Marianne Schaefer in Bricks & Bucks on December 11, 2019
Co-op and condo boards constantly get hit with unpleasant surprises. It comes with the territory. But few get the kind of surprise that hit the board at the 252-unit Knolls co-op in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
There are two elevators in each of the co-op’s two postwar buildings. Since the four elevators were about 17 years old, the board decided to do a complete modernization of cabs and mechanicals while installing city-mandated door-lock monitors before the January 1, 2020 deadline. The price tag was about $1 million.
“The BP Elevator company had just installed all the doors and they were getting ready to rebuild the cabs,” recalls board president Brian McGeever. “That’s when they noticed that there might be a serious problem.”
A serious, potentially life-threatening problem. When they removed the cab walls, workers were able to see the walls of the two elevator shafts, which house two elevators apiece. They didn’t like what they were seeing. The walls of the shafts appeared to be in danger of collapsing.
“It was just luck that they were observant,” says Jamey Ehrman, an engineer at RAND Engineering & Architecture, who was hired by the board after the structural problem was discovered. “They’re not structural engineers, but they realized that the walls of the elevator shaft seemed to have shifted and were leaning inward. They told the board president that this doesn’t look right. That’s when our firm got involved.”
Numerous visits from engineers confirmed that the walls are structurally unstable, so the modernization project had to be put on hold while workers stabilize the shafts’ walls. “If that hadn’t been discovered by pure luck, the worst-case scenario would be that the walls fall on the elevator cab,” says Ehrman. “The masonry could certainly puncture through the cab roof and injure the people inside. Even worse, it could cause the rope to snap, and that’s a free fall.”
At this point, Ehrman cannot predict the scope of necessary work. The shafts consist of masonry walls overlaid with fireproof gypsum tiles called Pyrobar. Rebuilding the underlying masonry would mean a lot more work – and expense. “Right now we feel that this block wall might be structurally stable, but the gypsum tiles are unstable,”says Ehrman. “We’ll have to find out for sure during the demolition.”
McGeever estimates that the shaft repairs will cost an additional $140,000. “We didn’t expect that,” he says. “We can finance that with our reserve fund, but if they come back and say this will be half a million dollars, then we’ll have a problem.” Meanwhile, with one elevator operating safely in each building, the board is exploring if its insurance will cover the unexpected costs.
Mandatory elevator inspections do not include the elevator shaft, which seems to be a dangerous oversight. “For the most part, [inspectors] look at the mechanical parts of the elevators,” says Ehrman. “If they see something egregious, they will call it out, but this was not something egregious; it was subtle and would not have been discovered by a routine elevator inspection.”
Ehrman applauds the Knolls co-op board for the way it’s tackling this unpleasant surprise. “This job is a Pandora’s Box, but I’ve seen worse,” he says. “I’ve seen boards put a Band-Aid on such problems. This board said they needed to do the right thing, and I was glad they did. And thank God nobody got hurt.”
PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – ENGINEER: RAND Engineering & Architecture. ELEVATOR CONSULTANT: BP Elevator. CONTRACTOR: Xinos Construction. PROPERTY MANAGER: Robert E. Hill.
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