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Just as the cherry blossoms start to bloom and New York City is at its most gorgeous, hundreds of buildings disappear behind construction hoardings. Soon after, perilous scaffolds can be seen dangling over the edge of the city’s high rises. This is a sure sign that another season of brickwork repairs—also known as façade restorations—has begun.
If one has any doubt that all the fuss about brickwork repairs is necessary, they need only turn back to the city’s history.
If one has any doubt that all the fuss about brickwork repairs is necessary, they need only turn back to the city’s history. A survey of New York Times headlines over the decades says it all—Death from Falling Bricks (1863), Part of Chimney Falls on Group of Spectators in Outfield (1929), Bricks from a City Unit Fall to East River Drive (1955), Falling Masonry Fatally Injures Barnard Student (1979), Falling Bricks Injure Two People (1992), Another Flurry of Falling Bricks (1998), Falling Bricks Cause Concerns and Delays on the Upper East Side (2015) and the headlines go on and on.

While some of the city’s reported incidents of falling bricks and mortar have been linked to storms, fires or active construction work, in most cases, the culprit has simply been poorly constructed and aging buildings.

Legislating Brickwork Repairs

Sheer neglect was the culprit of a 1979 incident that struck and killed Grace Gold, a freshman at Barnard College. Gold was walking along West 115th Street on a pleasant May evening when a 1- by 2-foot piece of concrete from an 11th-story window lintel came crashing down on her. Gold died within minutes but the high-profile incident, which was witnessed by several pedestrians and residents in the area, was impressionable enough to put pressure on the City of New York to introduce Law 10—the city’s first façade ordinance.

Law 10 applied to all buildings higher than six stories built before February 21, 1980. Under Law 10, owners of these buildings were required to employ a licensed architect or professional engineer to carry out a façade inspection once every five years. Although the law led to notable improvements, it had several limitations. Buildings more than 25-feet back from the sidewalk were excluded from Law 10 and so were any walls not facing the street. Also, there were no clear guidelines on what a “critical inspection” must entail. This meant that in some cases, the inspection simply involved a licensed architect or professional engineer carrying out a visual inspection with the aid of a pair of binoculars.

In some cases inspection simply involved a licensed architect or professional engineer carrying out a visual inspection with the aid of a pair of binoculars.
As the bricks and mortar continued to fall, Law 10 was replaced with Law 11, which offered clearer guidelines on what constitutes a “critical inspection” and on reporting façade maintenance issues to the NYC Department of Buildings. Eventually, Law 11 was expanded and renamed as the Façade Inspection and Safety Program. The current program not only requires that all building walls be inspected but also includes additional guidelines pertaining to balcony inspections.

Brian Sullivan of Sullivan Engineering, who has supervised façade restorations across the city, explains that under the current ordinance, engineers must carry out a hands-on inspection. “Originally, only street elevations were subject to inspection. Under the current ordinance, all elevations are part of the inspection, and you have to do at least one hands-on inspection on at least one drop or elevation of the building.” Sullivan further explains that hands-on inspections must be carried out by trained staff and be supervised by a licensed architect or professional engineer who has visited the site.

 

The Impact of Façade Restoration on Tenants

Façade restoration, which often takes up to a year to complete on high rises, is not only an eyesore but also a major expense. In New York City, façade restoration is a multi-million dollar business. For the average residential high rise, this means digging deep into one’s reserves to cover related costs. As Sullivan notes, “Depending on the amount of required work, the cost can vary significantly from a couple of hundred thousands to several million dollars.” He adds that in some cases, buildings opt to complete both required and anticipated repairs, which can save money over time by minimizing the likelihood of more extensive façade restoration work in the future.

Beyond the cost, which frequently results in co-op fee hikes and rental increases, tenants in buildings under repair must contend with many inconveniences, including noise, dust, closed or partially closed rooftop amenities and brick workers hanging outside bedroom windows on scaffolds. “Some building managers are better at communication than others,” observes Sullivan, “And without adequate warning, it can be shocking to find workers hanging outside your window.”

The Bricks Continue to Fall

While owners and tenants may feel inconvenienced, it is important to bear in mind that façade restoration remains a necessary and life-saving intervention.

Law 10, Law 11 and the current Façade Inspection and Safety Program have each resulted in a notable reduction in injuries and fatalities related to falling bricks citywide but unfortunately, even under the current inspection program, tragedies continue to be reported.

On May 18, 2015, a 2-year-old girl was killed on the Upper West Side when a chunk of brick façade fell from the 8th floor of a building. The child, who was sitting on a bench below with her grandmother, was struck in the head and died shortly thereafter. A subsequent investigation found that in this case both the city and an engineer hired to oversee the investigation were at fault.

New Yorkers have many reasons to welcome the arrival of façade restoration season.
First, a city worker failed to read and respond to an email warning about the building’s potentially unsafe condition, which meant no inspector was sent to the site. Second, the investigation found that Maqsood Faruqi, the licensed engineer who certified that the building was in sound condition, had never visited the site in person. In November 2015, Faruqi was arrested with a class E felony and if convicted, he could be sentenced to serve up to four years in prison.

Despite the accompanying dust, noise and cost, given the potential for serious injuries and even fatalities, New Yorkers have many reasons to welcome the arrival of façade restoration season.

 

Additional Info About the Building

 
Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.
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