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New – and Cheaper – Ways to Inspect Facades

Frank Lovece in Building Operations on December 17, 2018

New York City

Scaffolding Options I

Rappellers inspecting the facade of the Flatiron Building (by Marco Catini Photography, courtesy of CANY Architecture + Engineering).

Dec. 17, 2018

It happens every five years, like clockwork. Expensive clockwork. Co-op and condo boards in buildings with six or more stories are required, under Local Law 11, to arrange for a hands-on facade inspection by an architect, engineer, or other qualified inspector. Now, some boards are discovering alternatives to the conventional scaffold drop, where the inspector rides a motorized scaffold down a representative section of each exterior wall. These alternatives are so cost-effective that in some cases it’s possible to drop the scaffold – as in, not use a scaffold at all. 

How? Primarily two ways: using bucket trucks, also known as “boom trucks” or “boom lifts,” and commonly used by firefighters; or having your wall inspector rappel on ropes from the roof to the ground. Both methods satisfy the city’s requirement for a “physical examination,” according to architects, engineers, and building managers experienced with Local Law 11, now formally known as the Facade Inspection and Safety Program, or FISP.

“Depending on the building’s construction and configuration, the engineer or architect can conduct hands-on facade inspections by boom lift or industrial rope access,” says architect Stephen Varone, president of RAND Engineering & Architecture. When operating a motorized scaffold is not feasible – in buildings with sloped roofs, closely spaced terraces, or angled facades, for instance – Varone says that boom lifts and rope access may be the preferred options. 

Such alternative tools and techniques may not work for every building. A clump of trees may prevent a boom truck from getting its bucket close enough to a particular wall, for example. But many co-op and condo boards are finding that the alternatives might be cheaper than scaffold drops, while allowing the inspector to cover more of the facade in the same amount of time, providing a larger and more accurate sample. 

When a facade is inspected by rope access, the Department of Buildings requires two individuals per job, both trained and certified either by the Pennsylvania-based Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT) or England’s Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA). They also must be New York City-certified licensed riggers, either a special rigger or the more advanced master rigger. “The master rigger is the person setting all this up,” says Scott Kamen, a principal at Kamen Tall Architects. “The master rigger can close the sidewalk if deemed necessary. The master rigger is the one who ties off the rope and makes sure it’s safe. And, boy, does New York City need more master riggers. There just aren’t enough of them to go around.” 

Kamen pegs the cost of rappelling at roughly one-quarter of the cost of scaffolding. “It might be $5,000 for an entire day,” he says, “but a SPRAT inspector can perform many, many more drops.” While each is narrower than the 15- to 20-foot width of standard scaffolds, the larger number of rope drops covers more area for the same price. 

Coming tomorrow: the beauty of boom trucks.

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