Thanks for the Memories Preserving Your Building's Records

Thanks for the Memories

As the years pass in any enduring community - like a co-op or condo building - there's a lot to remember sometimes it gets hard to keep track of all the decisions made, contracts signed, bills paid, and rules amended. How can board decisions be kept consistent as directors and presidents come and go, and the population within a building shifts and changes? How can a board commit to memory which contractors did fantastic work, and which ones left much to be desired? How to keep track of which shareholders are subletting, and to whom?

These are all questions of what's commonly referred to as "institutional memory." Your building's institutional memory is not so much a record of quirky characters who've lived in it over the years (though that can be part of it) as it is a record of both policy and year-to-year business, organized and archived to allow easy access and reference. By cataloging the vast paper trail left by your building over the years, your board and managing agent can streamline operations and create a valuable resource.

Where to Begin

According to David Khazzam, vice president of PRC Management Corporation in Manhattan, "Most co-ops and condos have all their files stored at the managing agent's office. The agent usually stores the files in shareholder files, which relate to individual owners of each apartment. Then there are general files, which contain general contracts, building files, and so on. In effect, if you have a good managing agent, the records are already kept in reasonable form."

If your building is self-managed, however, and your filing system has been low on the priority list for a few years, you'll need a willing person to sift through the stacks and commit to archiving all the important stuff into a coherent system. This person should have an understanding of your building's hierarchy of documents, as well as access to all the necessary information and resources. In a smaller building with just a few units, one person may be enough to go through the stacks; in a larger building, you may need a crew of archivists on the job. If good records have been kept consistently throughout the years, the archiving process can be relatively simple. If papers and files have languished neglected in dusty file cabinets and scattered desk drawers, however, the task may be a good deal more tedious.

According to Wesley Haynes of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, "The first step in creating a central archive is to locate the relevant information. The first place to go, of course, is to your institution's own records. Offices and filing cabinets should be carefully examined for materials relating to previous maintenance activities and the upkeep of the building." The search may have to cast its nets wider, however; "Closets, attics, basements, and other parts of your building complex, which may have become repositories for older records over the years, should also be carefully checked," says Haynes. "Materials stored in this manner may be damp, mildewed, insect-infested, rotten, and generally in bad condition. They should be handled with care."

In addition to what you find on-site, Haynes recommends checking with the city Buildings Department and Hall of Records to track down permits, application forms, building plans, and other valuable documents.

What Stays"¦and What Goes

Once the initial finding, sorting and organizing is completed however, it really doesn't take much extra effort to keep the archive current.

If your building's records are under the care of a professional managing agency, says Khazzam, that agency will most likely have a pre-set schedule for weeding out superfluous paperwork. "Older contracts are purged," says Khazzam, "though not necessarily thrown away. Periodically we pull out old, non-current shareholders' files, or sublease files, and send them out to outside storage. We also look thorough the general files - contracts, legal documents, etcetera - and anything that's not currently active, anything over, say, two years old, we do the same with that."

If you're doing your own sorting, the first order of business is organizing your building's board records. Generally, these consist of things like agendas and minutes from past meetings, which can be cross-referenced to pertinent correspondence in other sections of the archive. Says Haynes, "The minutes and correspondence of the board (or its equivalent) and committee meetings that record information on maintenance activities should be retained, as they often reveal the reasoning behind the decisions."

The board activity file should also contain any and all building-wide statements issued to residents, as well as a complete history of building policy and any changes made to the proprietary lease, bylaws, and house rules. Lastly, the board record includes ancillary documents like alteration policies, rules regulating subleasing, and any other resolutions made by the board.

Also included in the main part of the archive will be a detailed account of the physical structure of the building itself. At minimum, says Haynes, "The archive should include"¦a floor plan of all floors; a roof plan; and elevations of all exterior facades. These [documents] should be reproduced and used during building inspections to record conditions, such as cracks"¦deteriorated mortar joints, water damage, etcetera. They can also be used to generate plans of the mechanical and electrical systems."

With any luck, the original plans for the structure will be available and intact, supplemented with records of any alterations, rehabs, and renovations to both common spaces and individual units. Blueprints and floor plans can now be scanned into computer databases, and thus be easily transmitted to architects, engineers, and project managers working on new construction or repair work. According to Haynes, photographs and written documentation relating to original and ongoing construction are also helpful, particularly in older or historic properties. "Photographs of existing conditions, which are accurately dated and labeled, and which are accompanied by written descriptions, are useful in monitoring changes to the building's features over time."

Along with a building's governing documents are reams of papers covering day-to-day expenses, income, and various service transactions. Permanent files should be established for things like contracts for capital improvement projects, commercial tenant leases, insurance policies, and inter-house transactions like apartment subleases. Other, semi-permanent files can be established for bills, bank statements, staff payroll records, and other miscellaneous records and documents, with predetermined "keep "˜til" dates, past which the documents should be discarded.

Says Khazzam of his company's approach to a backlog of paper-bits, "We do throw out unnecessary documents and also periodically go out to the stored files and purge them. We actually go above and beyond what the IRS requires in terms of retaining [financial] records - we keep them a little bit longer. But after a while, you just don't need a copy of every single invoice."

Miscellaneous building policies also deserve their own classification. Important communiqués with management, board decisions regarding policy changes, work orders in apartments, fire and emergency safety plans, evacuation procedures, back-issues of building newsletters, and other important-but-hard-to-categorize items go here.

It may also be helpful to set up files for professional consultants and major vendors serving the building, with complete work histories and any key correspondence included. Vendor files can be cross-referenced with the apartments or common areas they worked on for easy comparison. And even if you have a small building with just one or two staff people, it's a good idea to establish a personnel file, including records for each individual employee. This file should include all performance reports, notices, any correspondence with the employee's union, if applicable, and records of any professional training the employee has undergone before or during his/her tenure with your building community. Staff records are usually retained for seven years after a given employee's retirement or termination provided there's no unfinished business pending with the former employee.

The E-Age

Not only do simple-but-sophisticated computer programs exist to help you and your archivist and management team organize all this information and keep it safe and secure, but with CD-ROM burning and inexpensive hard disk technology, "keeping files" doesn't necessarily mean your back office will be stacked floor-to-ceiling with paper files and cabinets. Today, important documents can be stored on compact discs that take up less room than an address book.

"[Many agencies] give the board the option of electronically storing [important documents]," says Khazzam. "Today, you can just scan and save documents. Many boards are concerned about [the legality of electronic documents]; their issue is, "˜if we need to access that document for litigation, is that a legal form of submission?' More and more, courts are recognizing that this is an electronic age, and will admit them. Once boards recognize that, and once prices to copy these documents into electronic format become more reasonable, we'll be seeing more electronic storage and reproduction."

When Changes Are Afoot

If your building is undergoing a management change, or is a previously self-managed building getting into sync with a new management company, the issue of preserving your building's institutional memory becomes even more crucial. Generally, when a new managing agency comes aboard to oversee a building, they go through all the available files and report back to the board as to the completeness of those files; anything that's missing, how the record-keeping was conducted previously, and, says Khazzam, "if there's something alarming with respect to record-keeping, the board will be advised. We'll purge things right then if need be. That's one of the few times you'll ever have an entire building's files sitting right in front of you, and it's the opportune time to go through everything."

An incoming managing agent may also consult the building's accountant and attorney as to which records should be retained and which should be discarded. Says Khazzam, "I don't think a board generally has a clue as to what kinds of files a managing agent retains on behalf of its client. It's relying on its current managing agent - and of course its new agent - to see that their files are transferred. It's inherent on a board making a managing agent change to better understand what goes behind the change, and do some work in understanding what kinds of files and documents are involved, copies of all the invoices, copies of financials. It's a huge, monumental amount of paperwork in order to make a good change."

Not only can you use a management change to go through all your building's documents and records, but you can use the opportunity to make copies of everything, so as to have one set of files at your management office and one set stored in-house. According to Khazzam, in a professionally managed building, "The record-keeping is definitely not the board's responsibility, but a lot of boards duplicate their records - anything can happen; We have disaster plans, but in case we have a fire at our headquarters, for example, it's a good idea to have all [the building files] available at the property - there's no reason why a building couldn't find some space to put a couple of fireproof, weatherproof filing cabinets and dump records into them. The agent can definitely help in this process."

While the initial task of going through your building's paperwork and records can seem almost Herculean, the benefits of having a place for everything and everything in its place cannot be overstated. Establishing and maintaining a strong, enduring sense of institutional memory can save you time, money, and guesswork in the long run; something for which your building community will remember - and thank - you.

Bob Smith is a freelance writer based in Manhattan.

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  • I am very interested in this idea. I'm not in arceivhs, but I do work in a library, and I think this is one of the major information issues libraries should be thinking about today. I could see it expand, too, to how do we collect digital records, and how can we create institutional/organizational strategies for planning what to collect.