Here in the English Cotswolds, where my wife, my daughter and I have spent the weekend, ancient villages consist of two and three story buildings built from rough cut local stone. The stones, hewn into squares and rectangles of various sizes, adjoin each other so tightly and variously that there is barely room for the mortar which adheres them. The roofs are gabled but low, made of slate shingles; the buildings seem as eternal as the rolling sheep-dotted fields which surround them.
In New York City these days, scaffolding abounds. It seems that half the buildings in Manhattan are busy with Local Law 11 work (which provides that, at least once every five years, buildings of over six floors in height shall have their “exterior walls and appurtenances thereto” inspected for safety and structural soundness by an architect or engineer, and that any necessary repairs then be made), and that work seems deeper, more time consuming, and more costly in each iteration. So the whole question of construction, of what works and what doesn’t, is much on my mind.
For better or worse, limestone and brick are porous materials. And while the two story, low-roofed stone Cotswolds house provides an excellent barrier against wind and rain, the twenty or thirty story, flat-roofed brick apartment building does not. Exposed to a force of weather unknown to the lower buildings here in England or even, for the most part, in London, these New York behemoths have multiple moisture entry sites: lintels, tarmac rooftops, and the aging brick and mortar on the upper floors, especially on the upper north corners where the wind is most fierce. In spite of the expertise and best efforts of our engineers, leaks and loosening masonry are simply a reality inherent in the size and materials of our housing stock.
Scaffolding isn’t pretty, and the recurring expense of it kicks up maintenance, common charges, and rents. Here in the south of England homes have stood, more or less impermeable, for centuries. But the verticality of our city, and the building materials which make those dizzying heights possible, are not so dense and indestructible. So as we look around at the rigs and netting that drape the scaffolding our city, let’s acknowledge that they are probably here to stay. This is the price we pay for what, and how, we build.