Forensic Engineer Looks UP

In New York City, there is plenty to see: museums, parks, broadway shows and interesting people.  But with over 11,000 buildings taller than 6 stories, there is also plenty to see by looking up.  That is where Eric W. Cowley, PE, and his firm Cowley Engineering, comes in.  “Since 1980, the City of New York has had a Façade Ordinance requiring the exterior inspection of all buildings taller than 6 stories.  My firm has been doing these inspections for over 20 years, so nothing surprises me anymore,” says Cowley.  Cowley is providing his expertise to smaller cities, and helping them customize an effective façade ordinance.  “The objective is proactive maintenance to ensure safety.  The first step is to craft a law that suits the local area, and is sensitive to the area’s economic viability.  The second step is to set up the controls and procedures to implement and monitor the program.  And the third step is to track the repairs.  We provide the consultation and our own database software that monitors and charts the process,” says Cowley.

The New York City law, originally dubbed Local Law 11 of 1980, came into effect after a portion of a facade fell to the street striking and killing a pedestrian.  Property Owners are required to hire licensed, professional engineers to inspect the exterior of their buildings every 5 years.  These engineers then submit a report to the Owner of the property, as well as the city.  ‘The law caused quite a stir when it first came out,” says Cowley, “There was a significant ramping up of repairs that were required due to poor maintenance in the past and neglect.  It took a few inspection and repair cycles to catch up.  Engineers had to study up on the myriad of construction types used to build buildings over the span of 100 plus years in order to specify effective repairs.  Then the task became locating contractors with façade restoration experience to bring the facades into compliance with the spirit of the law.”


Performing the inspection and doing the repairs takes a special breed.  The inspections are performed utilizing a swing stage scaffold that hangs off the outside of the building and is performed hands on.  “We literally touch the decorative stone and masonry to determine if the conditions are stable while standing on the hanging platform.  We tap the façade with hammers, we poke, we prod.  You can’t do this work if you’re afraid of heights … or a little wind,” Cowley adds.


Several other cities in the United States have façade laws similar to the one in New York.  Cowley recently traveled to Philadelphia and worked with city legislators to help craft their façade ordinance.  “Philadelphia experienced some recent events in Center City that prompted action on the part of the City Council.  I offered my expertise and to their credit they were receptive.”  The ordinance enacted in Philadelphia is patterned after the law in New York with some modifications that better suits the local environment.  Cowley says, “Philadelphia is a lovely walking city.  The buildings are smaller than you see in New York, and there are fewer of them, so they wanted the option to include smaller structures if necessary.  This is a wise move – a brick falling from a small building in a highly pedestrian area will cause as much damage as if it fell from a tall building.”


Philadelphia joins: New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Columbus, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, all with special façade ordinances.  “Every city should have a façade ordinance no matter the size,” says Cowley.  Some property owners may purchase an apartment in a building that is covered by the ordinance, without fully appreciating that their ownership responsibility extends to the sidewalk, the roof and the exterior facades.  While some ‘push back’ by property owners can be expected, Cowley advises that it is best to be proactive and anticipatory, rather than penny wise and pound foolish.  “And the age of the building is incidental.  My firm has as many 20 year old client buildings as we do 100 year old client buildings,” Cowley adds,  “Every city is unique and we’re currently working with city governments in several smaller cities to help them customize an effective façade ordinance.  The inspection from the rig must be painstaking for the result to be effective, but the views are tremendous.”


Eric W. Cowley, PE is a licensed structural engineer in NY, NJ, CT, FL and PA.  He is the author of ‘This is MY House‘ and ‘Now I Understand‘.  His contact information can be found at


(Reprinted by permission)

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