Bill Morris in Building Operations on December 10, 2015
The next most important thing about this near-tragedy is that it provided a timely reminder for every board of directors and every shareholder in every co-op in the city. Namely, that when it comes to doing facade repair work mandated by Local Law 11, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Unforeseeable accidents can – and will – happen. Proper preparations can soften the blow, but they can’t always prevent it.
“I think this was one of those unfortunate situations that arise because the work we do is dangerous,” said Howard Zimmerman, founder and president of Howard Zimmerman Architects PC, a firm that specializes in Local Law 11 work but was not involved in the East 64th Street project. “We don’t have X-ray vision, and we can’t always see conditions that aren’t at the forefront.” After discussing the brick collapse with the project’s contractor and engineer, Zimmerman added, “This building was following the law, and I believe all the permits and work were done appropriately. The bricks fell on the south side of the building, where crews weren’t even working.”
The project’s contractor, Quality Building Construction, of Long Island City, received a violation from the city for failure to safeguard the site. In a statement, the company said, “Quality was not doing any exterior work on the south side when the section of wall fell.... Quality has been asked to assist in stabilizing and restoring the area of the fallen bricks.”
The project’s engineer, Gene Ferrara of JMA Consultants, Inc., told Habitat that the collapse resulted from the original contractor's work. "There was an original construction defect, and the wall let loose," Ferrara said, adding that his crews had been scheduled to inspect the south wall the day after the collapse. "It was a miracle nobody was hurt," he said, adding, "You can do your best, but these things lurk behind the wall."
The 301-unit co-op is managed by FirstService Residential. Rovena Haxhiaj, the co-op’s property manager, did not respond to an interview request. The board declined to comment. Tal Eyal, president of FirstService’s FS Project Management subsidiary, said he was not involved in the day-to-day management of 340 E. 64th Street, but he spoke generally about such construction mishaps and what co-op and condo boards can do to keep them from happening – and what they can expect if they do happen.
“The first thing the building needs is a reputable architect/engineer who specializes in Local Law 11 work,” Eyal says. “The second thing is to know the history of the building, to know what was done in the previous cycles (of Local Law 11 work). The engineer should do due diligence and find out about the history of leaks and earlier damage that can compromise the exterior of the building.”
Eyal also urges boards to stay ahead of mandated repairs to their building’s exterior. “I suggest buildings don’t wait till the last minute,” he says. “The longer you delay, the greater the risk. You won’t get the same quality of contractor.”
Everyone in the building should be diligent. “If you are the managing agent, or the super, or on the board of directors – if you see something, speak up,” Eyal says. “Contact the engineer. It’s less expensive to address an issue than to wait for disaster. You can’t always prevent it, but you need to be pro-active to try to prevent it.”
Eyal says boards can also expect a fight with their insurance company in the wake of such a mishap. “I’m expecting a challenge from the insurer,” he says. “My experience is that insurance will not pay for wear and tear to the building. The insurer might cover for the loss of rent, but they will not help you do the repair.”
In the end, boards, property managers and engineers need to realize that there are limits to what they can do.
“Sixty percent of property management is anticipation,” Eyal says. “We’re always asking, ‘What can go wrong?’ Unfortunately, there are surprises.”
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