(EDITOR’S NOTE: David Barth is a licensed architect and building surveyor with over 30 years’ of experience measuring and documenting building structures across the country. Barth founded The BUILDING SURVEY Corp. in 1984, a New York City-based building survey company which provides existing conditions documentation services to architects, engineers, interior designers, facilities managers, developers and many other construction industry professionals. In this article Barth shares his expertise on what homeowners should know about building surveys before beginning a renovation project.)
A NYC Renovation Planning Essential: A Professional, Pre-Construction Survey
Benjamin Franklin once said that nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes. If he was alive today he would surely add to that the ever-increasing prices of condos and co-ops in New York and other major cities. As an architect whose firm specializes in surveying and documenting existing building structures, we regularly find ourselves working in residential units that have set new records for the most expensive apartment transaction in the city of New York. Just 10 years ago, the most expensive apartment was sold for $44 million. Earlier this year, a Manhattan penthouse sold for a whopping $100 million!
The purchasers who acquire these premium units often embark on massive gut renovations, resulting in countless millions more in expenses, to design and create their own private Shangri-La in the midst of our urban oasis. Usually the project begins with the careful selection of a design architect who will deliver a world-class creation inspired by the dreams and desires of the new owner. If you are about to undertake a renovation project it’s important to be aware that before the design work can begin, an accurate set of plans must be created that depict the exact conditions of the existing unit, commonly referred to as Base Plans.
The accuracy of the base plans can set the tone for your entire project’s success because they will reveal to your design team vital existing conditions, such as maximum ceiling heights, hidden beams or columns, piping risers, exhaust shafts and ducts, existing utilities and branch lines, building services, mechanical equipment and dead spaces hidden beneath previous renovations.
You may have been provided an old set of drawings by the previous owner, realtor or building manager, however if these are inaccurate your design team can’t use them to create their construction documents, and more often than not, new plans will need to be drawn up.
Many architectural firms will perform existing conditions survey work as part of the design fee. The design team will usually send a junior staffer to perform the survey, or they will do it themselves, hoping to become more intimately involved in the project, and familiarize themselves with the particulars of the building. Other architectural firms prefer to engage a professional surveying company that performs this work on a daily basis, and whose approach often leads to far better results for a variety of reasons.
Chief among these, is the fact that a professional surveyor has the necessary experience, equipment and staff to handle any and all conditions that may arise on a given project. A convenient analogy would be the referral system in the medical profession. Although a general practitioner may be highly skilled at detecting the source of a patient’s illness and may even prescribe medications, they are more likely to refer the patient to a specialist who deals with the condition on a daily basis, since the ultimate goal is the wellbeing of the patient.
The business of design and construction is very similar, involving a team of professionals with highly specific skills on high-end projects. A lead designer will consult with structural, mechanical and acoustical engineers, lighting designers, interior designers, kitchen designers, building expeditors and code consultants to name a few – each bringing a unique set of skills and experience to a project, which would be impractical and virtually impossible for the lead design team to perform in-house.
Since the existing condition survey work will provide the foundation for your entire project, the selection of a good surveyor is one of the most important decisions your design team will make during the course of the project. A skilled surveyor is always on the lookout for hidden elements, unexpected situations and oddball conditions. A good surveyor has likely measured and documented dozens if not hundreds of similar apartments, and knows what to look for or expect in a variety of building types. Concrete buildings, steel frame, pre-war, post-war, low-rise, high-rise, brownstones and modern glass towers all have unique characteristics, and sometimes hidden conditions, specific to their type.
It’s the surveyor’s job to seek out and document these special situations so that your design team is aware of conditions that will impact the overall design budget and phasing of the work. Trusting this work to someone who spends most of their day in an office can often result in missed columns, risers and other unmovable building systems. If detected late in the project, these oversights can result in huge change orders, redesign and/or re-filing of building plans – and guess who gets the bill for those late stage revisions?
On many projects, survey work is divided into two phases.
An initial survey provides the designers with the overall scope of the unit, its physical dimensions and fairly accurate locations of structural, mechanical and piping elements. This allows the design team to hash through preliminary designs and establish the basic conceptual design, including distribution of mechanical systems and disposition of spaces.
If your renovation will involve a total gut demolition of the existing construction, a Post-Demo survey is often performed once the raw limits of the structure are revealed. A Post-Demo survey allows the team to make use of every last inch of purchased space, and also finalizes exactly what can be designed and what simply isn’t practical or cost-effective on a given project.
A professional surveyor will consider other tangential conditions in adjacent units above and below, as well as common building areas like adjacent roofs, terraces, service elevators and egress stairs, all of which play an important role during the construction process.
The design team will often be that there are no existing plans available for the unit, or that the only plan available is the marketing plan provided by the realtor, which quite often resembles a cartoon of a property rather than an accurately measured plan.
Since we deal with building superintendents, managers and engineers on a daily basis, we’re often able to locate historic construction plans of the building hidden away in the basement plan room which were not made available to the owner as part of the closing documents. Building superintendents and managers are also an excellent source of vital information about hidden pipes, structural conditions and legacy renovations performed in the building over the years, such as capped-off or hidden plumbing or gas lines, capacity of electrical services and locations of thickened slabs, where relocation of sanitary lines may be impractical or impossible, since most neighbors are unlikely to allow the penetration of their $30 million home to accommodate a new plumbing line for your relocated bathroom.
When deciding who will perform the survey work for your renovation, you also need to consider the ownership of the survey drawings. If an architect provides the existing conditions survey work in-house, and you decide to part ways with the design firm, the architect will often retain ownership of the existing conditions survey drawings as an Instrument of Service. Depending on your relationship with them, they may not be willing to transfer the base drawings to you or the new designer, resulting in the work having to be performed again by the new design team. If your project was a single family home in East Hampton, it would be unheard of for an architect to retain the services of a Land Surveyor and then retain legal possession of the survey documents for a property. An existing conditions survey for an apartment is no different. For this reason, it may be in your best interest to independently employ a professional building surveyor, and as a result, retain ownership of the base plans for your apartment.
The design team performing a renovation must consider personal liability and property insurance, before going into a building to perform an existing conditions survey. Leaving the survey work in the hands of someone inexperienced may not only result in missed structural items, but can result in damage to your property, damage to adjacent units in the building, and possible injury to staff or the general public. The last thing you want before a renovation is an amateur puncturing a water line while poking holes in sheetrock looking for a plumbing riser. We highly recommend that any probing or exploratory work be performed only by licensed contractors who have the necessary bonding and property insurance required by the building condo or co-op board rules. That way hidden elements are exposed and readily visible when the survey crew arrives.
If the apartment being renovated will be vacant at the time of the survey, then of course no one will be inconvenienced by the presence of someone poking around taking measurements, and there is less chance of damage to personal property. However if the property is occupied, whether by you or the previous seller, you’ll want someone who can get in and perform the work quickly and efficiently. An inexperienced surveyor may take a few days to get the plan drawn up and may have to come back another day to double-check measurements and re-draw missed elements. A professional survey crew can usually collect necessary data and professionally photograph the entire site in a few hours.
While there are many things to consider before beginning a renovation project, it is not often discussed who will be drawing up your plans and how long it will take. An accurate set of drawings is essential to the success of your renovation project, so we would highly recommend that you or your design team retain the services of a reputable surveyor firm, for the best results with minimal surprises down the road.
The BUILDING SURVEY Corp. crews have measured every conceivable building type, from private residences, to hotels, offices, schools, airports, hospitals, and many national historic landmarks. If you’re interested in commissioning your own pre-renovation survey, contact David Barth at The Building Survey Corp. at (212)727-7282 or firstname.lastname@example.org