A look at demolition: When walls come tumbling down

Oct.October 25, 2007 12:17 PM

As if the building remains in mourning, black netting drapes the former U.S. headquarters of Deutsche Bank, which received a 24-story gash during the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the netting is coming down.

After years of wrangling, one of the most costly, controversial and complex demolitions in city history is finally under way. Workers are scheduled to take down the building at 130 Liberty by year’s end, according to officials associated with the job.

Although most demolition jobs don’t come close to the difficulties involved with the demolition of the 40-story, 1.4-million-square-foot Deutsche Bank building, massive deconstruction jobs like this one and a former Con Ed site at 40th Street and First Avenue highlight the complexities of taking down a building in New York City.

“New York has the highest dollar value, the highest-paid unions, highest real estate, materials, logistics — all of this contributes to demolition costs in the city,” said Gerald Eglentowicz Jr., New York City operations manager for Mazzocchi Wrecking, which is handling the Con Ed job.

Costs greater to demolish than to buy the building

The Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, which oversees construction projects in Lower Manhattan, wouldn’t offer a cost estimate for the demolition of 130 Liberty, but reportedly the range has been anywhere from $45 to more than $250 million. Interestingly, this is the price range of buildings in the area, so it could cost more to take down the building than it would to buy it.

Deborah Wetzel, spokesperson for the construction planning group, in explaining the high cost of the Deutsche Bank building’s demolition noted that one has to factor in labor costs, equipment and materials.

The job involves a crew of around 400 workers who have erected a 40-floor crane, giant scaffolding and special protective netting around the building’s entire exterior to first decontaminate, then, floor by floor, demolish the building in what will be one of the largest and most complex demolition jobs in U.S. history.

The difficulty of this project was highlighted last month. Demolition work had to be halted temporarily after a 15-foot section of steel pipe fell from the 35th floor of the building onto a nearby firehouse, Engine 10, Ladder 10, and two firefighters sustained minor injuries.

On any demolition job, much of the important work begins before any debris is carted away.

The first step is to make sure the building is stable, especially after a fire, natural disaster or catastrophic event, said Kevin Behling, a professor of Demolition and Reconstruction at Purdue University.

A common concern is whether or not an existing structure will support the loads being imposed upon it by the demolition equipment being used to take it down.

“The next step is to determine if there are any hazardous materials, like asbestos, PCBs and mercury in the structure that need to be abated prior to the commencement of demolition,” he said.

In New York City, before owners can begin to demolish a building, they are required to hire a licensed inspector to make sure the building is asbestos-free. If it’s determined there is asbestos contamination, a licensed abatement contractor must be hired to remove it. The abatement process can be time-consuming and expensive.

“A lot of times it can cost more to abate a building than to tear it down” noted Herb Duane, a demolition expert and consultant in Dorchester, Mass.

The contractor also has to determine how much of the building’s scrap can be salvaged and sold for recycling. Demolition contractors are the largest source of scrap metal in the country, according to Mike Taylor, executive director at the National Demolition Association.

“Some structures have enough salvage value within their materials that the cost of labor and equipment for demolition can be paid for by the salvage value with the demolition contractor,” Behling said.

With the Deutsche Bank project, a huge portion of the cost and concern is related to the removal of toxic materials and asbestos abatement.

All eyes are on the potential toxic fallout from the Deutsche Bank building since the health of workers from Ground Zero continues to attract national attention, particularly as former mayor Rudolph Giuliani seeks the Republican nomination for President.

Abatement specialists are working their way down, sealing two floors at a time for added safety, unlike on other jobs that might only seal one floor at time. They are using negative air pressure to ensure that hazardous air particles are sucked into filters. Workers wear protective white suits and masks that insulate them from toxic microscopic particles as they gut everything from wiring to carpet, wash it, bag it and then carefully remove it from the structure.

Next, on the floors above, workers use machines and torches to cut through steel and chip away concrete, floor by floor. Then the infrastructure’s debris gets carried down by a crane elevator in buckets.

While multiple floors can be gutted at the same time, at least four floors separate workers doing the demolition for safety purposes. Air monitors are on site to test for any toxic particles that might be released into the air.

New tower to rise on Deutsche Bank site

After the building comes down, another will likely rise to take its place. In March, JP Morgan Chase reached a tentative deal with the Port Authority to pay about $300 million for development rights at the Deutsche Bank site. The company plans to build a 1.3-million-square-foot tower there and would move thousands of employees from other locations to Lower Manhattan, giving a boost to the Financial District.

In New York City, all demolition work is regulated by the Department of Buildings under Building Code subchapter 19. In addition, if a building is found to be contaminated with asbestos, a proof of abatement permit must be filed with the Department of Environmental Planning.

Since 2002, the number of demolition permits issued annually by the Buildings Department has increased by 88 percent. As of April 2007, there were 200 active permits for demolition work in Manhattan, said Kate Lindquist, spokesperson at the Department of Buildings.

The cost for a demolition permit depends on a number of variables, such as the height and street frontage of a building. For example, the cost of a demolition permit for a 15-story building could range from $1,500 to $4,000, while the city’s permission to tear down a four-story brownstone might be around $300, according to the Buildings Department.

The Deutsche Bank building’s demolition is being overseen by Bovis Lend Lease. Bovis is one of the world’s largest project management firms, with a presence in more than 40 countries. According to company spokesperson Mary Costello, Bovis is not allowed to discuss details of the Deutsche Bank project publicly because of its contract with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The LMDC, a unit of the New York State Economic Development Corporation, bought the Deutsche Bank building in 2004.

Con Ed excavation used 400,000-pound machines

Mazzocchi Wrecking, headquartered in East Hanover, N.J., is one of the five biggest demolition firms working in New York City and the seventh largest in the United States.

At one of Mazzocchi’s job sites — 40th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan — the firm has already taken down Con Ed’s massive Waterside Generating Stations 1 and 2. At $25 million, the two-year Con Ed demolition job, which at its height employed 200 workers, was one of Mazzocchi’s biggest. Some of the equipment — including the company’s new long-reach demolition excavators used to bring down the buildings on this particular job — was featured in an episode of the History Channel program, “Modern Marvels.”

The long-reach demolition excavators, 400,000-pound machines with a reach of 17 to 20 stories, are the largest of their kind in the world. Equipped with multiple cameras, they allow the machine’s operator to see up to 200 feet into the air as it pulverizes concrete or tears through steel. But they can also be used in emergency situations, since they are equipped with firefighting and dust-control apparatus.

The Con Ed site is now an expanse of dirt and dust piles, with clusters of steel and pipes jutting from the ground on the huge plot of land. Views of the United Nations and glimmering new high-rises are plentiful now that the 500-foot smokestacks and huge turbine generator buildings are gone.

In April, backhoes carted off crumbled steel and brick dust, which were then loaded onto trucks to be shuttled to scrap yards in New Jersey. There, they’ll be recycled. The brick may go under a tri-state area roadway, and the steel may once again be part of the New York skyline.

Eglentowicz said the company needed around $100,000 worth of permits from the city, as well as a permit from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, since the site is directly over the Queens Midtown Tunnel.

Eglentowicz said demolition jobs are always more expensive in New York City. If a job costs $100,000, the demolition portion may only cost $55,000, and the balance could be spent on material disposal permits, rodent abatement and scaffolding.

The former Con Ed site is set to be developed by its current owner Sheldon Solow, who reportedly plans to build 6 million square feet of commercial, residential and retail space.

Interior demolitions yield glimpses of the past

While the demolitions of the Deutsche Bank building and Con Ed substations involve complete building teardowns, most of New York’s deconstruction work is interior demolition for renovation purposes. In many of the city’s older structures, hidden walls, rooms or sub-basements open windows into a city long left behind and forgotten.

Randy Polumbo, president of 3-D Laboratory Inc., a high-end builder in Manhattan, described an interior demolition job in a townhouse once owned by a Civil War-era doctor.

“When we were down in the basement, we found these sealed-up vaults that were filled with period moonshine, with original corks. They looked like magic potions,” he said.

Polumbo said there were also more macabre reminders of times gone by, including giant primitive bone saws and what he called specimens that “freaked out the owner” and people working on the job.

Polumbo says that in dealing with older buildings, some of which are built on foundations of crushed oyster shells and lime, workers must approach the fragile structures more gingerly than newer structures.

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