A Facade Makeover Fixing Your Building's Face

A Facade Makeover

It was bound to happen: Your building, in its heyday an architectural gem, has started to show its age. The facade, with ornate details that were once a striking accent to the neighborhood, is beginning to deteriorate. If it's been years since you last fully appreciated the unique architectural details of your building's facade, and if you're living in fear of the next Local Law 11 inspection rounds, it might be time for a complete restoration. And it shouldn't be just for appearance's sake: Your aging facade could pose a safety risk for residents, passers-by, or anyone who enters your building.

When to Restore?

Whether your building is historic, or a newer construction, you must abide by the Local Law 11 code instituted by the Department of Buildings, says Wayne Bellet of Bellet Construction Co. in Manhattan's East Village. "Local Law 10 [which required an examination of the front facade of the building every five years] was revised a few years ago. It was upgraded to Local Law 11, to include all facades - front, back, and sides. These must be inspected for hazardous conditions every five years."

An architect or engineer is the best person to consult regarding your building's condition. After all, to an untrained eye, a facade - even an aging one - may appear fine. But an architect or engineer can point out necessary repairs that might otherwise go unnoticed. Though you may be tempted to go for a quick fix, as Michael Grant, vice-president of Accura Restoration, Inc. in Queens points out, doing patchwork may seem cost effective, but eventually you're going to have to address major repair issues.

Bellet agrees. "If the architect or engineer finds something [hazardous], it must be remedied immediately. Just as in the case of a fire, it's not thought about or deliberated. It must be taken care of immediately and the necessary precautions must be taken."

In a less serious situation, if the architect or engineer finds that your facade simply needs some maintenance and not a complete overhaul, you'll have until the end of the five-year cycle to remedy the problem. But let it go longer than that, and it will be considered hazardous - and your building will face legal repercussions.

Facades should be inspected well before the first signs of trouble crop up, according to Alan Epstein of Epstein Engineering in Manhattan. Water is an especially troublesome force and any leaks can not only damage individual apartments but also harm the structural integrity of the building by possibly causing cracks or bulging brickwork, he says. Repointing, which is repairing damaged plaster or open or deteriorated mortar joints, should be done every five to 7 years, says Epstein. Repointing is done by using a diamond blade grinder to cut the joint between the brick and where the mortar is deteriorating, and then the mortar is repaired and replaced in layers.

"All work should be done under plans and specifications developed by an architect. The work should also be inspected periodically while it's ongoing by an engineer or an architect. The best protection for a building so that it's correctly designed, it's correctly installed and it's inspected as it's performed. But the key to everything is, whether it's pointing or stone work, it's early detection," says Epstein, an engineer for over 20 years.

When someone is inspecting the condition of your building it's important, says Bellet, that they physically get on a scaffold to do the inspection, and actually touch it with his or her hands. "You used to be able to go across the street and look at the building," says Bellet, "but now the Building Department wants a licensed engineer to ride a scaffold and do a hands-on inspection."

After inspection, your architect or engineer will write up the repair specs, and the job typically goes to contractors to bid on.

Check Out Your Contractor

Most construction consultants will advise you to hire a contractor based on three qualifying factors: experience, insurance, and reputation. This last point is an important one, as some contractors never get repeat customers because of a bad reputation. Others have been around for generations. Talk to your building architect or managing agent and see whom they recommend, and how long those contractors have been in business.

Insurance is also a major issue in construction these days, mainly because premiums have risen over the past few years. Generally, make sure your potential contractors have the following types of insurance: workers' compensation for statutory amounts in state, disability, general liability, and - perhaps surprisingly - car insurance. According to Bellet, "the number-one source of [construction-site] accidents is automobile accidents." There may be more categories of insurance pertaining to you particular job, so be sure to look into those particulars as well.

In addition to insurance coverage, it is imperative that you make sure that all potential contractors are properly classified. Some companies may deliberately misclassify themselves in order to get lower premiums, so it's not going overboard to call insurance companies to make sure a contractor is classified correctly even before they bid the job.

Your contractor must have ample experience, and also must have licenses from the City of New York and a rigger's license. He or she also must self-certify that the workers on scaffolds are qualified to do that work, and issues a form the workers keep with them. It can become your building's problem if the contractor doesn't follow the code.

Bellet notes that there are many subtleties that could indicate if you've hired a reliable contractor. "If you don't show up on time, it shows me that you didn't leave early enough and you're just not interested in the project," he says. "If [the contractor] does show up and doesn't have proper tools, doesn't act right, or doesn't have a two-way radio, it's probably indicative of what he's doing for you."

A Special Situation

The process of facade repair is somewhat different if your building is designated as historical or a landmark. If that's the case, before any type of work can begin you must go to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and submit plans for its review. The process can be difficult and expensive, but you don't have much choice: it's the tradeoff for having the privilege and financial returns of an historical structure. The commission is generally regarded as reasonable, but keep in mind that the first matter of business is preserving landmarks. This can present a problem for a budget-conscious board. Working with contractors and architects who are familiar with the unique requirements of historical buildings can help expedite the process, but for the most part, getting approval will add to the length of your project.

Before Construction

Before work can begin, the contractor must obtain the necessary permits for the type of work your facade requires. He or she must also be able to enter your building.

"You must provide access through the building to show the contractor where he will be working, what he will be working on," says Bellet. "He typically knows where he must be and how to handle [working through occupied spaces]." It's important that your board is aware of the areas your contractor might need to access, he explains.

In projects like this, which involve heavy materials high above the sidewalk and scaffolding, public safety - or Local Law 45 - must be maintained at any cost. Your contractor must erect a sidewalk pedestrian shed, which is typically eight, 12, or 16 feet high, and shields passing pedestrians from any demolition or construction work.

Occasionally, the building is responsible for getting the sidewalk shed set up, however, Bellet recommends that your contractor do this. "It's better to keep it in one persons' hands, so you'll have a single source of responsibility."

The Work Begins

After all the permits are secured and safety measures have been taken, it's finally time for work to begin. Using your architect or engineer's plans, the contractor can now begin demolition of the existing facade. This isn't the end of the architect's or engineer's involvement in the process, however, says George York, president of Manhattan-based York Restoration. "During demolition, the engineer reinspects the area, making sure [the contractor] doesn't have to go further in removing bad concrete down to sound substrates." Once the contractor has bricked up the building, the engineer will do one final inspection.

"Each facade project is unique," notes York, "so each engineer has different requirements to prepare for restoration. For instance, some like to use rust inhibitors, others require coatings or patching. In most cases, facade restoration can include masonry repairs, caulking repairs, coating, waterproofing, installations, and even roofing. It all depends on the extent of the plans, the condition of the building, and the budget for repairs." It's vital, adds York, that the contractor works very closely with architects and engineers to keep the watertight integrity of the building.

Grant agrees that no two projects are alike, so a "typical" restoration does not really exist. Generally, he says, "masonry work comes before roofing, but there's no set order. It depends on each individual job and on what items are involved." He notes that his company did one job where they started with reinforcing the cornices. In other jobs, he'll do masonry and waterproofing first. "A lot depends on the engineer's or architect's directions, and how they want to proceed."

What's surprising today, says Epstein, is that newer construction sometimes fails quicker than some of the older more historic buildings in the city. That might be due to buildings being put up at a faster pace because of economic constraints and other factors.

During construction, your project may be slowed by the availability of certain materials. "Some [materials] are difficult to get," says York. "There's a brick shortage in New York City, and glazed brick is difficult to get a lot of currently." This is something to take into account when considering your timeframe, he adds.

The Details

So how long will you have to wait for the project to be finished? The construction period can be long or quick, depending on the extent of repairs. It is possible to do a more extensive (or expensive) project over a series of years, but most pros avoid drawing a project out that long, if possible. "The ramifications of a multi-year repair, are that there's always noise, dust, and a shed, and your building is always under a stage of construction," says Bellet. York concurs, adding, "The most disruptive work to residents are concrete and masonry repairs," so it's best to shoot for the shortest amount of time under construction. Continues York, "What we like to do is try to gauge a work schedule - where we will be at certain times, the start, finish, and obstacles. We like to keep the building as well-informed as possible."

Bellet suggests doing the estimation, scaffolding and planning during cold weather. "As soon as the weather breaks," he says, "you'll have the warmer months to do the work." This provides a nice block of time since, according to Grant, "most of the jobs can take anywhere from three to six months."

Although other payment methods can be arranged, Grant notes that construction contracts generally follow the standard American Institute of Architects (AIA) form. In this type of agreement, the contractor receives a small down payment and monthly payment as the project progresses. The final signoff also comprises whatever warranties were included in the job.

A full facade overhaul is one of the biggest projects a building can undertake. Such a job takes a lot of careful planning, research, negotiation, and patience before it's all said and done, not to mention the expense of it all. The stakes are high, but the final outcome of a successfully executed project is not only an improved building aesthetic, but the knowledge that your co-op or condo is on the right side of the law, and doesn't pose a threat to residents or passers-by.

Stephanie Mannino is a freelance writer living in New Jersey.

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  • We have been told that if an engineer lists repairs to be done and we don't do all of them, our building's insurance rate will go up. Is this true?