NYC Renovation Chronicles

NYC Renovation Chronicles: Mixed messages and other sources of project panic

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A common complaint among architects is that instead of doing the fun stuff we went to school for--like drawing pictures and designing wacky, gravity-defying buildings--we spend a lot of time on the phone putting out fires.

While frustrating, given the amount of information to be coordinated in a short period of time, not to mention the various less-than-cooperative parties with jurisdiction over a project, it is never surprising.

Although your project team should not be experiencing sustained hyperventilation, isolated moments of project panic are, sadly, not uncommon. Learning to deal with it requires knowledge of the underlying causes – some preventable, others merely endured.

Verbal instructions

You know that feeling of disappointment you get in a restaurant when the dish that arrives does not match the one you envisioned based on the menu description?  Well, that’s nothing compared to the anxiety you will experience upon seeing the wrong tile installed in your bathroom, or the ceiling a foot lower than you anticipated. Panic of this type is easily avoidable.

Verbal descriptions are helpful in establishing general guidelines, but if you rely on them for contractor direction, you’re playing renovation roulette. Precise drawings and samples are absolutely essential to gain visual understanding.

With millwork cabinetry, the contractor should be provided with accurate detailed drawings indicating not only measurements and material specification, but edge details, direction of wood grain and hardware type. A wood sample should be produced showing the precise finish.

The same precautions should be taken with stone. A while back I specified a stone floor for a client – a brilliant white stone with streaks of grey and gold running through it.  When the tile arrived on site, we discovered it was pink. As a natural material, stone is expected to have some variation but as this was completely different from the showroom sample, the tile supplier replaced it all without question within a day.

Undocumented communication

Not to scare anyone, but some small projects can go on for years.  At the end of a busy day, I have difficulty remembering what I worked on that morning. Without good notes, I could sooner levitate than remember a conversation from 2007.

Good documentation in writing is essential to keep track of decisions and prevent confusion. With drawings, this is particularly important. When a contractor receives a set of drawings during construction it sets a lot of wheels in motion. Materials are purchased, walls are constructed, wiring is run. I have worked with designers who, in their zealousness to get a project perfect, have re-issued sets of drawings with minor modifications multiple times. Nothing will create more widespread hysteria than having subtly different sets of drawings in different peoples hands during construction.

Rear-view boards

Despite what is often a rigorous co-op or condo board review process, some jobs are plagued by bewildering board behavior.

Under the normal procedure, drawings are submitted to a building-hired professional who reports his findings back to the board. Once cleared for construction, most boards remain largely uninvolved unless the job creates major disturbance in the building.

Occasionally, however, a loose cannon on the board or in the management company will contest work that was previously approved.  Jobsite frenzy will always result. During one such job, a board president (who had a litigious relationship with my client) claimed that work affecting a public hallway door should be stopped because he was not aware of the project specifics. When we sent him the approved drawings that he had personally submitted to the building architect and then returned to us, he claimed they were irrelevant as he didn’t know how to read architectural drawings. As absurd as the charge was, it did create a lot of anxiety and wasted a lot of time. Eventually, reason prevailed and the other board members overruled the president who was replaced in the next election.

The Department of Buildings

The dubious honor of most mixed message proliferation and greatest cause of jobsite distress goes to the Department of Buildings, who to even the most well-versed in filing minutiae, appears to make things up as it goes along.

With the DOB’s desire to make the city a safer place, changes in building laws are a regular occurrence. In the midst of a job, it is not uncommon to learn that new forms replace older ones without notice, that permits are required when they previously were not, that inspections fail based on a requirement not in place when the job had begun. In such cases, consequential hair loss is unavoidable.

On one brownstone job for example, we discovered that some unanticipated structural concrete work would be required to correct a potentially dangerous foundation wall problem. We notified the DOB who told us that, in keeping with the latest DOB memo, this work would need to be filed immediately to continue with the job.

We soon learned, however, that since the requirement was brand new, the work could not be PRE-filed – meaning logged into the DOB system – so the work could not happen and the project would have to stop. Luckily, at the behest of a capable structural engineer who pleaded on the basis of safety, we were able – after several wasted days - to get the project moving again.

Along similar lines, one of my colleagues, working on a project in the West Village, was told the project could not continue until an outstanding violation was cleared. Years before, someone had apparently done work without a permit and now, as a pre-requisite to do any new work on the building, the DOB was requiring that drawings be filed indicating the work that had been previously done illegally.

The owner, unaware of the work that was done illegally, could not advise my colleague what to draw. What is even more baffling is that the DOB had no records either. Eventually a $5,000 fine was paid, drawings were submitted showing some “illegally installed” closets, and the violation was removed. The process took months. And as to whether or not this was the work for which the violation was written, no one cared.


David Katz (www.KATZarch.com) has been practicing architecture in New York City for the last 20 years. Detail oriented, nervous and a little neurotic,  he specializes in co-op and condo renovations.

Disclaimer: Information provided herein is not to be construed as professional advice. Readers are urged to consult with a licensed architect regarding their specific circumstances prior to undertaking any renovation work. (We do not want any buildings falling down!)

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