As long as there have been residential buildings, there have been superintendents charged with the all-important task of ensuring that operations run smoothly. Whether it’s an underperforming HVAC system, a maintenance emergency, or simply changing a light bulb, the responsibilities can run the gamut on a daily basis. And over the years, the super's job description has changed along with expectations from managing agents, board members, and residents.
“Over the last few decades the job description has changed tremendously,” says Peter Grech, director of educational services at the Superintendents Technical Association of New York City. “We need to keep abreast of changing technologies such as email and cell phones, and also with building system controls such as boilers and other automated systems.”
FirstService Residential New York President Dan Wurtzel says he's seen the role of a super go through myriad changes—even down to personal appearance. “If you go back to 40 or 50 years ago, a superintendent was considered more of a blue-collar type of employee, with a tool belt who was able to fix things; he didn’t have good customer service skills, but knew how to deal with the heart of the house issues,” Wurtzel continues. “The role has evolved. Today, a superintendent, some of whom wear suits and ties, has to have knowledge of building systems. They also have to be an excellent manager and a communicator who oversees a staff.”
Grech, who also serves as a resident manager himself, adds that in many cases, including his own, the title of superintendent has evolved to “resident manager.” “Some of these changes I mentioned have been around for about 10 years, but this industry is forever changing,” says Grech. “The older you are the harder the transition. It’s not impossible, but some people are used to doing things the old fashioned way.”
Most superintendents have between five to 15 years of experience, and as such are well-versed in new building operating systems, communication advancements in social media, and the like, but Grech says some of the more seasoned industry vets are a little slower to adapt to a new business model. “Today supers are more hands-off and have more a supervisory role as well as are more people-orientated,” says Grech. “Our challenges are shifting to becoming more on the technology side and less on the hands-on side of the business. This is just how things are going, due in part to the green, efficient movement. But, there are still some buildings left where you will see a more hands-on approach.”
Since the role of the super/resident manager has changed drastically over the years, the role of support staff has also made adjustments. Traditionally, a male-dominated industry, says Michael Berenson, president of AKAM Associates, a management company in Manhattan, says that he is seeing more women in these roles. Additionally, supers overseeing larger buildings—some with 1,000 units—have a dedicated support staff on-site. “Some of our properties have assistant superintendents and many of them have handymen, who are the next in charge,” says Berenson.
In many cases, superintendents or resident managers will live on-site. As a result, they often not only know the building like the back of their hand, but also know the residents. Berenson said that most of the supers employed at AKAM’s 160 managed properties work from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. However, sometimes there is a gray area as to when a super is off the clock. “After the work day, there are available after hours if there is an emergency or something needs immediate attention,” says Berenson.
In certain scenarios, like a failing boiler on a cold winter night, the super will jump into action to try to solve the issue regardless of the time of day. There are other situations, however, when residents, some of whom have paid millions for their co-op or condo and pay high monthly fees, can expect too much from these professionals and ask for assistance that is beyond the job description.
“Owners believe supers are the go-to-guy where we can get anything and everything done,” says Grech. “In most cases it is true, but we do have our limitations. And if our limitations are met then they become unhappy. We are experiencing more noise complaints, children complaints, dog complaints—people often forget that living in a co-op or condo is a collective living experience and people need to be more tolerant and understanding of their neighbors.”
Wurtzel explains that the best way to mediate potentially volatile situations is to have a chain of command in place that is understood by the board, residents, the managing agent and the superintendent. “Having parameters and guidelines in place is helpful because for a resident they know when to go to the superintendent or management, how to file a complaint,” says Wurtzel. “We don’t want any building employee to be doing things that they aren’t skilled enough to do or haven’t been trained to do,” he continues. “If there is a noise complaint, for example, we ask that the super does not get involved. The super is trained to tell the resident to contact management.”
To ensure that all of AKAM’s resident managers and employees are literally on the same page, each individual employee is provided a work email, which serves as a medium for all communications. “Say there is a heavy weather system coming, whether it is two feet of snow or Hurricane Sandy, we guide all of our men and women through email about protocols, and it’s interactive. They will respond to us,” says Berenson.
While boards and managing agents can assist superintendents with certain in-house issues, the role of the super or resident manager can be improved upon with training and education. AKAM, for example, has a Superintendents Club, which meets every 10 weeks. In recent years, representatives from the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) have presented on crisis scenarios such as blackouts or terrorist attacks, as well as seminars from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) who teach on fire-related emergencies.
“We had engineers come to teach our superintendents on what to look for when they walk our properties—from the roof to the basement,” says Berenson. “We had had ethics seminars. We have attorneys come in to speak as well. It is a great learning experience and supers get to bounce ideas off each other—the Upper East Side guys get to know each other and the Downtown guys get to know each other and so on—a lot of brainstorming goes on.”
New York’s Building Service Workers Union, SEIU 32BJ, which supports over 70,000 members, also offers courses for supers. For example, the New York City Superintendent Certification includes courses on air pollution control, carpentry basics, electricity basics, plumbing basics, bed bug awareness, carbon monoxide compliance, heat and hot water, and integrated pest management, among others. The New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM) offers a certification program in building management that can be received directly through them as an organization or, for SEIU 32BJ members, through the union’s training program.
“On technological advancements and green initiatives, they do a good job,” says Grech regarding SEIU 32BJ. He adds that New York City and New York State don't require much in the way of licensing for supers. “Housing Preservation & Development has a requirement that is so outdated and inadequate that it is a joke,” says Grech. “It dates back to the 1960s and requires that a superintendent be certified by the landlord as competent, or the superintendent needs 15 hours of education on related matters. Any landlord can approve somebody and there is little oversight. It’s rarely enforced.”
The Mind of a Super
In today’s market, however, a superintendent needs to have a fundamental understanding of building operations. This is not to say they need to be well-versed in all aspects of the building’s operations, especially advanced automated operations, but more so be able identify issues and contact professionals before the problem escalates.
“They don’t have to be an elevator mechanic, but they should know the basics on how it works, or how the other systems within a particular building operate. You need that base knowledge,” says Wurtzel. “Licensing requirements are set by the city and the state, depending on the type of equipment you have in your building. For example, an air conditioning unit that exceeds a certain tonnage, the Fire Department will require a license to operate it. To operate a standpipe or sprinkler system, a Certificate of Fitness is required.”
In the final analysis, a building’s superintendent is essentially a jack-of-all-trades. Grech says that the most important trait to master is that of the communicator, which is often difficult when dealing with disparate personalities.
“Often there is no communication between the board and the superintendent,” says Grech. “At a recent meeting, I restated to the shareholders that ‘co-op’ means to cooperate. There has to be more sympathy for one another. And while there are books on this topic, I really believe and have suggested that people in this profession take a course on psychology. It has to be the right person to teach it though, not just someone blabbing out of a book.” Perhaps supers could teach a course on psychology in their own right.
W.B. King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Staff writer Mike Odenthal contributed to this article.