Wayne Bellet, of Manhattan-based exterior maintenance firm Bellet Construction, is getting a dose of his own medicine. At the time of this interview, it’s his own office that’s under construction, he explains over the racket of dueling hammers in the background. The commercial condo building that houses his company is currently experiencing gas line issues, and the repair efforts have made Bellet acutely aware of the inconvenience such work can impose on the tenants of the building, the majority of whom are medical professionals.
“I can’t imagine not having hot water as a physician,” exclaims Bellet. “You’ve got to wash your hands!”
This statement is reflective of Bellet’s disposition when it comes to his work. His days are typically dedicated to solving other people’s problems—which he readily admits is his favorite part of the job. “I love when my customers come to me with a problem, I love a phone call that starts out ‘Wayne, I’ve got a problem!’ and I yell back, ‘Tell it to Bellet!’ It’s kind of hokey, but it always works because people remember that I’m the guy who fixes the exterior of their properties.”
The exterior maintenance industry is far-reaching, especially in a vertical metropolis like New York City, which is a sea of structures—new, old, commercial and residential—that are constantly in need of maintenance. The upkeep of building facades is not something that is done for purely aesthetic reasons; it is a part of an ongoing process that keeps the city evolving and reinventing itself through repair and replacement.
An Outside Job
So what does an exterior contractor like Bellet do, and what kind of problems do they work to resolve on a typical job? According to Bellet, the work of a contractor can be compared to that of a dentist. “I hate to use that analogy, but it’s very similar—you come to me with a pain or a problem and you want it fixed. You don’t want to dilly-dally, you don’t want to think about it, you just want it to go away.”
When a co-op board or an architect approaches a contractor about fixing the façade of a building, it’s usually because of some particular ailment, much like dentists are approached to treat the pain of a long-standing toothache. It is not necessarily a pleasant experience, but it is something that must be done and something that requires trust—you need to find someone who knows how to solve your problem and who can do it right the first time.
So what are the most common exterior maintenance jobs? According to Bellet “it’s everything from falling or cracked masonry to any other hazard that is affecting an entire building.” Bellet says that typically an engineer, architect or building manager will approach a contractor with a specific issue that needs to be resolved. In some cases, it’s a long-term problem, in others, it might have to do with Local Law 11, which requires all buildings over six stories to have imperfections in their façades repaired every five years.
With so many structural issues that can impact one building, it’s no wonder that co-op and condo boards often find the task of building repair daunting—how can one know that they are getting a good deal, and that the work they are paying for is being done properly and will withstand the test of time?
According to Bellet, the answer to that is simple: you must know your contractor. “Shame on you if you’re running a major building and you don’t have an arsenal of contractors that you can trust,” says Bellet. “You should, no matter where you are in your career, have people you can go to and say ‘Listen, I trust you—how should I do this?’”
An Industry Evolves
It is with those issues in mind that legislation like Local Law 11, and its predecessor Local Law 10, came to pass—and with them, the exterior maintenance industry has evolved significantly over the last few decades to reflect the law’s requirements. With each piece of legislation that has passed, the industry has grown to meet the resulting demands.
According to Bellet, who has over 30 years in the industry, the introduction of the façade laws changed the way his family business was run.
“There I was with my dad, hanging scaffolds and fixing roofs and laying sidewalks—we were just contractors. Granted we had 30 people [working for us], but we were just running around fixing things and doing repairs, mostly on rental buildings. Then the co-ops and condos started taking off, and now here it is, 20 or 25 years later, and we’ve gone through many cycles and many improvements to the Local Laws. It’s catapulted a whole industry of architects and engineers, and some contractors who specialize solely in restoration—it never used to be that way.”
New Safety Measures
The construction crane accidents of 2008 added to the need for increased regulation, a change that Bellet is very supportive of. “Now we have to have certified foremen on the site, certified scaffold workers, they have to be trained, they have to be tested. We even have a site safety requirement—when the building is over a certain height you have to have a site safety manager or coordinator, but I love this new regulation, I really do. The only reason you wouldn’t appreciate it is if you’re trying to do something illegal.”
All these improved safety measures are important in a city like New York— adhering to Local Law 11 requirements is first and foremost about keeping New Yorkers safe. A construction job in any other town might be limited to a specific site or a developing area, but in this city, the projects undertaken by contractors get underway right in the middle of everything, and thus have a much greater potential to cause damage to property and people.
Bellet says a big part of his job is making sure that even big projects cause as little disruption as possible—something he takes very seriously not just as a contractor, but also as a New Yorker. “Whenever you hang a scaffold, it involves a lot—the staff, pedestrians, residents—the whole world gets involved in façade repair in one way or another,” he says as the hammer pounding intensifies in the background. “Even though you try to be cool about it, or you try not to make a fuss, people are going to be affected, and [it’s important to minimize] what could turn into something major.”
Reputation vs. Reality
Bellet says he takes a great deal of satisfaction in simplifying a process that for many building administrators is notorious for causing a plethora of disruptions—not to mention costing a pretty penny. When asked about the dubious reputation contractors have among many boards and property managers, Bellet says he’s well aware of the negative connotations, and immediately points out the inconsistencies between the myth and reality.
“I would say instantly that one misconception is that [contractors are] all money-hungry and that the dollar is the sole purpose of what we do. There are a lot of good, thoughtful, considerate, law abiding, pleasant contractors who do good work at the right price—and they build up good reputations. Also, not all of us sit on the curbside and eat our lunch and whistle at girls who pass by. Both are true in some instances, but for the most part they are both stereotypes that I wish would go away.”
Despite the current economic climate, the exterior maintenance industry remains a relatively stable business. The need for co-op and condo buildings to keep their façades safe and up to code remains, regardless of the financial issues facing owners as they deal with foreclosures and other rising costs. Given the tough economic times, Bellet is adamant that boards and managers keep a short-list of contractors that they have previously used and trust on speed dial, if for no other reason that to get a second opinion on upcoming façade work or other exterior repairs.
“Call them up,” Bellet suggests, “and say ‘Listen, my finances are not where they should be and I trust you—how can I do this a different way?’”
Maintaining your building’s structure will make all the difference in the world when it comes to avoiding big emergency expenditures, but working with a reputable contractor will also help your board/management team understand which problems are really pressing concerns and what work it may be okay to postpone. That is precisely the type of decision that a good contractor can help your board make—and in today’s rapidly changing economic landscape, that’s like money in the bank.
Kathleen J. Blank is The Cooperator’s publisher’s assistant. This article is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with area real estate-related professionals.