The year was 1991, and we had just launched our company. Our first commission was a gut renovation of an Upper East Side co-op studio apartment for a partner’s sister. The apartment needed everything; electrical, air conditioning, floors, new windows, millwork, a new kitchen and bathroom and just about everything else. As we do today, we sent our proposed plans (hand-drawn and hand-lettered at the time) to the building’s managing agent, who in turn, forwarded them to the building’s architect for review.
The building’s reviewing architect was none other than Elliott Glass, a fifty-six year old gentleman at the height of his power and fame. Power and fame may sound overstated, but not so if you seek approvals to renovate apartments in the better buildings in Manhattan, especially the elegant pre-war co-operatives that line Central Park West, and Park and Fifth Avenues. I didn’t realize when we received Mr. Glass’ review on that first project in 1991 that we had commenced a professional relationship that would last my entire career. Elliott is now eighty-three and is still reviewing plans. Although he has no assistants and no succession plan of which I am aware; and although he represents fewer buildings than he did when he is younger, he remains the most highly regarded (and feared) building architect in NYC. If you think I embellish, please read an article written by Leslie Kaufman on October 24, 2008 in the “The New York Times.” The article is titled “This Man Could Ruin Your Renovation Plans,”
and if you were to ask most of my peers, the title tells the whole story.
Contemporary historians who study New York tell us that the1970’s was a low point in City history, especially from a residential real estate standpoint. The eighties brought great recovery, but the economy crashed again in 1987. The nineties kicked-off a thirty year rise in residential values, and in spite of notable periodic retrenchments, residential real estate in Manhattan has since been a good place to invest. As apartments became more and more expensive, co-op boards sought to tighten their oversight process on renovations. From his perch as the most respected reviewing architect, Elliott Glass established the standards by which renovations would be approved, and very often disapproved. Under Elliott’s guidance, obtaining approval from a co-op board became more difficult than obtaining approval from the Department of Buildings. For those of us who came of age during the nineties, we all agree that Elliott Glass literally wrote the rule book.
Following is a glossary of Elliot Glass rules/prohibitions that once did not exist, and are now nearly universal:
Wet-Over-Dry. These three little words are Elliott’s most notable contribution to the field. We started hearing these three words in the mid-nineties, and twenty-five years later, a prohibition against wet-over-dry appears in almost every alteration agreement (the agreement between an apartment owner and the building’s board of directors setting forth the terms under which an owner obtains approval for proposed renovations). Most apartment buildings are built in ‘lines,’ with each apartment being identical in layout to the one above or below. Bathrooms and kitchens are stacked – as are bedrooms, living rooms, libraries, dining rooms, etc. When we first started seeing in Elliott’s review letters his objection to our enlarged bathrooms and kitchens, we assumed this was to prevent leaks from a bath or kitchen (wet areas) into a bedroom or living space (dry areas). This straightforward interpretation of wet-over-dry makes perfect sense, except that it doesn’t.
The prohibition nagged at me. Installing proper waterproofing ensures that leaks won’t percolate directly down, and nothing prevents water from an overflowed tub from flowing out the bathroom door, over the saddle and running down to a living room below. While I was sure Elliott had his reasons for introducing the concept of wet-over-dry, I was missing a nuance. So I did what any presumptuous upstart would do, I picked up the phone and called him. I don’t know if other architects call Elliott – not to debate or to argue, but to understand – but I have found the fearsome Elliott Glass to be open and candid with me every time I have made such a call. Elliott shared his thoughts as follows (paraphrased, as it has been many years since we had our conversation).
Elliot confirmed that I was right to question the notion that the wet-over-dry prohibition was primarily conceived to prevent water from traveling to the unit below. He shared with me his awareness that my professional colleagues and I were, as a group, presenting plan proposals to enlarge bathrooms and kitchens in response to requests from our ever-wealthier owners. It turns out we were also filling these larger bathrooms with whirlpool tubs (Jacuzzis), separate stall showers – with large pan heads, and steam rooms. The unintended consequence of the larger bathrooms with more plumbing fixtures was an increased load on the building’s aged plumbing infrastructure, specifically the risers. While demolition operations expose risers within an apartment and provide an opportunity to address problems within the unit, Elliott observed that pipes were failing in other apartments, not just the ones being renovated. The failures were likely caused by a subject renovation, but since this could not be proven, the responsibility for repairs stayed with the building. The genius of Elliott’s no-wet-over-dry language meant that the wet precincts could not be expanded to accommodate the increased plumbing that came along with the expansion, and plumbing loads would not be increased. And to make design solutions even more difficult, bathrooms needed to comply with adaptability standards of the ADA (American with Disabilities ACT) as instituted by Local Law 58 of the 1987 NYC Building Code.
Today, much of the aged infrastructure in older buildings has been replaced, and failures are less common than in the nineties when Elliott first came up with the wet-over-dry prohibition. When seeking to enlarge baths and kitchens, we now share the above story with boards and often will get some relief, but not always – too much precedent has been established.
Noisy-Over-Quiet. The next design prohibition that came into being was the rejection of Noisy-Over-Quiet layouts, meaning we could not put a kitchen over a dining room. This is less frequently cited, and can often be mitigated by sound attenuation, but if Elliott Glass is reviewing your plans, you can expect meaningful resistance.
Garbage Disposals. Garbage disposals are NOT illegal in New York City, yet most building alteration agreements prohibit them. I made another call to Elliott on this one, and the simple answer is arteriosclerosis. Once the garbage disposal has julienned the carrot, the pieces go right down the drain, out of sight and out of mind. Yet, as they descend and less water is flushing them to the basement, they begin to stick to the inner wall of the pipe. Most waste risers in apartment houses in Manhattan are four inches in diameter, yet I’ve seen old pipes that are occluded to only an inch of free area. This is probably a good time to beg our hygienic friends not to flush baby wipes or dental floss.
Pot-Fillers. I don’t know if Elliott objects, but I always have. Imagine a young mom (or dad) filling a pot for pasta when her (or his) young child screams from the tub. Forgetting to turn off the water, the concerned parent rushes to the child’s aid, forgetting the task at hand. How valuable is the art in the apartment below?
Whirlpool tubs. Have you ever heard a jet engine in a confined space? They also sound pretty loud in the apartment next door, and in the one below, too.
I spoke to Elliott the other day and told him I was writing this, and I thanked him for all of his contributions in helping to establish best practices with regard to renovating apartments in New York City. He stands on the front lines telling people they can’t have everything they want, but in every dealing I’ve had with the man, he has been fair, consistent, and advising for the greater good. No one likes regulations that hinder their ambition, but our City is a lot better off with Elliott Glass as a standard bearer.
In September of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I received the following email from Elliott. To say I was tickled would be an understatement; and at least for an hour or three during a very dark time, I was proud.