By: Dan Sammon
Sidewalk sheds are temporary structures, typically made of steel framing, wood planks, and plywood sidewalls; used for throughout New York City. Regulations for sidewalks sheds first came into effect when 18-year old college student, Grace Gold, was struck and killed in 1979 by a piece of brick that fell off of a building near Columbia University. These sheds, while unappealing, function as a safeguard against similar accidents.
The New York City Department of Buildings requires sidewalk sheds when there is construction work at a height of 40 feet or above, and demolition work at 25 feet or above. Since the majority of NYC buildings rise well above 25 to 40 feet high, the majority of construction projects require sidewalk sheds. The installation of a sidewalk shed is never something a building owner or a tenant looks forward to. This disappointment can be compounded when the shed has to remain in place for far longer than originally planned, either due to unforeseen site conditions, or due to lack of funds to perform the necessary repairs.
In the last 18 years NYC has seen a tremendous increase in the number of building permits. There were 85,613 permits in 2000 and 165,988 permits in 2018. This drastic jump has led to a surge in the number of sidewalk sheds around the city. As of November 18, 2019, there are currently 9,134 active shed permits in NYC. The average age of a sidewalk shed is 298 days, and total length of sidewalk sheds currently installed is 1,715,560 linear feet or about 325 miles.
As mentioned, sidewalk sheds have a life span of about 300 days, which is a little over 80% of the year. It’s no wonder that residents and business owners dislike sidewalk sheds – once these are erected, they stay for a while. As a building owner, sidewalk sheds are a cost center as well as a maintenance liability. The longer the shed stays up, the more maintenance it will require; when wood planks begin to rot and corrugated metal starts to rust, they must be replaced.
As a tenant, the shed can obstruct natural light from entering lower level floors as well as the range of view from the windows. For pedestrians, the steel columns and cross bracing can reduce constrict sidewalk widths to nearly half widths, leading to an increase in pedestrian traffic. The City also requires the underside of the shed to be lit, mandating that the level of illumination be equivalent to that of a 200-watt incandescent lightbulb, which equals about 3400 lumens. This illumination is required because the typical sidewalk shed roof consists of wood and corrugated metal, which casts shade below the shed.
With the Holiday season rapidly approaching it is worth noting that NYC, like many other major American cities, issues a Holiday embargo for any construction site that requires a DOT permit. This embargo essentially shuts down any non-emergency work in certain areas of the city. This year the embargo is in place from November 15th, 2019 through January 2nd, 2020.
It is no secret that sidewalk sheds are disliked by building owners, tenants, and pedestrians alike. In an effort to improve the aesthetic, NYC sponsored a competition to redesign the homely sidewalk shed. In 2010, the contest was won by a company called “Urban Umbrella,” who utilizes an “umbrella” designed shed. This design eliminates the need for cross bracing, in order to free up more space at the sidewalk level. In addition, the roof of the shed is made up of a translucent plastic that allows natural light in during the daytime. Some of the Urban Umbrella designs even offer customizable LED light systems for nighttime illumination. While these updated sheds are aesthetically pleasing, they do warrant higher rental costs. It is estimated that these costs may be 20% – 30% more than typical sidewalk sheds.
While not always a welcome addition to the streets of NYC, sidewalk sheds service millions of New Yorkers every day. Regardless whether they are liked, they have been fixtures in the city for decades and will likely be used for decades to come.