By: Kevin Duffy
On May 16, 1979, a young woman attending Barnard College was fatally struck by a piece of terra cotta that fell from the 8th story of a building on West 115th Street. As a result of this tragedy, Mayor Ed Koch signed Local Law 10 of 1980 into law on February 21, 1980. This law required that a licensed engineer or registered architect oversee the inspection of the facade of every building greater than 6 stories in the 5 boroughs. The inspections would occur once every 5 years and a report would be filed with the Department of Buildings.
Initially, engineers and architects were only required to inspect street facing facades greater than 6 stories, as opposed to the entire building (4 or more elevations), as is today. Also, if a facade or partial facade was more than 25 feet from the street, it did not require an inspection. If the building was greater than 6 stories, but had a 25+ foot setback, the upper floors were excluded. Also excluded were buildings with an ongoing DOB approved facade maintenance program.
The word inspect was also up for debate in the original Local Law 10. Engineers and architects were encouraged, not required, to perform ahandas ona inspections from scaffolds or man lifts. According to the law, a visual inspection with the use of telephoto lenses or binoculars was sufficient.
The tragic death of the Barnard College student which lead to Local Law 10, was not the last facade related injury or death in New York City. On July 28, 1982, a 28-year-old lawyer was hit by a piece of a cornice that fell from a 30 story building in Brooklyn. At that time, Local Law 10 was still rather new and only about 60% of all eligible buildings had filed a report, so unfortunately, the Law was given the benefit of the doubt.
In the winter of 1997, a rash of partial collapses and falling masonry led to the reform of Local Law 10. On December 31, 1997, a chunk of stone damaged the concrete sidewalk outside the Belleclaire Hotel. On December 30 1997, a 16 square foot piece of the concrete parapet of the Church of Scientology building on West 46th Street, fell onto the sidewalk below. The mass of concrete startled several diners at a nearby cafe, but did not injure any pedestrians. Also, in the early morning of December 30, 1997, the facade of the 6 story Selwyn office building (next door to the Selwyn Theater) collapsed. While no injuries were sustained, these incidents shed light on the loopholes of Local Law 10.
Another key incident that lead to Local Law 10 reform occurred on December 15, 1997, when a shower of bricks rained down on Madison Avenue and 55th Street from a 39 story building. An engineer filing the mandated report with the DOB had deemed this building safe in 1991. From the street, the engineer could not determine that there were no brick ties holding the outer wythe (layer) of brick to the remainder of the building. Although this would be difficult to tell even from a suspended scaffold, it is possible the Engineer would have noticed shifted brick throughout the facade, deeming the building unsafe and in need of immediate repairs.
Due to these falling masonry incidents, Local Law 10 was deleted from the building code, and, Local Law 11 was signed into law by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on March 13, 1998. The new law removed all of the exceptions in Local Law 10. In the new law aThe only exterior walls now exempt are those which are less than twelve inches from the exterior wall of an adjacent building. In addition, Local Law 11 better outlined what was required of the engineer or architect performing the investigation. In an effort to standardize the process and make the Department of Building’s review process more efficient, 3 pages of the law explained what was to be included in the report and how the report was to be written. Another major change in the inspection process was that the engineer or architect now had to perform an inspection of the street facade using a suspended scaffold, or other means of observing the facade from the ground to the top of the parapet. The DOB also required that architects and engineers notify them of any unsafe conditions found during the inspection process.
Local Law 11 has since been replaced by the Facade Inspection Safety Program (FISP). In May 2013, a renewed focus on balcony and railing inspections was introduced, as well as the requirement for the submission of a supplementary affidavit to the 7th Cycle reports to acknowledge inspection of balconies and railings. Additional load testing or laboratory testing of the concrete is sometimes needed. This renewed focus came about due to the fatal fall of a 35-year-old woman from her balcony in August of 2013.
New York City has the oldest continual facade ordinance in the nation. Many major cities across the nation have mandated facade inspections. Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis all have ordinances in effect. Most of these ordinances require inspections by an architect or engineer every 5 years on buildings over 5 stories. Unfortunately, there are approximately 70,000 buildings in 50 major metropolitan areas across the United States that do not currently require facade inspections, which could lead to more avoidable injuries or fatalities.