Writings

Looking Forward to Monday Mornings
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Indoor Plumbing (Manhattan Style)
by Daniel Frisch
Posted December 3rd, 2019

Manhattanites talk about plumbing the way New Englanders talk about the weather. Co-op boards and building superintendents bond over concerns about plumbing systems, when not obsessively discussing exterior waterproofing and City-mandated facade repairs. Most people understand that living in an apartment house represents a unique social lifestyle. Barking dogs, high heels, and bouncing balls all create noises that seem to amplify as they travel from apartment to apartment. Gossip travels even faster. And, nothing brings the social experiment into clearer focus than plumbing issues.

In 1882, the first citywide steam system was brought on line in Manhattan. This shared infrastructure program presented a utopian vision of urban living; city dwellers would have clean, safe, and presumably cheap centrally distributed steam heat; similar to the gas supplied to homes throughout the boroughs for lights and cooking. A few decades later, gas lighting would be replaced by electric, and the horseless carriage would replace the horse-drawn carriage, and yet, city steam would hang on through the twentieth century and beyond. While many buildings produce steam or hot water for heating by their own boilers, Con Ed still provides steam to some 1700 commercial and residential buildings n Manhattan. (according to Wikipedia). Studying the history of urban construction technology, it is clear that the elevator’s invention was the primary catalyst to erecting tall buildings. Plumbing technology, or lack thereof, was just as much of an impediment. When cast iron and brass pipes are stacked vertically, story after story, they create an unsupportable load distributed over a very small area. Over time, architects and engineers developed the practice of offsetting pipe risers every six or eight floors distributing the loads over a greater floor area, and skyward we traveled.

Residential architects in the City rarely have the opportunity to design new buildings, but rather practice our art renovating and re-imagining apartments and penthouses within buildings built many years ago. Irrespective of the age of the building, construction in New York City must comply with NYC Building Code, which varies considerably from the national residential codes governing construction in most other communities. This difference is particularly apparent in the rules and regulations concerning the licensed trades, i.e., electrical, HVAC, and plumbing. Throughout most of the country, electricians run their circuits in Romex, a flexible, plastic-shielded wire. The NYC electrical code, however, dictates the electrical contractor run its circuits in “BX,” a cumbersome aluminum shielded cable. Similarly, suburban plumbers exclusively use PVC and pex tubing, whereas the NYC code calls for cast iron and copper. While these distinctions may seem technical or incidental, they are in no way trivial when it comes to material and labor costs. Other than the cost of business, the above has little impact on the individual homeowner. Few are interested or care what type of cable supplies their lighting or what type of pipe brings their water to their faucets, yet these distinctions matter a great deal to the architect and contractors specifying and installing the systems. What does matter are the myriad challenges of satisfying modern lifestyle needs and connecting contemporary equipment to an aging infrastructure.

Three recent plumbing issues, two of which were discovered when leaks were reported by aggrieved downstairs neighbors, are illustrative. The first two instances were the result of clogged waste lines, and on the surface were not unusual. In one case the diagnostics (a camera sent down the pipe to determine the source of the obstruction) resulted in a he said-he said dispute as to the cause. The homeowner insisted nothing unusual had been flushed, while the plumber and contractor were equally insistent that baby wipes and paper towels were the cause. Representatives of both parties were present when the line was scoped and snaked. Of course, it is impossible for both statements to be true, and unfortunately, the dispute escalated when it came time to pay the bill. If Tom Wolfe were still alive, he would be able to write lines of dialogue perfectly describing the partisan perspectives of contractors and homeowners.

Since the clog was discovered quickly and addressed, the damage was minimal and only limited to the homeowner’s apartment. In this case, the downstairs neighbor did not have to weigh in with an opinion and a complaint – and another bill. With only minor inconvenience and the expense of scoping and clearing the obstruction just over a thousand dollars, this matter should have concluded fairly quickly – except this particular toilet had clogged previously. The owner is convinced, and maybe rightly so, that there is a flaw either in design or execution. Could the cast-iron waste pipe be poorly manufactured? Could the toilet have an inefficient flushing mechanism, an all too common problem due to water efficiency regulations – (which, for the record, we enthusiastically support)? Could the plumber have installed the waste line with too little pitch? The homeowner believes the culprit is the design of the toilet, a wall-hung version with an in-wall tank. Unfortunately, this is the least likely culprit. Wall-hung toilets (European style, so to speak) have become ever more popular, and we expect them to soon outnumber conventional floor-mounted models. Most likely, today’s 1.6 gpf (gallons per flush) toilets just don’t have enough flushing capacity for the horizontal branch lines connecting toilets to the building risers of apartment buildings (more on this later), and the contractor’s advice to flush twice isn’t such a bad idea. At risk of environmental blasphemy, maybe thee should flush thrice?

The second event was very similar except that the back-up was severe enough to flood the apartment and to leak into the apartment below, entirely changing the problem-solving dynamic. In addition to cleaning up the mess within the homeowner’s apartment, repairs needed to be made to the apartment below. As they say in our business, nothing unusual here, there is only one way for water to flow. The building superintendent attended the diagnostics and snaking, and it was confirmed that the clog was at the very end of the branch waste line, but before its discharge into the building riser (waste stack). This made the liability for repair, both any damage within the apartment, but also within the apartment below, the responsibility of the homeowners and their contractor – and their respective insurance carriers. Once the cause of the incident was deduced and repairs undertaken, the question of how to prevent future incidents becomes paramount. And once again, my favorite recommendation came from the contractor to purchase an old-school toilet (from Canada?) that would flush 3.0 gallons per flush – almost double the maximum current allowable. Certainly, using more water to flush a powder room toilet is more environmentally supportable than the frequent repairs caused by insufficient flushing power.

Our third story has nothing to do with clogged waste lines, but rather, improperly installed shower pans. In our first two stories, we can’t isolate a culprit other than the fundamental disconnect between modern living and aged infrastructure. In the case of the leaking shower pans, the villain was a contractor who failed to coordinate the plumbing and stone and tile teams. The boards and reviewing architects of the better buildings dictate that showers have lead pans installed beneath the shower floor. This lead membrane gets turned up the walls and the curb at the shower door. This nineteenth century waterproofing solution gets water-tested, and in theory, provides a continuous inert pan to prevent leaks. In this example, the lead pan was installed and tested, but only formed a two or three inch high pan. When the stone and tile crew came to install the shower floor, they filled the pan with concrete (properly sloped to the drain) and then installed the stone floor. Unfortunately the stone floor finished at nearly the height of the pan. When the shower drained slowly and pooled, the height of the ponding water was higher than the pan, and water overflowed, getting into the walls and eventually, traveling to the apartment below. Of course, this leak occurred well after the contractor had finished the project.

Homeowners are experiencing similar difficulties with electrical systems as well. Central air conditioning and electric ovens almost always demand increasing an apartment’s electrical service. Once Con Ed and a building’s board have approved the additional service, running new conduit or pulling new wires can be a daunting and expensive proposition. And the better the view, the more costly the upgrade, as such projects are priced by the distance from the service in the basement to the panel in the apartment.  Even after a service upgrade has been performed, problems can persist.   Most central air conditioning equipment requires 220-volt power, which is not available in all buildings. More discouraging still is little-known fact that certain equipment, including the most popular wall ovens, operate sub-optimally if voltage drops below 220 volts. Voltage drop occurs in Manhattan most notably during heat index days when Con Ed drops the voltage delivery to certain neighborhoods to 208 volts to reduce the risk of brownouts and blackouts. A few years ago, a client’s dual-fuel (electric oven, gas cooktop) range had to be replaced with an all-gas model as the pre-heat time for the oven was running approximately forty-five minutes – not a happy circumstance for a young family thriving on chicken nuggets and French fries.

Having covered a little history and having told a few stories of unfortunate incidents, let’s turn now to the future. Landmark pre-war residential buildings line Central Park, not to mention Park and West End Avenues, Riverside Drive, much of the Upper East Side, and lower Fifth Avenue. Very early examples such as the Dakota date from the nineteenth century, and most of these pre-war edifices were completed prior to the Great Depression. When originally built, apartments were large, but closets and baths were small, and kitchens were the precinct of staff – not the beating heart of the home as they are today. While these shortcomings present challenges to designers when re-imagining homes for today’s families, the greater impediment to successfully accommodating modern living is the aged infrastructure of our most picturesque and valuable residential buildings. Infrastructure challenges are now front and center of the minds of the co-op boards, building engineers, and architects entrusted with the stewardship of these civic treasures. Read the real estate section of the New York Times or glance through Architectural Digest, and it easy to see just how expensive apartments are within these majestic buildings, which means the homeowners are wealthy, very wealthy, and also, demanding. Within such expensive homes, central air conditioning is a must, as are electric ovens and gas cooktops. As more and more apartments are modernized and upgraded, and as buildings age, a conflict has arisen that we are just beginning to understand and to (try to) solve. The gas lines (risers) serving individual apartments usually come into the basement, are metered there, and then run vertically to the individual apartments, often within the walls of other apartments on floors between the basement and the apartment. Each time a homeowner’s architect files for new or relocated gas equipment (cooktop, clothes dryer, etc.), current Department of Buildings protocol is to now test the risers for leaks, which may occur anywhere form the cellar to the apartment. If the pressure does not hold, which is proof of a leak, the gas is shut-off, only to be turned on once the riser is repaired or a new riser installed. Repairing risers buried within walls of neighbors’ apartments is inconvenient if not impossible, leaving no choice for a building to either allow a new riser to be installed, or to tell the (very wealthy) shareholder, that there will be no “cooking with gas.” And if not gas, well then, how about electric? Just show us where to run the electric riser.