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Problem Solved: Preparing for Terra Cotta Surprises

Upper West Side, Manhattan

Terra cotta, busted budgets, co-op and condo boards, architects, DOB.

Costly surprises often lurk behind decorative terra cotta.

March 15, 2022

As part of our Problem Solved series, Habitat spoke with Craig Tooman, a principal at CTA Architects.

Terra cotta is a prized decorative touch in many prewar New York City buildings, but these beautiful details can also come with unpleasant and costly surprises. You're working on a couple of buildings right now where you ran into some of these unpleasant surprises. Tell me about them.

We're working on two prewar buildings on the Upper West Side, one on Riverside Drive with two big street facades, and one on West 86th Street with one street facade. And they've both almost tripled their original costs due to unforeseen conditions that we found when we started our demolition from the scaffolds. 

What were the problems?

There was deteriorated structural steel hidden behind the terra cotta, and there was deterioration in the terra cotta pieces themselves that we could not see from the scaffolds when we did our first drops.

In years past, you could patch terra cotta and get by. But hasn’t the Department of Buildings (DOB) become much more finicky about terra cotta in recent years? 

Yes, the DOB is looking at terra cotta much more closely than they did before as part of their Facade Inspection and Safety Program, and they’re also requiring additional scaffold drops. In Cycle 8 of FISP, we had to do one scaffold drop on each street facade; we’re now in Cycle 9, and we have to do one scaffold drop for every 60 feet of facade. There have been some accidents that happened with terra cotta recently, so there's more scrutiny with terra cotta and with cavity walls as well.

You mentioned that costs had tripled at the two buildings you're working on right now on the Upper West Side. How do you break such news to a co-op or condo board — that suddenly things are starting to get a little hairy?

That's the worst part of our job — telling a board that what we had told them is wrong, and we have additional costs that are being incurred and we're blowing a budget. It's an incredibly difficult thing to have to do to a group of shareholders who are watching over the finances of a corporation, a multi-million dollar corporation.

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Of course you never know what you're going to find when you open up walls, but is there any way at the beginning of the process that you can control these things somewhat?

We can't control the costs, but we can warn people that cost overruns are possible. And particularly with terra cotta jobs — and with these two jobs in particular — we need to have an upfront conversation with boards and as many board members as possible in the early steps of the process, so that they can be aware of the fact that there are things that we may encounter when the scaffolds are in place and demolition starts that will incur additional costs. And we have to be very upfront with them, and we have to have a constant line of communication with more than one board member so that there is not a point where I have to come to them and say, ‘Look, we had a $300,000 job, and it's now a $1.2 million job.’ They need to know where things are going and where they're likely to go. And early in discussions about the project, they need to be prepared for the possibility of surprises.

We're very lucky in the vast majority of our buildings that these board members, who are working on a volunteer basis, are very involved. At these two buildings in particular, we have boards that are paying attention and are very involved in the minutiae of the project. They attend the weekly meetings. And in the case of the job on 86th Street, we had board members up on the scaffold taking a look at the conditions of the terra cotta when it was laid out on the bridge. That way they could see what we were talking about and what these additional costs were for. Our board members are sharp and intelligent people, and they can look at what we're showing them when it's hands-on, and then they understand why the work that we're recommending needs to be done. If a picture is worth a thousand words, putting your hands on a piece of terra cotta is worth a thousand pictures. And once board members see what it is that we're saying, they understand why the work has to be done and why the additional costs are incurred.

To sum up, what should boards be looking for from their architect when they set out on a job like this?

We want to have an open line of communication. We want boards to understand that if theirs is a terra cotta building, there are problems that we may encounter. And they need to understand that those things don't show themselves until demolition starts and we can actually see the structural steel behind the terra cotta and the anchors that hold the terra cotta in place. And we need to have a discussion, early on, that says the board should have a healthy contingency fund. Hopefully you don't use it, but you may have to.

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