Minimizing Construction and Maintenance Disturbances If I Had a Hammer...

The noise, the dust, the fumes, the mess, the constant influx of workers, unsightly equipment and vehicles, the service disruptions—everybody wants to live in a well-maintained building or development, but one thing many co-op and condo dwellers dread is having to live through the actual repair-and maintenance process.

It's up to the board of directors and managers to minimize the disruptions to the residents as best as they can, but how? Step one: recognize what the most troublesome projects are. Step two: communicate with the residents.

The Top 4 List

In typical David Letterman fashion (minus the punchlines), Richard Rosenthal, vice president of DeStefanis & Associations in White Plains, New York, lists the top four types of disruptive construction or maintenance projects in a building as: façade projects, elevator modernization projects, window replacement projects; and piping and electrical service upgrades.

"In façade projects, these projects are disruptive because there is plastic over the residents' windows, noise, dust, and vibrations, and residents must remove things off their walls," says Rosenthal.

He also explains that elevator modernization projects may put a building's sole elevator out of commission to the residents for a brief period of time, or force residents to rely on the remaining working elevators, which can lead to a serving capacity problem.

"Window replacement projects tend to be disruptive to the apartment because installers need to access the apartment to bring windows in and out and there is also inconvenient dust," he says.

Piping and electrical service upgrades may also require entrance into the residents' apartments and may cause additional maintenance issues, such as leaking.

According to Rick Fry, a principal with RCP Management Company in Princeton, roofing maintenance is one of the most disruptive projects in a condo development.

"The work starts early in the morning, and there is debris and activity throughout the project," he says. "If people have items stored in their attic, the project could get them dusty and anything on their walls could fall."

Get the Word Out

One of the most important things a board/management team can do to head conflict off at the pass is to let residents know—as early as possible—about upcoming projects that might temporarily disturb the peace.

"Communication is key," says Anita Sapirman, owner of Saparn Realty Inc., a management firm based in New York City. "Boards and managers need to always inform residents of the plan. As soon as the board comes up with the construction plan, they should share it with the residents. They should continuously communicate and tell people what the timeline is so that everyone is part of the plan and no one feels left out."

There should be no surprises for residents, Sapirman continues. "You don't want men to show up unexpectedly outside someone's window one morning," she says. That kind of shock is not a good thing, and it will lead to bad feelings before a project is even fully underway.

Patricia Garbutt of Manhattan's Elite Construction Consultants, Ltd., agrees with Sapirman that communication is probably the single biggest factor in whether a major job goes off without a hitch. "Boards and managing agents should send out information as early as possible," she says. "There should be weekly or daily memos, either to the building as a whole or to the people affected. Information boards with floor plans and a schedule also should be on display."

Good communication also means honesty. While it might be tempting to stay mum when something to do with a big project goes awry, it is always better to bite the bullet early on and level with your residents.

"You have to share the good news and the bad news," Garbutt says. "That's one mistake that people make—trying to keep the bad news to themselves." Information is important for residents, she says, "because it makes people feel more in control." And perhaps most important of all, it stops gossip and misinformation before it can start. If people do not have accurate information, says Garbutt, "residents will start their own rumors."

Resident to Resident

It's not just board-mandated projects that can cause problems. Residents in condominium developments can also cause disruption to other residents when completing their own home remodeling projects, such as the removal of old flooring and the installation of new hardwood, painting, the demolition of a wall, and so forth. For example, a condominium owner who renovates a kitchen or bathroom can wreak havoc on a close-by neighbor's space with substantial noise, odors, and dust and the intrusion of workers on the property.

Because troublesome or disruptive construction projects can foster grudges and bad blood between neighbors for years, it's vital to head such problems off at the pass before they turn ugly. Again, it all comes down to communicating early and often.

"The smoothest projects are the ones where the property manager has formed a cohesive team that includes the board members, the design professional, and the contractor," says J. Stewart Willis, RS, a building inspector and project manager at Falcon Engineering and Architecture in Bridgewater. "Then they proactively make repeated efforts to communicate the details of the project to the residents."

Willis says the soonest the residents know about their neighbor's remodeling plans, or what the overall maintenance and repair strategy is for the community, the more likely they are to be receptive to the costs and inconvenience involved. "A good capital replacement and preventive maintenance study is an excellent tool for educating the residents about the upcoming projects that are necessary to preserve the value of their physical assets."

Houston, er…Residents, We Have a Problem

You don't want it to happen, but even the best-laid plans can go awry. Any delays in the construction project can cost the residents' additional inconvenience and cost the board or association money, so the contracts must be designed to ensure that the contractors are capable of meeting deadlines, thereby preventing any additional intrusions onto the residents' time and patience.

Rosenthal urges all involved in both co-ops and condos to also utilize valuable resources—including local town, architects, engineers, building or association attorneys, homeowners association, board of directors, etc. to help brainstorm any possible inconveniences that might arise during the project.

"For example, speak to your attorney who can handle any legal issues that might arise during these construction projects," says Rosenthal.

Some of these legal issues include local and state zoning and building code requirement issues, contract issues, and any other unforeseen issues that might arise as the project is being completed.

According to Willis, properly permitting a project, consulting legal counsel on bylaws and contract provisions and courtesy calls to the local authorities are all important legal considerations when doing construction/maintenance projects.

"Every municipality in New Jersey is required to have a construction official," explains Willis. "The construction official heads the local building department and is charged with the enforcement of the State Uniform Construction Code (UCC). The UCC actually contains very detailed definitions regarding which projects and which types of work are required to apply for construction permits. There is even a definition of 'minor work' in the UCC, which is exempt from permit application."

But things can go wrong. For example, the classic "mid-project problem" that Willis often sees on the job is the discovery of rotted wall sheathing and/or framing behind siding that has just been removed.

"Any significant changes in scope required should be proactively communicated in great detail," he says, "including color photographs, to the board members and the community. Depending on the percentage of overall cost increase to the project, this might be a time to hold a special open meeting, so that the project team can give a presentation to the community and field questions from the residents."

To prevent these problems in the future, says Willis, "Try to anticipate problems and have contingency plans and funds on hand to deal with them. Reach out to the residents, the local officials, have your plans, specifications, contracts and permits in order and lay the groundwork for a successful project before the first shovel hits the ground."

Fry also explains that if the problem seriously alters the completion of the job—by, say, several weeks, the residents should be notified of this change. "Let them know you've uncovered a problem, and let them know the additional costs or how you are addressing the problem and the time frame you need to have it finished."

Rental Tenants

What about rental tenants in co-op/condo buildings—are there any concerns or complications that might arise from reduction of services for these residents?

"Regarding possible reduction of services to rental tenants, or say, something like temporary displacement expenses, these are all things that need to be considered as part of the cost of the project and again dealt with very proactively," says Willis. "The association's legal counsel should be involved in the contract preparations, and in interpreting the bylaws of the community regarding possible obligations to tenants and others during major projects."

Hopefully, residents will recognize that noise and inconvenience are inevitable in projects, albeit temporary. Builders should also work hard at protecting the residents' time and patience, which includes, but isn't limited to, such ideas as: limiting working hours of high noise operations to the middle of the day; limiting and control radio noise; turning off engines when vehicles or equipment is not in use; placing portable toilets away from property lines in less visible locations; controlling dust with water and chutes; and doing everything possible to avoid damage to trees and landscaping. Again, it's important to outline such requests in the initial contract.

Say Thanks!

Finally, once the project is completed, Fry urges the board and management to thank the residents for their patience. "It's critical to say thanks, because a lot of the projects are inconvenient and to let the residents know you appreciate their cooperation."

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Related Articles

Q&A: Remodeling Rules

Q&A: Remodeling Rules

Can It Wait?

Balancing Budgets and Priorities

Q&A: Dog Day Afternoon (and Night)

Q&A: Dog Day Afternoon (and Night)