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The Expensive Surprises That Lurk Behind Walls

By Frank Lovece, Bricks & Bucks in Habitat Magazine

700 Park Avenue, where trouble lurked behind the brick walls 

Sometimes, maintaining the facade of a building can be a bit like peeling an onion. The deeper you go, the more you find. After workers removed the outer brick layer of the exterior walls at 700 Park Avenue, the co-op board was informed they had a dreaded problem: extensive water damage that was not visible to the naked eye.

“The building had a series of leaks that were repaired on a spot basis,” says Daniel Wollman, CEO of Gumley Haft, the 48-unit building’s management company. “When we took off the face brick to explore the wet area,” he recalls, “we found that the waterproofing membrane beneath it was either in very poor condition or nonexistent, and the backup masonry beneath that was in extremely poor condition. In some instances we saw the backs of electrical sockets popping through.”

None of this is particularly unusual for a building more than a half-century old. Like many constructed in the 1960s, 700 Park Avenue has a brick skin over its block walls, with a waterproof membrane in-between. Brick is porous and so rainwater seeps through it, which then, ideally, runs down the membrane to reach L-shaped pieces of waterproofed steel placed at 10-foot intervals.

The waterproofed steel, Wollman says, “leeches water out of the building through these things called weep holes. That’s a typical design of buildings of this era.”

Because the membrane was so deteriorated, water had gotten in and damaged the block wall beneath. This presented a dilemma, says architect Ted Eacker of Walter B. Melvin Architects: How to fix the masonry wall without removing the windows, “which wasn’t really an option when you think of the discomfort to the shareholders living in those apartments, and the cost.”

The solution? Eacker had the contractor temporarily install small pieces of steel that stuck out a few inches above and below each affected window. Into them he inserted stainless-steel rods to create something like jail bars in front of the window. When the rods were secured with washers and nuts, the windows were held in place. “That allowed us to take the blocks under the windows out in sections,” Eacker says, a fix that cost about $500,000.

The work, which began in November 2015, should be complete in “a couple months,” says Wollman. As is common, the board refinanced its underlying mortgage and took out a line of credit to pay for the project, which was budgeted at more than $3 million. But additional work on terraces, plus site-safety measures, pushed the cost up. The final cost will be almost double the original budget, Wollman says, noting that the nine-member board ended up taking out a second mortgage and did away with the line of credit.

The board rolled with the changes, partly because it had stayed well-informed. “One board member attended each weekly construction meeting,” says Wollman, who served as project manager.

“I think the larger lesson,” says Eacker, “is that if you’re approaching a project where you’re reskinning a building, no matter the detail that’s visible, there’s a good chance that when you take the brick off, what you find behind it is going to require some creative solution to repair.” When peeling an onion, in other words, “You have to be able to improvise.”

Principal Players:

Property Manager: Gumley Haft New York

Contractor: Nova Restoration

Architect: Walter B. Melvin Architects http://www.wbmelvin.com/

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