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The Fix for ‘Just Three Bricks Thick’

Win-win. A facade  insulation project is providing multiple benefits for Sun Garden Homes Association, a 69-unit co-op in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. The self-managed co-op, comprising six buildings set around a central courtyard, has four stories and is therefore exempt from the city’s Facade Inspection and Safety Program. However, the building’s exposed hilltop position as well as decades of deferred maintenance and only periodic patching had resulted in visible deterioration. “The coating on the brick was falling off, and there were water intrusion problems for a lot of residents,” says Samara Doucette, the former board president.

Doucette played a central role in getting the co-op’s facade restoration project to the finish line. One issue was the rolling cast of members on the co-op’s board, where the term limit is two years. Repairs were delayed by the turnover of members, the extensive research needed to figure out how to permanently fix the facade and the cost of the proposed remedies. “We have a lot of fixed-income residents in the building,” Doucette says.

Outside and inside. The solution was an exterior insulation finish system, better known as EIFS. The overcladding does triple duty: improving the look of the exterior, reducing future facade maintenance and providing insulation that was previously nonexistent. “We noticed as soon as the cladding went up at the back that it’s warmer in our apartments,” says board member and architect Alexander Katreczko, another key player in getting the project completed. 

The original exterior walls of the co-op are three bricks thick, with wood and plaster on the inside. “This provides very little insulation, and there are thousands and thousands of buildings like this in New York City,” says Michael Granville, an architect at Darius Toraby Architects, the firm that worked with the board to install the overcladding. Without any insulation, “it becomes very difficult to meet energy-efficiency targets,” Granville says.

Adjustments required. EIFS is common in new construction and involves a waterproof coating followed by 1 to 4 inches of insulation, which is anchored to a mesh with an acrylic-based coating resembling cement stucco. Adapting the system for older buildings requires plenty of problem-solving. For example, the system needs adjustments around fire escapes, with the cladding thickness reduced to a minimum to avoid obstructing the platforms and ladders. 

The multi-layered system makes windows much more recessed. In addition, areas of the cladding on the wall around the windows need to be strengthened to accommodate the brackets of in-window AC units. “We also installed very heavy-duty sills at all the windows so the units won’t crush the insulation,” Granville says. And since shareholders are responsible for replacing windows, the architect will also need to ensure the cladding remains intact when windows are switched out in the future.

Handsome returns. The cost of the overcladding, as well as additional masonry repair work for the street-facing and interior courtyard facades and rooftop bulkhead repairs, amounts to $2.2 million. The board took out a $2.4 million loan to finance the renovations. The remainder of the loan is for funding improvements to the stairwells and the boiler. “There’s a return on investment because the more energy efficient the building is, the lower the heating and cooling costs will be,” Granville says. In addition, the original masonry is protected from exposure and won’t need future repair.

In spite of the extensive building envelope upgrades, the co-op did not meet the necessary insulation performance targets to qualify for incentives under NYSERDA’s Multifamily Buildings Low-Carbon Pathways Program. “We wish there could have been more flexibility on how they considered our cluster of buildings in relation to the project,” Doucette says. The board continues to look into other incentives; in the meantime, it is approved for the rehabilitation tax credit with the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Department and anticipates a $20,000 rebate for the work from National Grid. NYSERDA says its program updates have, in the last month, increased flexibility for retrofits. “We will push to see if they will qualify us,” Doucette says.

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