Clay tile roofs should last a lifetime, but ECC's will cost Erie County millions to fix
Clay tile roofs are supposed to last a century or more.
But the one installed on SUNY Erie Community College's historic downtown building just 10 years ago has become such a hazard that it is now going to cost taxpayers $4 million to fix.
The county installed the curved clay tiles over part of the roof on the historic Old Post Office building in 2012 and 2013.
In 2015, one or two tiles fell off, the first warnings that the titles weren't properly installed, county officials said. In July 2018, and again in February and March of 2019, high winds exceeding 50 and 60 miles per hour led to more clay tiles breaking.
"We immediately got the scaffold up," said Kristopher Straus, senior construction project manager for the county.
Although the tiles themselves were warrantied for 75 years, it is the roof design process that failed, not the tiles, Public Works Commissioner William Geary said.
The ECC building has had more than its share of problems of late. During the December 2022 blizzard, it was plagued by water damage associated with a break in a frozen sprinkler system on the fifth floor. Damage was so extensive that the building was closed for the semester.
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Erie County is not responsible for the water damage repairs, but it is responsible for the roof.
Aside from erecting emergency scaffolding and netting to protect pedestrians from falling tiles, the county also hired New York City-based Hoffman Architects, which conducted a forensic analysis of the roof.
ECC's main City Campus building, the historic former post office on Ellicott Street, will be closed for the entire semester due to blizzard damage.
Pinpointing the problem
Using specialized equipment to mimic wind forces on multiple roof sections in the summer of 2020, the consulting firm determined the amount of wind pressure needed to loosen a clay tile. Their final report issued that December showed that the clay tiles on the south- and west-facing sides of the four-story building were loosest and likely to pose the greatest county liability.
The report further indicated that because of the height of the building, and its location, the architectural design firm the county hired for the project should not have relied on typical tile installation instructions, but instead employed a structural engineer to determine how best to fasten the tiles to the building.
Given the extraordinary wind pressures on the Old Post Office building at that height, roofers should not have been instructed to fasten the tiles with regular, smooth-shank copper nails, the report said. They should have used textured, ring-shank copper nails. Ring-shank nails more closely resemble screws, with raised, circular ridges that travel all the way down the long part of the nail.
Buffalo-based Flynn Battaglia Architects was awarded the original design contract for the building. Peter Flynn, the design principal and co-founder of the firm, said the company installed the tiles according to manufacturer and supplier specifications and that the roofing company and inspectors signed off on the installation process. Flynn also said that roofs need maintenance, and that the company has been involved in many other restoration projects involving slate and tile roofs without issue.
"I think it's an exceptional situation," he said.
It is also an expensive one.
After consulting with the County Attorney's Office, the county decided in 2019 that the seven-year statute of limitations made it unfeasible to try to hold Flynn Battaglia legally responsible for any of the roof reinstallation costs, Geary said. The roof project had been approved in 2009, with design work done in 2010. Geary added that none of the county employees who have dealt with the roof issue recently were around when the roof was originally designed.
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It took months to hire a new design firm and have the firm issue new plans and estimate costs associated with reinstalling the roof. That firm, Bell and Spina Architects, estimated the cost to reinstall the clay tiles at $2.4 million. So the county budgeted that amount and bid out the project in the fall of last year.
"To our surprise, the bids came back at three times what we had expected," Straus said.
They came in at $6 million, which the county didn't have. On regular asphalt roofs, used shingles can be scraped off and thrown away. But the expensive clay tiles have to be painstakingly removed so that the tiles – which are fragile, despite their weight – aren't damaged, and neither is the wood base to which the tiles had to be refastened. That complexity was missed when the pre-bid estimates were created.
So it was back to the drawing board.
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The county rebid the project in February, limiting the project scope to just the most trouble-prone sections of the roof, on the south and west sides of the building where protective scaffolding stands. After the bids came back and a construction contingency fund was added, the total cost was reduced to $4 million.
To cover that cost, the county scoured its old accounts for leftover money tied to community college work, dating back to 2000, and came up with $2 million. The county had also set aside nearly $2 million for the new roof in 2021, thanks to federal stimulus aid. In addition, the state will reimburse the county for half of the costs associated with ECC work.
Rehabilitative roof work is expected to begin in August, but may extend over the next two years, since work can't be done over the winter, said Natalie Tan, the county's assistant architect. While existing tile will be reused for much of the project, the soaring tower that extends far above the main entrance to the building will be clad in a new tile that is more wind resistant, she said.
Public Works officials said they haven't encountered such a costly failure during their time in the Department of Public Works. Strauss, who has held his project manager job for a decade, said the county has had other projects that required remediation, but rarely for a roof that is only 10 years old.
"I haven't experienced anything to this magnitude," he said.