Manhattanites talk about plumbing the way New Englanders talk about the weather. Co-op boards and building superintendents bond over mutual concerns about plumbing systems, when not obsessively discussing exterior waterproofing and City-mandated façade repairs. 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, almost as fast as gossip. But nothing brings the social experiment into clearer focus than plumbing issues.
In 1882, the first city-wide steam system was brought on-line in Manhattan. This shared infrastructure program presented a utopian vision for urban living. City dwellers would have clean, safe, cheap, and centrally distributed steam heat, in the same manner as 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 supersede the horse. City steam would, however, hang on through the twentieth century and beyond. Most buildings today produce steam or hot water for heating by their own boilers. yet Con Ed still provides city steam to some 1700 commercial and residential buildings in Manhattan (as per Wikipedia). The elevator’s invention was certainly the primary catalyst to erecting tall buildings, and plumbing technology, or lack thereof, was a close second. When cast iron and brass pipes are stacked vertically, story after story, they create a tremendous weight distributed over a tiny footprint. 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 New York City rarely have the opportunity to design new buildings, but rather, we practice our art by renovating and re-imagining apartments and penthouses within buildings built many years ago. Irrespective of the age of the building, construction in the city must comply with the 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 course, the above has little impact on the individual homeowner. Few are interested or care what type of cable brings power to their lighting or what type of pipe supplies water to their faucets, nor about the myriad challenging of satisfying modern needs within an aging infrastructure.
I’ll use three case studies to illustrate these challenges. The first two situations (crises) were discovered when leaks were reported by aggrieved downstairs neighbors. They were both the result of clogged waste lines, and on the surface were not unusual. In the first case, a diagnostic camera sent down the pipe to determine the source of the obstruction set off an 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 root cause. The disagreement was striking as 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 when they interpret the same facts from different perspectives.
Since the clog was discovered quickly and addressed, the damage was minor and limited to the homeowner’s apartment, and the downstairs neighbor did not weigh in with an opinion and a complaint – and another bill. Even though the inconvenience and expense of scoping and clearing the clog was minimal, this was not the first issue with the fixture. The owner was convinced, and maybe rightly so, that there was a flaw either in design or execution, and that the clogs were not due to user-error. Could the cast-iron waste pipe have been poorly manufactured? Or might the toilet have insufficient flushing power, 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 believed the culprit was the design of the fixture, a wall-hung version with an in-wall tank, even though this is the least likely explanation. 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, and the common-sense advice to flush twice isn’t such a bad idea. At risk of environmental blasphemy, maybe thou 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 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 repairs, both within the apartment and 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 became paramount. And once again, the favored recommendation came from the contractor, to purchase an old-school toilet (from Canada?) with 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, but don’t tell anyone.
Our third story has nothing to do with clogged waste lines, but rather, improperly installed shower pans. In our first two stories, the culprit was the fundamental dissonance between modern living and aged infrastructure. In the case of the leaking shower pans, the villain was a contractor who failed to properly coordinate the carpenters, plumbers, and tile installers. The Department of Buildings, co-op boards, and reviewing architects of the better buildings all require that showers have lead pans installed beneath the shower floor. The 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 our example, the lead pan was installed and tested, but was three or four inches shorter than specified. 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. at times when the shower drained slowly and water pooled, the height of the ponding water was higher than the pan, and water overflowed, getting behind the tile and into the wall cavities, and eventually, traveling to the apartment below. Of course, this leak occurred well after the contractor had finished the project.
Electrical systems present similar challenges, as the amperage requirements of central air conditioning and self-cleaning electric ovens almost always demand an upgrade to an apartment’s electrical service. Once Con Edison and building management have approved the additional service, running stories of new conduit and pulling new wires is 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 the little-known fact that certain equipment, including the most popular wall ovens, operate sub-optimally if voltage drops below 220 volts. Voltage drops occur in Manhattan during heat index days when Con Ed drops the voltage delivery in 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, as well as 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, while 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 shortcomings 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 service typically comes into the basement, is metered there, and then is run vertically through risers to the individual apartments, often within the walls of other apartments on floors between the basement and the subject 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 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 back on once the riser is repaired or a new riser installed and re-tested. 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” because there is no place to run a new riser. And if not gas, how about electric? Just show us where to run the electric riser.
Note: This piece was written in the fall of 2019, approximately six months before the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, a colleague shared an article with me about our overheated pre-war apartments. The article explained that the heating systems of pre-war buildings built after 1918 were designed to provide enough heat for the residents to leave their windows wide open for fresh air even during the winter months. I wonder what changes are in store for our building codes after the COVID-19 pandemic.