Facade Inspection and Public Safety

I’ve been meaning to write about the currently-hot topic of facade inspection for about a month, and yesterday’s Times made it a lot easier. The headline “Facades on 1,400 Buildings in New York Are a Threat to Pedestrians” might seem like clickbait, but it’s an accurate statement of the official Department of Buildings perspective. Matthew Haag‘s article discusses the worst problem of the current facade-inspection regime: what to do when problems aren’t fixed?

The topic is on everyone’s mind because of last month’s death of Erica Tishman, a well-known architect who was killed by masonry falling from a building that had been flagged as unsafe by the DoB but did not have a sidewalk shed. The frequency of such accidents is thankfully low – which is no consolation to anyone affected, of course – but since everyone in Manhattan spends time walking past tall buildings, they are impossible to ignore.

The issue at hand is one that crept up on us. When people first started building tall buildings, there was some discussion of the potential hazard they created down in the street, but when actual incidents failed to materialize, the potential was gradually forgotten. After all, those buildings were sheathed in masonry, and people have been erecting masonry-walled buildings for thousands of years. It turned out that the facades of high-rises got less maintenance than the facades of lower buildings, and that they were exposed to more extreme weathering. In the 1960s, when the oldest high-rises in NYC were maybe 80 years old, incidents of falling masonry began attracting notice; they became more common in the 1970s. The death of Grace Gold in 1979, in an accident reminiscent of Ms. Tishman’s death, led to the push for Local Law 10 of 1980, the city’s first facade-inspection law.

While I feel that there is enough blame to go around – building owners, AEC professionals, and government agencies – for the presence of the long-term unsafe conditions on the list, it’s also important to recognized how difficult the problems can be. We currently have a building that needs some facade repairs, and is fortunately not on the list, where work has been delayed by conflicting rules and priorities of different agencies. The Transportation Authority has to approve sheds on sidewalks above subway structures, and the Department of Transportation has to approve sheds in general. Putting up new sheds during the holiday moratorium from mid-November to early January is difficult unless there’s an emergency, and a lot of facade masonry-repair work can’t be performed during our cold winters. So our repairs have been delayed. No one is at fault for that, but it’s a good example of how time can be lost.

The list of buildings in the Times article undoubtedly includes some that are really dangerous. It probably also includes some that are not, but can’t be demonstrated to be safe because they have visible damage that is causally linked to danger. That’s okay: the distinction between those two classes is no consolation to anyone, and public safety is an area where the DoB should be conservative. It’s up to the building owners and professionals to address the concerns, either by fixing them or proving them to be not dangerous.

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