By: Sean McPartland
During ancient times, parapet walls were used as a form of protection during battle. Today, parapet walls are more complicated and serve many functions, including protecting the roof assembly from wind uplift forces, the spread of fire and to serve as a guard rail around the perimeter of the roof. A parapet wall can also hide unsightly mechanical equipment or be an integral part of the aesthetics of the building. More recently, parapet walls are giving building owners something else to think about -much less about functionality and more about compliance.
NYC Department of Building codes are continually changing and have been updated for many reasons, such as changes in materials, manufacturing processes, methods of construction, and public health and safety. Local Law 40 of 1960 amended the 1938 NYC Building Code to require that buildings greater than 15 feet in height have parapet walls that are a minimum of 42” in height. However, buildings constructed prior to June 1960 were“grand-fathered” in and were exempt from this requirement provided that no repair work was done on the parapet since Local Law 40 of 1960 became effective.
Today, the Facade Inspection and Safety Program (FISP), formerly Local Law 11 of 1998, prevents buildings from being “grand-fathered” in and building owners must address parapet wall height issues in a timely manner. For buildings 6 stories above grade or greater, the FISP program requires building owners to have their buildings inspected approximately every 5 years. On behalf of the building owner, the Rules of the City of New York, Section 103-04, requires a Qualified Exterior Wall Inspector (QEWI) to verify that the building is compliant with NYC Administrative Code. Among other things, this requires the parapet wall to be 42” in height from the roof surface. The QEWI must file a FISP report with the NYC Department of Buildings that declares the building as “Safe”, “Safe with a Repair and Maintenance Program” (SWARMP), or “Unsafe”. A parapet wall that does not satisfy the 42” height requirement can be the sole reason that a building is filed as SWARMP. Once filed as SWARMP, parapet walls that do not meet the minimum height requirement must be corrected within approximately 5 years, prior to the next filing cycle.
To complicate matters, energy code requirements for roofing systems are continually changing. This leads to additional insulation raising the height of the finished roof surface and reducing the effective height of the parapet above the roof surface. Consequently, many building owners are confronted with the dilemma that their parapet wall is no longer 42”, typically loosing 2”-3” in height. As a result, building owners must decide how they intend to comply with building code requirements. The options are somewhat limited; the wall can be raised, rebuilt or a railing can be added to increase the height of the wall. An owner’s decision typically depends on the most cost effective way to accomplish this, but may not be the deciding factor, particularly in historical districts.