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It is a frequent cry in masonry restoration circles that there are few, to no, codes for restoring older buildings, however there are some cities who have codes. In New York City, one of the most densely populated urban areas in the US, codes do exist for monitoring buildings, but “the city does not do the inspections” as they are too understaffed. Instead, they depend on “engineers or other specialists hired by building owners.”

This sounds great, until you delve deeper. Parapets with corbeled brickwork are frequently installed as part of the façade of older builders, but they are top heavy, so more likely to topple over. See side view below.

This means that the top of the building is at greater likelihood of falling than the brick fascia below. The parapet is certainly more exposed to the weather, mortar failure and water penetration. Given this, it was appalling to learn that,

“These inspections do not have to be done by an engineer or a licensed construction professional. They can be done by a building superintendent, a handyman or someone in a construction-related trade, or by an architect”.

Further more,

The report on the parapet inspection does not have to be sent to the Buildings Department, although an owner must make it available if the agency asks to see it.”

This means that anyone who has watched HGTV or been to Home Depot recently could stand on the ground and verbally approve the safety of a parapet, as until this year inspections were only needed on buildings over six stories tall.

If however, a drone was required to be used, using the new LiDAR 3D and photogrammetry software and the resulting roof top footage sent for review, then an architect, structural engineer, or experience historic masonry contractor could immediately tell if the parapet and cornice was needing further investigation by taking detailed pictures and video. Trying to prevent falling masonry on passersby on the street below, those using fire escapes of access, or endangering fire crews working below.

A sloping parapet under repair. See how far the brick and blockwork has moved to the left.

Even worse, imagine you live in a less wealthy or litigious town or city, and there are no codes for inspecting or restoring cornices and parapets. Your likelihood of having falling masonry land on you is that much greater. With no schedule of inspections or requirements for remediation, parapets can collapse with very little warning.

In the photo below, a historic masonry contractor had been called in to inspect a potentially unstable parapet. In the time it took to drive to the town, this was the result.

Caddo OK Museum

The parapet had collapsed, taking out the canopies below. Mercifully no one was hurt, but on a day with more foot traffic, it could have been catastrophic. The white building to left is clearly revealed to be leaning forwards, and has large parapet, so hope the local inspectors took advantage of this fall to make addition remedial recommendations.

In conclusion, codes and inspections are vital for the safety of those in buildings as well as those who use the sidewalks below. Since there is a shortage of inspectors to go out on a regular – if any – schedule, investigate the availability of drones and drone operators who could help save the danger and expense of falling parapets and cornices.

With thanks toJames Barron and the article in the New York Times on December 15, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/15/nyregion/nyc-building-inspection.html