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The Ariel West’s Terra Cotta Troubles

Emily Myers in Green Ideas

Upper West Side

Partial Electric

17,000 terracotta tiles were replaced with custom aluminum panels at Ariel West, 245 West 99th Street. (Photo courtesy Bertolini Architectural Works)

Ariel West has found that when it rains, it indeed pours. The 32-story luxury condo on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has been forced to take on the lengthy and expensive process of replacing its terra cotta rainscreen after dangerous defects appeared less than 10 years after the building’s construction. The alarm was raised in 2015, when a terra cotta tile fell from an upper floor onto a third-floor terrace, prompting the board to urgently figure out the extent of the problem. Multiple inspections followed, and each one found more and more cracked tiles. “We just came to the conclusion that the tiles needed to be replaced for safety,” says board president Kavita Dolan.

The building’s original rainscreen cladding was a state-of-the-art system consisting of a metal substructure and an exterior terra cotta skin. In addition to acting as a rain barrier, the terra cotta tiles “take on moisture and let it evaporate, which cools the building in the hottest months,” says Eric Vonderhyde, principal at Bertolini Architectural Works. But the cracking tiles posed a potentially catastrophic risk. “When terra cotta fails, it collapses,” he points out. “And these tiles are very heavy.” 

With time running out on the warranty of the facade materials, the firm was retained to investigate how to solve the problem. Over the next 18 months — and at a cost of close to $250,000 — dozens of tiles were put through compression and density tests, microscopic investigations and accelerated freeze-thaw cycles. In spite of extensive testing, no material or installation defects were identified. “Unfortunately we don’t know why they were cracking,” Dolan says. She points out a neighboring sister building with the same cladding has not had the same issues. By early 2020, the decision was made to replace all 17,000 tiles on three of the building’s four facades. The inspection and testing costs were covered by the building’s insurance, but once the tests were inconclusive it became clear the condo would have to pay the repair costs.

One option was to replace the tiles with durable, fully laminated glass. Although this was an attractive choice, it was prohibitively expensive. Instead, the board decided on aluminum panels that could match the dark gray, tan, and red-brick color palette of the original facade. Even though this was a more affordable choice, the cost has exceeded $3 million.

Partnering with Upgrade Contracting and the waterproofing solutions manufacturer The Garland Company, the team at Bertolini Architectural Works needed to figure out how to retrofit the panels to the existing facade substructure. “We needed to reuse as much of the multilayered system as we could,” Vonderhyde says. The building saved money by reusing the original metal framing with a new clipping system for the aluminum panels. “The building has a lot of movement, and our clipping system allows for that movement so you don’t get any cracking or bending in the metal,” says Keith DeVito, territory manager at The Garland Company. Each panel was customized to make them flush with the windows. 

Tile inspections and testing were done with the use of the building’s window-washing rig, but when the replacement work began in late October last year, a full scaffold was needed. The work is close to completion, making the project an eight-year ordeal for Ariel West amid rising material and construction costs. Pre-pandemic, the estimated replacement costs were close to $1.7 million. “The reality is, it takes time,” Vonderhyde says. The project is being funded by a 25-year loan with a 15-year fixed rate

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