Knowledge is Key Systems Knowledge for Building Staff

Residential buildings are complicated entities—their various operating systems require maintenance and occasional repairs to remain in good working order. Sometimes maintenance can be carried out by the super or handyperson—sometimes it can’t. In the latter situation, it’s necessary to call in the help of a professional. Either way, it falls to the building super or the manager to decide whether a particular problem can be dealt with in-house or needs the attention of a specialist. For this reason, building administration and management—not just the super—need to have a certain amount of knowledge about their building’s structure and systems in order to do their jobs most efficiently.


Knowing at least a little about their buildings’ various systems and mechanical components allows supers and property managers to do one of several things when it comes to systems maintenance and repair. They can troubleshoot and fix the problem; they can recognize when qualified staff members are needed fix the problem; or they can better explain the problem when consulting with an outside vendor.

Peter Grech is resident superintendent of a Manhattan co-op, and when a new piece of equipment is installed on the property, he says it’s part of the routine to educate staff members on its use.

“Most importantly, every staff member should know where to shut down equipment and when to do so,” says Grech, who is also president of the New York Superintendents Technical Association (STA). “If a pipe blows on a Saturday and the super is at the beach and there is a porter or handyman on the job, they should know how to shut down the equipment. This reduces the damage until someone can come in and repair it.”

Margie Russell, the executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM), agrees with Grech and explains that while learning about boilers and HVAC equipment might seem out of the realm of a manager or board president’s responsibility, it’s actually essential when dealing with the day-to-day operation of the building.

“Let’s suppose your building has a problem with the wiring,” says Russell, “and you call in a licensed electrician—who is exactly the person that should be called when there is an electrical problem. However, the property manager has to ask what or who caused the problem.”

Russell explains that such a scenario, the manager needs to know a number of things. Was there an electrical short in an apartment—perhaps because a staff member installed an outlet without the proper ground? Did the apartment suddenly experience tripped breakers or blown fuses? Perhaps a contractor was doing alterations on another apartment in the same line—perhaps a staff member provided access to the basement meter room, not realizing he was allowing a tap into that line’s load capacity. Or maybe a staff member, while performing a minor plaster repair, damaged an electrical source by scraping or patching too near it. All of those possibilities can mean safety hazards for both the building and its residents, and the more a manager knows about the building’s systems, the more help he or she can be when the professionals show up. 

“Unfortunately,” continues Russell, “my examples are all-too-common scenarios. Having your staff members know as much as possible about the inner workings of the building means that they will also know when they are not qualified to do various repairs themselves and recommend calling in a professional.”

Russell also says that this concept is covered in the NYARM Code of Ethics, Guideline 2-2, which states the following: ‘Manager shall recommend that Owner hire an expert (e.g. engineer, attorney, etc.) when the task is beyond the manager’s expertise and training. Example: Manager should not take on responsibilities, even at the Request of the Owner, if he has not been trained in those areas of expertise.’

“The Code of Ethics was initially written for managers, but in reality it applies to all building employees,” she says.

Having a basic knowledge of your buildings systems isn’t just to know what repairman to call to fix the problem. It is also good know when communicating with outside vendors.

“Property managers have to pick vendor’s minds to determine what’s necessary and feasible for the work that needs to be done,” says Steven Gold, president of Hudson View Associates in Manhattan.

Keeping Current

To keep up-to-date on building systems, Gold says that his staff regularly read important building trade journals like The Cooperator, and that each staff in each building communicate with one another when something goes awry, since buildings owned by the same management company often have similar systems.

“If something happened in one building—say, banging noises in the pipes—it’s probably something that is very similar in another building,” says Gold. “If one building dealt with the problem, they’ll already have the answer. We don’t have separation—we keep everybody in the loop, and what I demand from the property manager is for them to have relationships with the supers.”

Gold also says that preventative maintenance is key.

“I require that the supers turn in work orders every week. It gives you a feeling of what he’s doing—if there are lots of leaks, for example, you know there might be a water problem. You rely on the super to let us know the problems. If you do that than the building is kept running and there are no surprises.”

Gold says he also sends his staff to take various courses through NYARM.

The group’s Real Estate Education Center website provides New York State Department of State-approved licensing courses, including a 30-hour Basic Building Systems course and a Facility Management for Residential Properties course.

The Basic Building Systems curriculum consists of 12 classes at 3.75 hours each, and covers various aspects of building systems and maintenance including plumbing, HVAC, fire protection, and building envelope, with related New York City building code requirements. They focus on system fundamentals, maintenance and repair, environmental, safety and security issues. The Facility Management course also offers a building maintenance session.

The Association for Energy Affordability, Inc., (AEA; in the Bronx is committed to the principle of using energy efficiency to maintain affordable and healthy housing for low and moderate-income families and communities. According to their website, their Multifamily Energy Efficient Building Operations Specialist course is designed for managers, superintendents, and maintenance staff, and any building staff interested in upgrading their skills and technical knowledge. The course includes maintaining building systems: envelope, mechanical, heating, ventilation, cooling, plumbing, electrical, communication, vertical transportation systems, staff management and basic physics of building operation.

It’s Not My Fault

You trust your super and you trust your property manager, but what if mistakes are made when a super or property manager tried to fix a systems problem?

“We are all human; our job is to operate and maintain the heating system or other machines,” says Grech. “There’s an operating manual and as long as we operate within the manual’s specifications, it should be fine. Mistakes still happen—and forgetting is one thing, but not knowing is another. It becomes an insurance issue sometimes more than a legal one.”

“No matter what we know, in five years a lot can change and as long as those systems haven’t changed, we should be fine, but if new machinery and systems have been brought into the building then we need to adapt to the new stuff that’s being employed in the building.”

The old Cole Porter song explains how “times have changed,” but if too much time has gone by since your staff has been updated or since your building systems have been updated, Grech suggests a refresher course.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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