anticipate completing the facade work in two seasons. It would have been sooner, but the work days are restricted because the school wants to allow kids to play on the roof.


So if your building is facing a project with more than one other party involved, what would your advice be?

I tell all my clients that being proactive doesn’t hurt. You want to go up to the starting gate early, because you may have to wait until the gun goes off, and you want to be ready when it does. The closer you get to a fiscal deadline, it’s harder to hire architects and contractors because everyone’s busy. Prices creep up. Starting early makes for simpler, better planning. But in the process, you can do a more holistic approach and understand what your priorities are, bid out the work, and have time to negotiate and strategize schedules. Being proactive always ends up in a project that’s better executed.


Howard L. Zimmerman is the founder of Howard L. Zimmerman Architects & Engineers.

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