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Job One for New Condo Boards: Get a Building Physical

Bill Morris in Building Operations on January 17, 2019

New York City

Concrete Cancer

Hairline cracks that might indicate "concrete cancer" (image courtesy of Kamen Tall Architects).

Jan. 17, 2019

New York City is bristling with shiny new condominium towers. As fledgling condo boards are discovering at an alarming rate, those towers are often bristling with construction defects. In many cases, the defects are so serious that the buildings fail to pass their first mandated facade inspection, formerly known as Local Law 11, now the Facade Inspection and Safety Program (FISP). 

Scott Kamen, a principal at Kamen Tall Architects, was recently called in to perform a facade inspection on a nine-story condo building on the West Side of Manhattan that opened in 2011. Inspectors, descending on ropes, noticed numerous hairline cracks in precast concrete sections of the facade. Drills will be brought in and the contractor will extract cylindrical samples of concrete, which will undergo lab testing to see if they’re indicative of a condition known in the industry as “concrete cancer.” 

“This is a construction error we’re seeing these days,” Kamen says. “It’s not citywide. What we’re seeing citywide is new buildings that are not passing their first FISP inspections. It goes back to a system that allows developers to have a corporate veil. They make astounding profits – and then they move on.” 

Before the developer moves on – and long before the six-year statute of limitations expires for breach-of-contract lawsuits over construction defects – Kamen advises new condo boards to hire an architect to perform a thorough survey of the building. The cost begins around $10,000 and can go way up from there, but Kamen insists the benefits are worth the cost. The survey includes the foundation, the building envelope, mechanical systems, invoices for previous repairs, resident complaints, and interviews with the super and property manager. In addition to unearthing building-wide defects and providing a basis for suing the developer, the survey gives the board valuable hard evidence for projecting future expenses

“Once we have a survey,” Kamen says, “we can tell how the building is going to perform. Now we have a baseline.” 

The ongoing flurry of construction has produced some startling results. At one new condo tower in Long Island City, Queens, the staff was unable to get the interior temperature above 60 degrees during wintertime. The boiler was not malfunctioning. Only when Kamen’s team took infrared photographs of the building did they realize it was radiating heat, which led to the discovery of leaks that had penetrated walls, soaking Fiberglas insulation and causing it to fail. The building had become a sieve for heat and cold. Such horror stories are not uncommon. “The problems are so widespread,” Kamen says, “that I’m told developers are putting aside money because they know they’re going to get sued for something. It’s almost expected.” 

Kamen notes that construction defects are not always the result of shoddy workmanship or greedy developers. Many of today’s building materials come from foreign countries, he says, where quality-control and testing procedures may not live up to American expectations. Sometimes their failure is discovered after it’s too late. 

One last benefit of a building survey is that it allows the architect to compare the finished product with what the developer promised in the offering plan. The discrepancies can be staggering, in Kamen’s experience. Since the state Attorney General’s office is unlikely to prosecute such claims, it’s up to condo boards to look out for the interests of all unit-owners. As Kamen puts it, “Boards have an obligation to make sure they got what they paid for.” And if they didn’t, they have an obligation to go after the developer – before it’s too late.

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