Swinging Off of Skyscrapers Maintaing your exterior facade

Swinging Off of Skyscrapers

 Every time a co-op or condo building needs exterior  work - an occurrence more regular now than a quarter century  ago - a group of highly-trained, highly-specialized, and extremely  brave professionals arrive to carry out the project. They set up  scaffolding, lower swinging platforms, use heavy, often dangerous,  equipment and supplies with the goal of providing a façade facelift  or complete overhaul.

 Just as New York's landscape continually changes,  so too have the exterior maintenance trades. Heights have escalated,  materials have changed, regulations have become far stricter, and the pace  of work in a hot real estate market has multiplied. For boards and managing  agents faced with a façade refurbishment project, it's a smart  idea to get an understanding of the regulations and the players - and  their training and licensing - who will be involved in the project.

 Building History

 In 1979, a piece of terra cotta masonry fell from the  facade of an Upper West Side building and killed a passing college student.  This tragedy provided the impetus for the city to take action to  redress a glaring deficiency: the lack of oversight over building  exteriors.

 "It used to be that the decision to make repairs  to the façade was the decision of the individual buildings and  owners," says Michael Grant of Accura Restoration Inc. in Astoria.  "Obviously, this didn't work very well. If you were on  Central Park West, or on Park Avenue, they took care of the  building," he says, but otherwise, not so much.

 The city government that often moves at a glacial pace  reacted swiftly and decisively, enacting Local Law 10 the following year,  1980. The new law, known as Local Law 10/80, required buildings to  fix unsafe facades as soon as discovered, among other new rules.  

 "Local Law 10 of 1980 required periodic  façade inspection to be performed by a licensed engineer or  registered architect," according to Alan Epstein, president of  Epstein Engineering and an expert on building exterior city regulations.

 While certainly a step in the right direction,  10/80's requirements weren't stringent enough to provide real  change. For one thing, the law called for a visual inspection of the  front of all buildings taller than six stories. In practice, this  meant that the inspector had to stand in front of a skyscraper and look  up - not a very effective way of spotting potential problems on, say,  the 52nd floor. For another, only the fronts of the buildings were  inspected. The other three sides could be crumbling to bits and  legally the inspectors could do nothing about it.

 "In 1998, the law was updated," Epstein  explains. "Local Law 11 of 1998" - 11/98, in the  industry parlance - "expanded the regulations. They decided  that inspectors would perform [checks] on all façades - sides,  back, front. In addition, a minimum of one scaffold inspection of the  street façade was required."

 That was one major change. Another regulated the  speed by which repairs had to be made. Before 11/98 passed, only  conditions deemed "unsafe" by the inspectors had to be repaired  immediately - the other two designations, "conditions in need of  repair" and "maintenance items," could be deferred  indefinitely.

 "In '98, maintenance was put on a  timetable," Epstein explains. "Now you have five years to  complete all required maintenance." The updated law established a  standard maximum five-year reporting time for each successive  "critical examination" of a building.

 "The laws are cyclical in nature," Grant  says. "They come out every five years. Exterior  contractors are in demand because somebody has to do the inspecting."  

 If the law is cyclical, that means a change might be in  store. When will Local Law 11/98 be updated, and what might it  include?

 "To speculate on the future," Epstein says,  "a new law might include smaller buildings to be inspected, buildings  under six stories in height." The existing law, he explains,  doesn't apply to brownstones, for example, although many brownstones,  because of their age, could be in need of façade repair.

 Epstein is quick to point out that his speculations  come from chatter among people in the industry, and not from officials at  City Hall. He feels there is no mad rush to amend Local Law 11/98.  "The law is effective in its current format," he says.

 Local Law 10/80 and the subsequent Local Law 11/98 may  have been something of a boon for industry businesses. Prior to the  requirements being written into law, there was always façade work to  be done on the city's thousands of buildings, but it was more  sporadic, typically dictated by emergency rather than maintenance. Now,  exterior maintenance professionals all along the spectrum of services say  they have no shortage of projects - someone has to rig the scaffolds  for all those building façade inspections, someone has to fix  whatever problems are inevitably found, and someone else has to cart off  the construction debris from repair projects.

 There are dangers to the added workload, however.  "[The industry is at an all-time high with accidents," says  Wayne Bellet, owner of Bellet Construction in Manhattan. "Last  year there were 15 incidents where there were scaffold failures, and people  got seriously injured or died. The year before that, there were three  to five."

 He attributes this to a labor shortage problem: the  amount of work has compelled some companies to cut corners.

 "The change is indicative of the increased  reliance on poor labor," he says. "People are being put  up there that aren't trained, in spite of the regulations."  

 The nature of the business - uncovering what was  glossed over years ago - also means that what started off as one type  of project can quickly morph into something altogether different.

 "Generally, in this line of work, the jobs that  we bid can become larger during the course of the job, because you  don't know what you'll find," Grant says.  "You don't have a stable base. If someone has to  install a roof, you know what that involves. But you have an unknown  quantity under the façade."

 The job has changed through the years. The  technology is better, but the workload is heavier, and the requirements  more daunting.

 "The regulations are intense," Bellet says.  "That was not the case years ago."

 Who's Out There?

 The people doing work on the exterior of a building  represent a diverse group of specialized skills - waterproofing,  roofing, masonry, and anything else related to the exterior of a building.  Plumbers and electricians are also sometimes involved, albeit less  frequently. "It's kind of a hybrid," says Bellet.  "It's what engineers call Division 7 work - masonry,  roofing, anything to do with the envelope of a building."

 What most façade jobs have in common is simple:  they need to be performed on scaffolds, often hundreds of feet in the air,  in the baking heat of summer and extreme cold of winter.

 According to Bellet, there are divisions even among  already-specialized trades, and adhering to the rules and regulations  governing those trades is of paramount importance. Consider riggers, for  example. They're the ones charged with lifting extremely heavy loads  of materials, workers, and pieces of equipment from sidewalk level up the  side of the building to where the work is being carried out. Rigging is a  very specialized trade, and makes use of custom-built equipment as well as  huge pulleys and crane apparatus. Unlike most other trades today, rigging  is a skill that is learned by apprenticeship. Because of the dangerous  nature of what they do, riggers must be scrupulously trained, experienced,  and licensed to do the level of work necessary for a given job.

 "There are two types of riggers," says  Bellet, "'special' and 'master.'  Special riggers can lift weights up to 1,500 pounds. Over that, you  need a master rigger." Master riggers, then, are the ones operating  the cranes. Most co-op and condo buildings will only need to employ a  special rigger for its purposes - but regardless, he or she had better  be properly licensed and fully insured.

 Some of the exterior trades are the bailiwick of Local  32BJ, but generally only for large commercial jobs, such as the  construction of an entirely new building. "The union doesn't  exercise power over all exterior trades," Bellet says, noting that  most work done to most existing co-op and condo buildings is non-union in  nature.

 Grant agrees. "We were never union," he  says, "and that's acceptable in the restoration market."  

 Aiming To Climb

 So how does one become a something like a  rigger - master or otherwise? "Many of the companies are family  owned," Grant says. Bellet, for one, followed in the footsteps of his  father and grandfather. "More trades than you can imagine are  driven by multiple generations," he says.

 Those that are not going into the family business tend  to have friends who work in the industry, or some other way in the door.

 "You have someone, a young man, who's  mechanically inclined," Bellet says. "He applies to be a  laborer. During the course of three to five years, he's  gradually trained in all the flavors of what we do."

 Grant was a contractor who specialized in restoration  work. Getting his riggers license was the next logical step - though  certainly no piece of cake. City regulations require five years of  experience working on rigging scaffolds before a worker can get a license  to operate one himself. Even beyond that, the vetting process is rigorous:  riggers must be fingerprinted and photographed, they must prominently  display their company logo when on the job, and they must have a  certificate of physical fitness.

 It also helps not to be afraid of heights.

 "My eight-year-old son has shown signs that he  is," Bellet says, with a chuckle, "but not my six-year-old  daughter. So who knows? The next generation might be run by a  woman."

 Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent  contributor toThe Cooperator.

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