Better Building Façade Inspections With Industrial Rope Access

This building façade inspection method enables inspectors to more easily navigate setbacks, projecting balconies, large cornices, peaked roofs, and spires.

By Jarrett Huddleston

In 1980, after a piece of masonry fell from a building and killed a passerby, New York City passed Local Law 10/80, requiring periodic inspection of building façades and exteriors for all buildings taller than six stories. This law evolved into Local Law 11/98, and eventually became the Facade Inspection Safety Program, or “FISP” (1-RCNY 103.04), that is in effect today.

building facade
A Qualified Exterior Wall Inspector (QEWI) employs Industrial Rope Access to inspect a building envelope. (Photo: Marco Catini)

In 2018, more than 2,635 buildings were inspected in New York City. Of this group, close to 20% were deemed unsafe either due to an existing hazard or considered technically unsafe due to a failure to repair lesser conditions noted in a previous inspection. A full 44% of the properties inspected — almost 1,200 buildings — were cited as “Safe with a Repair and Maintenance Program” (conditionally safe provided necessary repairs were completed).

FISP requires that all qualifying buildings engage a licensed and registered Qualified Exterior Wall Inspector (QEWI) to examine the building façade, with a minimum of one hands-on inspection drop per representative area. The QEWI then prepares a report on the condition of the façade which is reviewed and acknowledged by the Owner and filed with the New York City Department of Buildings. These reports are, to an extent, available to the public online. FISP also stipulates that unsafe conditions must be promptly reported to the Department, and that Owners have 90 days to correct deficiencies or file extensions demonstrating progress in so-doing.

There are approximately one million buildings in New York City, and some 14,500 of these are taller than six stories, requiring a façade inspection every five years. Traditionally, these inspections have been performed from suspended scaffolding, an articulating personnel-lift, or an existing fire escape. Suspended scaffolding, wherein a platform is hung from the building with steel cables, has been the most widely used approach. This inspection method, however, can be expensive and cumbersome. Inspection via personnel-lift is a less frequently used method, due to height limitations, potential disruption of street traffic, and required DOT permits. Fire escapes locations are inherently limited, and inspection conducted in this manner cannot be considered truly “representative”.

building facade
Photo: Marco Catini

Industrial Rope Access (IRA) offers a faster, more versatile, and more cost-effective approach to building façade inspection. Rope Access Technicians are rigorously trained and certified, using a specialized harness, primary suspension line, and safety line to inspect buildings of virtually any height. Using IRA, multiple inspection drops can be performed on all elevations of a building within the timeframe required to rig and perform a single scaffold drop. Setbacks, projecting balconies, large cornices, peaked roofs, and spires which represent impediments to suspended scaffolds are fully accessible using IRA. Typically, inspectors conduct a controlled descent to travel from the roof to the street, but climbing and lateral motion are also possible. Tethered personal equipment such as sounding mallets, digital cameras, and tablets are used to assess and document façade conditions.

My firm, CANY, is a leading building enclosure architectural, engineering, and technical consulting firm, which has been conducting IRA inspections since 2000. Led by architects, engineers, historic preservationists, and construction technicians, CANY employs a 16-person team of façade specialists as industrial rope access technicians. CANY inspectors are not just IRA technicians — first and foremost they are architects/engineers-in-training and construction project managers. CANY personnel utilize IRA as part of their overall toolset, as a versatile method for meaningful façade inspection.

IRA is not only efficient, cost-effective, and less invasive, but multiple drops provide more and better data, enabling stronger analysis that supports a more accurate repair scope of work, greatly reducing or eliminating the potential for cost overruns and change orders during repairs. IRA is also especially useful for historic buildings, as it is low impact, avoiding potential façade damage often associated with traditional scaffolding. A rope access team can typically complete 10-12 drops on a single building per day, reaching multiple areas of the façade and inspecting a much larger area of the exterior than possible via suspended scaffolding. For buildings with multiple setbacks, IRA drops are particularly effective because the inspector can navigate and examine multiple setbacks from roof to sidewalk in a single drop.

Industrial rope access is becoming increasingly popular, especially with buildings that feature architecturally complex façades. According to the New York City Department of Buildings, there were 247 rope access requests for inspection in 2018, up from 193 requests for IRA in 2015. This number will continue to increase in NYC, especially as the buildings constructed during the current building boom come under FISP inspection requirements. Approximately 1,500 newly constructed buildings will come on line for inspection between 2020 and 2025.

The FISP program ensures that New York City’s iconic and ever-changing skyline receives the ongoing vigilance required to help safeguard the public. This calls for building façade inspection methods that enable individuals with proper expertise to inspect buildings of all heights and configurations with coverage superior to traditional means, a need that will only increase as the city continues to grow in size and complexity. IRA represents an ideal solution, an essential component in the future of façade inspection.

building facadeHuddleston is Principal of CANY, a consulting architecture and engineering firm specializing in building enclosure systems for new and existing properties in greater New York and nationally. He brings 35 years of hands-on experience to bear on behalf of CANY’s clients. From rope access investigation to property condition assessment, expert testimony to contract negotiation, Huddleston’s contribution to the CANY team runs the gamut.