New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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A Routine Laundry-Room Redo Leads to a Structural Scramble

When the old washers and dryers were pulled away from the basement walls during a routine renovation of a basement laundry room at the East 73rd Street co-op, workers were stopped in their tracks. The room’s three load-bearing columns — steel I-beams encased in brick — were badly compromised.

“The cracks in the brick were worse than expected,” says Sarah Hewitt, a lawyer who serves as board president in the 82-unit building, which was designed in the 1920s by the legendary architect Emery Roth as part of the block’s six-building Eastgate development. “Workers did probes and opened up enough areas of the columns to judge their condition. Moisture had accumulated over the years, and the steel had oxidized and flaked off. Two of the steel I-beams looked like Swiss cheese.”

With the Florida condominium collapse still fresh in everyone’s minds, the co-op board and its manager, Desi Ndreu of Bota Property Management, immediately went into crisis mode. They assembled a team: the building’s engineer, an outside consultant, a structural engineer and the contractor who was already doing repairs to the building’s rear courtyard.

“This board wanted to understand the scope of all necessary repairs before making a decision,” Ndreu says. 

The outside advice was valuable. “The consultant helped us understand the nature of the problem and the possible solutions,” Hewitt says. “The board didn’t move ahead until we had a consensus from all of the team — the consultant, the contractor and our engineer.”

Discovering the nature of the problem took some sleuthing. Originally, it was thought that the brick columns were cracked by relentless underground blasting during construction of the nearby Second Avenue subway. But the crew renovating the rear courtyard had learned that it contained just one drain, and the engineer concluded that inadequate drainage had allowed moisture to infiltrate the basement and compromise the steel columns. These things can happen in century-old buildings.

The board members discussed the findings and their options during Zoom calls. Several board members met in the basement with the engineers and consultants. Finally everyone agreed on a strategy of welding new steel plates to the existing I-beams, waterproofing them, then encasing them with new brick and mortar.

The board had already levied a small assessment to replenish its reserve fund, and now it took out a second mortgage to pay for this project, which will cost about $500,000, and for looming repairs mandated by the Facade Inspection and Safety Program. Board members with financial backgrounds urged their colleagues to invest the unspent portion of the loan in short-term Treasury bills, which will almost cover the interest payments on the second mortgage.

“The Florida condominium collapse taught us how important it is to maintain the structural integrity of the building,” Hewitt says. “That’s paramount.” The lesson was underscored by the recent fatal collapse of a parking garage in Lower Manhattan — and the ensuing spate of garage inspections and closings ordered by the Department of Buildings.

“We learned a couple of other things,” Hewitt adds. “First, we’re grateful to Desi and her team. She has 30 years of experience, and she knows how to run a building. The second thing is that boards should not delay when they know there’s a structural problem. You need to hop on it and fix it — after you get the best advice from your team. It was important to us that our solution was built to last.”

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