Local Law 10 of 1980 was enacted shortly after a piece of terra cotta masonry fell from the facade of an Upper West Side building and killed a passing college student.
The New York City Council, in an effort to minimize the chances of such accidents ever recurring, mandated that owners of applicable buildings must have their exterior walls and appurtenances periodically inspected by a licensed professional engineer or registered architect. A report based on this critical examination must be filed with the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB). The law applies to buildings with at least six stories above a basement. All portions of exterior walls within 25 feet of the street line are affected.
Periodic inspections and reports are required at least once every five years, or cycle. During each cycle, there exists a two year window for filing. We are currently within the window of the fourth cycle, which opened on February 21, 1995, and will close on February 21, 1997.
Conditions Requiring Action
The professional performing the critical examination must categorize any observed defects as either unsafe or precautionary. An unsafe condition is defined as a condition of either the structure of a building or any appurtenances thereto that is dangerous to the public or property and requires prompt remedial action. In such a case, the law requires that building owners begin repairs immediately. Unsafe conditions must be corrected within 30 days from the filing of the Critical Examination report, but an extension of up to 90 days may be granted by the DOB Commissioner, if certain conditions are met.
A precautionary condition is defined as a condition that, if not treated, may lead to an unsafe condition. The building owner is responsible for ensuring that precautionary conditions are periodically checked and/or repaired, and do not deteriorate into unsafe conditions before the next critical examination.
Collectors of antique postcards know that some sections of modern New York City look virtually identical to the way they did at the turn of the century, precisely because many buildings currently in use were constructed at that time. This observation underscores the need for Local Law 10, known as LL10/80. Any object approaching 100 years of age whether a decorative lamp, a bicycle, an automobile or a building is an antique. Understandably, conscientious, periodic inspection and maintenance is required to keep it functional, particularly where failure has potentially lethal consequences.
Ironically, many newer buildings benefit even more from LL10/80 inspections than do their older counterparts. Pre-war apartment buildings have one intrinsic advantage they were built with a fortress mentality. They were generally constructed with multiple wythes of brick masonry. Walls 24 inches thick are not uncommon. In the cavity wall construction of typical post-war apartment buildings, the first line of defense is a brick or stone veneer typically less than four inches thick. Construction techniques, tolerances, and quality control of materials are critical to long-lasting building construction. Unfortunately, experience has shown that post-war buildings have, indeed, been subject to lapses in these areas, and that once a facade problem begins, it accelerates quickly. This makes periodic LL10/80 inspections critical for modern buildings, as well as their vintage counterparts.
The critical examination should be performed by a professional firm with substantial experience in facade inspection and repair. Sometimes defects are not as serious as they look, and can be corrected without substantial expense. On the other hand, an apparently minor crack might be a symptom of significant structural damage beneath the building's skin. An experienced professional will be able to discern the difference between these two situations. Since the distinction between unsafe and precautionary situations is critical, you want a professional with sufficient experience and judgment to make the call.
Assist the inspecting engineer or architect by making available any relevant documentation concerning the facade. This includes original building blueprints, copies of prior Local Law 10 reports, and specifications for any exterior restoration work recently performed on the building.
While a Local Law 10 inspection performed at five year intervals is an excellent starting point for a building's comprehensive exterior maintenance program, it has three fundamental limitations.
- 1. Local Law 10 requires simply that observed defects be identified, and classified as either precautionary or unsafe. The critical examination report is essentially a catalog of defects. The report does not discuss the underlying causes of the observed symptoms, nor does it detail repair procedures.
- 2. Only certain portions of each facade (those within 25 feet of the street) are subject to examination at all. The accompanying illustrations (below) show a typical 20-story apartment building on a corner in Manhattan, surrounded by low-rise structures. Those portions of the facade subject to examination have been shaded. The penthouse is set back asymmetrically from the street walls, so that only one face is subject to examination.
We have seen some buildings that have evidently been unaware of this limitation. They have had regular Local Law 10 examinations, and have conscientiously responded to conditions identified in the critical examination reports. Consequently, their street walls are in terrific shape, while their rear walls are literally disintegrating.
- 3. Because the building envelope acts as an integrated organism, building walls often exhibit distress symptoms directly related to failure of the roof membrane or terrace waterproofing. Nevertheless, the building's horizontal surfaces: its roof and terraces are not subject to critical examination, despite the fact that these surfaces are among the most vulnerable to water infiltration.
In the event that facade repairs are required, the critical examination report is not intended to be a project specification. Except in the simplest of cases, it is not realistic to hand the report to a contractor as a scope of work document. Have your engineer analyze the underlying causes of the observed symptoms, and prepare contract documents (drawings and specifications) which address the underlying causes. These documents should clearly delineate the scope of work, materials to be employed, warranty periods, etc. A comprehensive set of contract documents permits competitive, apples to apples bidding among qualified contractors.
Select a contractor who is appropriate for the job at hand. A landmarked building needing extensive restoration might require one of the city's premier contractors, while miscellaneous pointing on a 12-unit cooperative can be done more economically by a smaller company. Include at least four contractors in the bidding process; six or more for larger projects. In today's construction climate, bids can vary considerably, even among contractors of comparable reputation and experience.
During the course of the repair work, have your engineer inspect the work on a regular basis, to help keep it on track. The best contractors welcome the assistance of an engineering professional in diagnosing situations encountered in the field.
Begin sooner rather than later. The last minute for filing fourth round reports is February 21, 1997, but don't wait until then. Starting now will ensure that, if critical examination reveals that remedial work is required, the work can be performed before the preferred contractors are committed to other projects. Furthermore, the months just prior to the final deadline fall during the dead of winter, when mechanics are not as efficient, and material quality is more difficult to control.
Local Law 10 has produced positive results over the past 15 years. The mandated inspections have protected pedestrians from harm, and have saved money for cooperatives and building owners by identifying defects in their exterior walls before serious and costly damage could occur. Viewed from the proper perspective, compliance with Local Law 10 can be more than an exercise in management of red tape. By adopting a conscientious approach, a building can expedite compliance, reduce exposure, and benefit from accurate information about the physical condition of the property.