A condo building couldn’t collapse in NYC. Or could it?
Experts troubled by lack of structural inspections and board oversight
Basement leaks and cracks. Faulty mechanical and electrical systems. Porous roofs and crumbling facades.
You name it, Howard Zimmerman has probably seen it.
A specialist in diagnosing the ailments of New York City’s aging buildings, Zimmerman fields requests from condominiums and cooperatives for his take on what should be done. But often, his recommendations disappear into the void of boardroom bureaucracy.
“I would say two of three reports are shelved,” the architect said. “They don’t want to deal with it or the report goes in a drawer and waits for the next administration to come, like politics.”
In some extreme cases, boards have told him, “Take these reports back.”
“That’s rare, but it’s happened several times,” said Zimmerman. “[They] were looking for deniability.”
The tragic collapse of a condo tower in Surfside, Florida, last month has drawn attention to boards’ decision-making and government oversight of building conditions.
As a construction or registered design professional, Zimmerman is obligated to report unsafe or illegal conditions to the city’s Department of Buildings. But usually the problems are not pressing, leaving nothing for his firm to do but leave the board to its own devices.
While board members are duty-bound to ensure their building is properly maintained, they are volunteers, often with no qualifications to serve besides living there.
When pricey repairs are recommended by an architect or engineer, the board has three options: dip into the building’s reserve fund, replenished by monthly charges paid by unit owners; take out a loan; or levy an assessment on all owners in the building. Generally, the board recommends an action and asks a majority of residents to approve it.
Safety is not the only factor considered. Residents’ ability and willingness to pay for repairs plays a big role in determining which option, if any, boards opt to do. Boards face pressure to keep costs down, according to lawyers who work with them, and that often clashes with their responsibility to maintain the building.
Sometimes boards will not commission a report on the condition of the property, lest it obligate them to make expensive repairs, unless, for example, they are seeking financing and the lender requires one.
New York City does require a variety of inspections, depending on the building type. Local Law 11, or the Facade Inspection Safety Program, mandates that buildings over six stories undergo a facade inspection every five years. Certain building systems, such as elevators, boilers and gas piping, have their own inspection schedules. The Department of Buildings will conduct inspections in response to complaints from the public. And a pending City Council bill would require parking structures to undergo a structural assessment every six years.
But there is no mandatory, structural integrity inspection for buildings.
“There should be no false sense of security,” said architect Stephen Varone, who leads Rand Engineering & Architecture, a firm that evaluates and administers repairs and upgrades of existing buildings. “It’s a very over-regulated city, but we don’t have that.”
Varone and some other experts say that allows serious problems to fly under the radar, with building politics or cost concerns taking precedence over safety — in well-heeled and cash-strapped buildings alike.
New sense of urgency
As horrified residents and developers of high-rise buildings around the world absorbed the stream of news about the Surfside disaster, some have been moved to take action.
In South Florida, residents were evacuated from three older buildings after engineers found them unsafe. In Hong Kong, a developer announced last week that it would demolish and rebuild two residential towers at a best-selling complex, citing construction defects.
In New York, some boards are revisiting forgotten reports.
Zimmerman has gotten panicked requests for inspections from dozens of residential buildings. The Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums scheduled a panel discussion for late this month on “lessons learned and insights” from Surfside.
Stuart Saft, who chairs the organization, said New York City buildings have very different situations from that of the seaside complex that collapsed in South Florida. He doesn’t believe any residential building is on the verge of collapse in New York. Still, he called Surfside a “wakeup call.”
“We really have to explore what happened and if it can happen here,” he said. “We do think we need to be better prepared for this situation, particularly now in this time of climate change.”
Varone, of Rand Engineering, is also getting more calls. He said most of that interest comes from buildings that were already proactive about building maintenance. These are buildings with large enough reserve funds to spend $5,000 to $12,000 for a preliminary visual inspection, or more if invasive inspections are required.
Generally, the wealthier the residents and the more well-funded a building is, the better it is maintained. But there are exceptions.
Attorney Adam Leitman Bailey said although buildings where most residents are on fixed incomes are “the most dangerous when it comes to the potential Surfside in New York City,” there are time bombs in wealthy enclaves too.
Bailey said he’s worked with boards of prestigious co-ops where water systems are the biggest threat and residents don’t appear to be in any rush to address the issue.
“What will happen in Manhattan next won’t be a building falling down. It’ll be a major problem in a tony building needing a completely new plumbing system,” he said. “Or major flooding that will just wash out the building.”
The Department of Buildings rejects the idea that new structural inspection protocols are needed.
“Our fellow New Yorkers can rest assured that the city has some of the strictest building codes and strongest inspection regimens anywhere in the country,” said Andrew Rudansky, spokesman for the department, in a statement.
The industry, on the other hand, has many ideas about how to compel condos and co-ops to better care for their property. Proposals range from mandating structural inspections to requiring a certain amount of cash be kept in reserve funds.
Others, including Saft, argue that condo and co-op boards should be able to make emergency decisions without a majority of residents agreeing, to avoid potentially years-long debates and stalemates.
For Deborah Koplovitz, an attorney with Herrick, Feinstein who represents condo and co-op boards, a shift in mindset is needed among high-rise residents.
There’s an “intellectual gap” between owners of single-family homes, who know to expect ongoing maintenance costs, and unit owners, who often try to escape new maintenance charges, she explained.
“You end up being penny-wise,” said Koplovitz. “Then you get stuck with a giant, multi-million-dollar project.”
Zimmerman believes the city’s buildings are in much better shape now than decades past, which he credits to rising property values. But despite that, examples of unchecked issues that fester for decades haunt the architect.
His team has opened up walls and ceilings to discover “wafer thin” steel that, after decades of water seeping in, looks more “like potato chips” than part of a support structure.
“We’ve seen some really nasty conditions,” said Zimmerman. “And you have no idea intellectually how this is being held up anymore except by memory and inertia. … As soon as you touch something, all hell will break loose.”
The key, he said, is spotting and addressing issues early.
“You just have to appreciate that nothing lasts forever,” he continued. “Buildings do not get better with age.”