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The Problem: Stairwell Hazard

This was a grand 12-story building on lower Broadway, a glorious piece of architecture that, like many loft buildings in the neighborhood, was informally settled without a precise development plan and without a lot of thinking about the long-term future of the building. As people moved in and renovated their spaces, many of them, for example, wanted to upgrade their air-conditioning systems, and the choice was to have their condensing units on the roof and then run the condensate lines down to their lofts. But in this particular building, there was actually no provision for a shaft in which this could be done. So over the years, shareholders and various vendors who came into the building began to use the primary fire stairwell as a place to run various utility conduits.


A serious hazard. This was non-compliant with city building codes, but more importantly, it is a genuine safety concern. Conduits can be routes for smoke and fire to enter the fire stairs. Electrical conduits could actually be the source of a fire, because an ignition in a faulty junction box could start one. This particular building had two fire stairwells, but because of the layout of the building, the floor plans of the loft had one primary means of egress. And over the years, this one primary means of egress became the place where the various mechanical equipment conduits were run.


As an adviser and consulting architect to the building, I urged the board to consider a long-term plan to correct this. And at the same time, the board was trying to imagine a more rational plan than having condensing units on the roof, and the board wanted us to engineer and build an HVAC platform.  And I said, “Well, we really have to think of a strategy on how we’re going to get all of this equipment and all of the connections between the condensing units and the air-handling units and the lofts.” Not only was there too much stuff in the primary fire stairwell to begin with, but we were looking at a long-term horizon where maybe 20 lofts would ultimately upgrade and have better air-conditioning equipment on the roof. The question was how to make the connection between the lofts and that better air conditioning on the roof in the absence of a code-compliant shaft.


More complications. It struck us at first as a nearly impossible situation, because in addition to all of the electrical conduits and some steam risers, there were also generations of cables from Verizon and Spectrum in this stairwell. What we had done in the past with the Department of Buildings — and not always enthusiastically — was to file for a plan where the corners of the fire stairs are made into triangular baby shafts. As long as we could demonstrate that the amount of area dedicated to circulation in that stairwell was not reduced beyond what they require, we argued that this was in fact an improvement of fire safety in the building. We were fortunate in that we got approval for this plan to build these three baby shafts inside the fire stairwells. So we had to create fire-rated constructions from the ground floor to the roof inside the limited dimensions of the existing primary fire stairwell.


Future flexibility. Also, it was clear that not everyone was going to make a decision about these rooftop air conditioners right off the bat. So we had to design a system that allowed for maximum versatility where we could put the risers that we would need in the future into these shafts in an organized way that would be approved by the co-op. It would have been much more economical to just take a three-foot by three-foot section of a floor plan and create a shaft. Unfortunately, those sections would affect everyone’s apartments, so politically that was very unpopular. It took a lot of patience by the board, but ultimately the shareholders agreed that even though it was not absolutely ideal, this was a solution. Building baby shafts inside the fire stairwells protects this primary means of egress so people can get out of the building safely. And the building no longer allows storage of materials in those fire stairwells. 


The takeaway. All boards should be aware that running electrical conduits or even data conduits and cables, which a lot of people think are rather innocuous, is not permitted in fire stairwells. So despite what an electrician or a plumber might tell you, it’s not allowed. Also, boards should resist the temptation to start cluttering up their buildings’ stairwells, because it’s a lot harder to go backward and remove all of that. I have worked on buildings where we have managed to increase the shaft space, and whenever that’s a possibility, it’s worth considering. And some older buildings may have shafts that are cluttered with unused retired equipment. If that equipment can be removed, you can make space in the existing shafts to maximize the possibility of installing vertical conduit runs there.

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