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Facade Inspection Regs Might Get Tighter – and Costlier

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on March 6, 2019

New York City

Future of FISP

A "cavity wall" like the one that collapsed on East 64th Street, with space between the building's brick skin (left) and its structural wall (right) (picture courtesy of Sullivan Engineering).

March 6, 2019

In December 2015, hundreds of bricks worked loose from the facade of the 35-story condominium at 340 East 64th Street and crashed to the street. Mercifully, no one was injured or killed. A consultant working on the building at the time blamed the collapse on several factors, including “an original construction defect.” 

Such harrowing episodes are the source of one of the biggest – and costliest – challenges facing co-op and condo boards: the mandated inspection and repair of facades every five years on buildings of six stories or more. The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) is on a relentless campaign to improve the process, which was first mandated under Local Law 10 in 1980 after a Columbia University student named Grace Gold was killed by falling masonry as she walked along a Broadway sidewalk. The law morphed into Local Law 11 and is now known as the Facade Inspection Safety Program, or FISP. 

Brian Sullivan, a principal at Sullivan Engineering, sits on a DOB advisory committee that proposes changes to FISP regulations. The committee’s attention is now focused on Cycle 9, which begins in February 2020. Here are some proposed changes:

Probes to verify and document wall anchors in cavity wall facades might be required in the 9th cycle and every 10 years thereafter. The building at 340 East 64th Street has cavity walls, meaning there’s space between the structural walls and the brick skin, and the two are held together by metal anchors. “The idea of the probes is to make sure that there are sufficient anchors to prevent another facade collapse,” Sullivan says, “and to make sure the anchors are appropriately spaced and in good condition.” 

The number of required close-up inspections might increase. One of the proposed revisions is to have hands-on inspections (by workers on scaffolds or rappelling ropes) performed at intervals of 60 feet or less on all facades above a public egress. “That change will affect only larger buildings and buildings with public egress in the rear yard,” Sullivan says. 

Qualified Exterior Wall Inspectors might be required to have at least three years of relevant experience. Currently, these professionals approved by the DOB to submit FISP reports are required to have just one year of relevant experience. “That’s a big jump and a big improvement, I think,” Sullivan says. “There are a lot of professionals who practice in multiple disciplines but are not specialists in FISP rules and facade conditions.” 

A time frame to resolve unsafe conditions might be required, with a maximum of five years. “They want a date when you’re going to resolve unsafe conditions,” Sullivan says. “The building owner signs the document agreeing to that date. This way, sidewalk sheds won’t stay up up for 10 years.” 

Monthly civil penalties for unsafe conditions might accrue and increase annually at a rate based on the length of sidewalk shed. “They’re trying to force buildings to comply,” Sullivan says. 

The DOB might perform inspections before granting extension requests. “That’s a big deal,” Sullivan says, “because it will compel the building to do what they said they were going to do. The DOB is trying to put more teeth into compliance.” 

Boards might be required to display a FISP condition certificate – either “safe,” “safe with repair,” or “unsafe” – in the lobby. “It’s like restaurant letter grades,” Sullivan says. “That’s the biggest one for co-ops and condos because if you’re trying to sell your apartment and there’s a sign in the lobby that says the building is unsafe, the buyer is going to ask questions.” 

These various proposals have two things in common: they’ll make buildings safer, and they’ll force boards to spend money to save money. “This is going to increase the cost of inspections,” Sullivan says, “but overall it will decrease the life-cycle costs of building repair and maintenance. If you catch a condition early, it’s cheaper than the cost of addressing unsafe conditions.”

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