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The Gray Areas of Construction During the Pandemic

Marianne Schaefer in Bricks & Bucks on April 15, 2020

West Side, Manhattan

Local Law 11, FISP, Department of Buildings, coronavirus, facade repair, condo.

New waterproofing system installation in progress (image courtesy Bone Levine Architects).

April 15, 2020

In a move closely watched by co-op and condo boards, the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) on March 30 decreed that any construction project that might “severely affect the life, health or safety of a significant number of persons” will be allowed to continue until it’s safe to shut the site down. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, the DOB determines which projects are essential, and that creates a gray area.

“The DOB policy is not black and white,” says Kevin Bone, principal at Bone Levine Architects. “It’s always a case-by-case decision. For example, let’s say there is a terracotta cornice falling off a building. The DOB could decide to have the site secured and temporarily closed until the moratorium is lifted. There may be another situation where the DOB allows more extensive work, because it’s a minor repair, there will not be any crowding of workers, all parties have agreed to the work, and there is no contact with the residents of the building.”  

Bone Levine Architects has encountered such a gray area. A 10-year-old, 7-story West Side condo was undergoing its first routine facade inspection, under the Facade Inspection and Safety Program, when inspectors discovered widespread systemic flaws in the building’s cement fiberboard skin. They recommended a complete replacement at a cost of $2 million. “These panels had begun to crack,” says Bone. “At the corners, where the bolts are, small parts of these panels were falling off. That was the primary unsafe condition, but in the long run, the panels themselves could fall off.”

In the short run, only the small pieces posed a threat to the public, but nevertheless the DOB granted a more extensive work permit. “Conceivably, we could’ve fixed only the panels that were cracked and corrected the unsafe condition,” says Bone. “But we knew that the problem would continue, and every time it would continue it would mean a mobilization and a new sidewalk shed and ultimately would also be much more expensive. We had to correct the underlying systemic problem.”

Before the state’s shutdown decree, workers had already removed most of the panels, creating an open section that would have been difficult to temporarily waterproof. The architects claimed that any further water infiltration could cause serious problems. Work to prevent potential damage to a building might be allowed by the DOB when it’s a short-term project, according to Bone, but it would not apply to projects that might stretch over a five-year period.

“The absence of the panels was a situation that was not healthy for the building, and that’s why they allowed us to work on it,” Bone says. “That’s the current status, but that could actually change. I don’t believe it will, though, because the contractor and his documentation of how they’re working has been accepted by all parties.”

The DOB did not give a full green light for everything that Bone Levine filed.  Some of the work the firm wanted to do would have required close-quarters cooperation between multiple workers, and it was denied. They do plan to continue to file for more permissions. For now, they’re allowed to continue with the stabilization of the framing underneath the panels and with the waterproofing of the building.

“At this stage of the project we’re only trying to advance the most critical components,” says Bone. “Pending any further decisions from the DOB, this work is allowed to go on for the next 60 to 90 days. Everybody wants to work, but we also want to work safely and protect the safety of those around us.  We don’t want to make progress and then have a setback.”

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