Features Management

Construction in the Age of Contaminant Worries

Performing renovations in New York City poses many challenges. In addition to the congestion, lack of parking, lack of places to drop a dumpster, elevator access issues, etc., there is a new concern: our heightened fear of contaminants and things that could make us sick.

The post-pandemic world seems to have created a heightened fear of anything in one’s living space that could have adverse health effects. The reasons range from the obvious — people working remotely and spending even more time trapped in their homes — to the most obscure, such as buildings requiring visitors to spray their feet with disinfectant before they enter (as if that will prevent the spread of COVID-19).

There are several reasons why this topic should be discussed, and it can benefit all to outline the possible issues and the standards of care that can be employed to prevent spreading contaminants. First and foremost, we all live on top of each other. The close proximity of living and workspaces in any densely populated urban area poses issues for those sensitive to pollutants and contaminants. I have consulted in buildings where families with infants and small children are dealing with cigarette and marijuana odors coming out of their HVAC units at night and in buildings where cooking odors were so pervasive in neighboring units that residents were forced to evacuate.

In addition, due to the age of many of structures in New York City, there is potential for contaminants in building materials and methods of the past, with lead, asbestos, vermiculite and mold the most prevalent. Add in new manufacturing methods and the engineering of natural materials that would be best left alone, and you end up with newer contaminants and pollutants, such as formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds. A new issue arises from constructing properties so air-tight that they no longer breathe, leading to lack of airflow and condensation issues, which in turn lead to mold and indoor air-quality issues.

In short, we could all move to a log cabin in Montana, but then we’d miss out on all the beauty and excitement of living in a major metropolis with all the amenities, culture, dining, museums, theaters and events.

But all is not lost; there are solutions and preventative tips that can help us live in harmony with our numerous neighbors. The trick is to know and understand what possible issues may arise and how to prevent them before taking on a project. In our industry, we have Toolbox Safety Talks at the outset of a work shift. In these talks, we discuss the site hazards that may exist on the work that is outlined for that area on that day and the safety protocols and protective actions and equipment that will be deployed to minimize the risk from those dangers. Similarly, if a major repair project requiring plans and permits is undertaken, the process of filing an ACP5 (asbestos abatement form) involves hiring an environmental consultant who reviews the work plan and tests the materials that are slated to be disturbed so that they can dictate in advance the needed safety or abatement protocols.

Thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency, virtually every contractor in the Unites States has received Lead Renovation Repair and Painting training, which teaches them to test painted surfaces before disturbing them and provides the right protocols if lead paint is present.

Beyond the required legal aspects involved with construction in populated spaces, I will assume that we are all responsible neighbors who would never want to harm their cohabitants. The following are some best practices that could eliminate damage or discomfort to your neighbors and allow us to live in harmony — or at least prevent disputes or legal action.

Work Plan
Knowing what you want to do before you start out is key to a positive outcome. All construction/renovation projects end up changing along the way, but without a starting point, you can’t properly plan for things that may disturb or inconvenience others. Some buildings require you to fill out an Alteration Agreement, which helps you to put the plan into a format that can help your neighbors understand how things may affect them. I have made it a personal practice to drop a note along with flowers to my neighbors directly above/below/beside me before undergoing any major renovation. It has not always been well-received, but no one could accuse me of not warning them.

Responsible Demolition
This is a best-practice we have used for a long time, and I am encouraged to see that some buildings in NYC now actually require it. Demolition should always be done under negative pressure. This means the work area is placed in a vacuum by containing the work area with critical (poly) barriers and exhausting air out of a window through a manifold; that air is also HEPA-filtered. In the restoration business, we draw a distinction between a “post-construction cleanup,” which is elective and due to your own construction work, and “construction dust damage,” which occurs when your neighbor’s construction results in dust all over your place. The negative pressure process is the most effective in preventing dust damage in your neighbor’s space.

Unfortunately, this process is not perfect; it can still happen, especially in older buildings. But if your neighbor is forewarned and you can demonstrate that you have taken the best possible protective measures, you will be much better off than if you had not taken these precautions. Some other tips on responsible demolition are as follows: wetting down surfaces to minimize dust during demo, bagging debris rather than just filling containers/bins and, most importantly, thoroughly vacuuming the area after demo and before the next phase. Ironically, people don’t think to clean up on a construction site because they plan to make more dust later, but minimizing jobsite dust is the key to protecting your neighbors.

Once the demo is done, you are not yet out of the woods; other key times in construction will give off dust and off-gas odors that should be managed responsibly. When floors, plaster or joint compound are sanded, and when applying finishes such as paint or polyurethane, the odor from solvents off-gassing can linger for at least 24 to 48 hours. The containment/negative pressure set-up described above should be employed. Another time to consider negative pressure or, at least, venting the space, is when materials such as recently manufactured flooring, cabinetry or furniture are delivered. Newly manufactured materials can emit formaldehyde as they cure.

To be considerate to your neighbors, it is important to understand the ways in which your work can affect them: dust damage, which may or may not include some levels of contaminants; migrating odors and gasses from solvents and manufacturing processes; noise pollution; vibrations; additional traffic and noise from construction workers and parking concerns.

Maybe that log cabin in Montana is sounding better now.