Architectural Ceramics in the 21st Century

March 31, 2014

By Kristen Olson

On March 22 and 23, I had the pleasure of attending Architectural Ceramics in the 21st Century: Design & Preservation of Contemporary & Historic Architecture, a conference sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects Historic Resources Committee, the MIT Department of Architecture - Building Technology Program, and Technology & Conservation Magazine. Joining me was Berta de Miguel, Vertical Access’ New York City Branch Manager. We heard over two dozen presentations, seemingly covering every aspect of architectural ceramics history, material properties, production, modes of failure, and conservation. Speakers included architects, conservators, historians, materials scientists, engineers, manufacturers, and even a Harvard physicist!

While the main title of the conference suggests a focus on new and innovative applications for architectural ceramics, there was plenty of discussion of the material’s historical development and on approaches to preservation.

Here are some highlights and takeaways from the weekend.


Ishtar Gate, Babylon, ca. 580 BC

1. Ceramics have been used in architecture for a very long time. This image of the Ishtar Gate appeared in several of the presentations to demonstrate the astonishing durability of some ancient ceramics.


Encaustic floor tiles at Cleeve Abbey, Somerset, England, ca. 1250

2. There’s a lot more to architectural ceramics than terra cotta facades! “Architectural ceramics” encompasses roofing tile, structural terra cotta, nonstructural terra cotta cladding, floor tile, ceiling and wall tile, glazed brick, porcelain enameled surfaces, and superthick terra cotta pavers. New large-format, superthin ceramic panels are so thin that they can be installed over curved surfaces.


Coade Stone Lion, Westminster Bridge, London, 1837

3. We tend to think of the nineteenth century as the beginning of the revival of architectural terra cotta in the modern era, but Coade’s Artificial Stone Manufactory, under the ownership of Eleanor Coade, was producing a ceramic artificial stone as early as early as 1769. “Coade stone” was used for sculptures and architectural ornament, and proved to be remarkably durable.


Shepard Hall, City College of New York, designed by George B. Post, 1906

4. Terra cotta facades of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were often fraught with problems, including manufacturing defects, lack of waterproofing, poor detailing, and careless installation. The restoration of Shepard Hall at City College of New York by Robert Silman Associates and Stein White Nelligan Architects removed and replaced 65,000 pieces of deteriorated terra cotta.


Holburne Museum addition, Bath, England, designed by Eric Parry, 2011

5. Modern architectural ceramic products are of a much better quality than their counterparts of 100 years ago, and process improvements have reduced the environmental impact of their manufacture. But more information is needed about the long-term effects of different cleaning methods and coating products, and there are no published standards for terra cotta installation.


Guaranty Building, Buffalo, NY, designed by Adler & Sullivan, 1896

6. With a greater understanding of terra cotta’s materiality and how terra cotta systems perform, historic terra cotta facades are being successfully restored.


Federal Building and Post Office, Brooklyn, NY, 1891 (Mifflin Bell and William Freret) and 1933 (James Wetmore)

7. Terra cotta often masquerades as stone. The terra cotta cladding of the 1933 addition to the U.S. Post office in Brooklyn (right) was glazed to match the granite walls of the original 1891 wing (left).


Casa Batllo, Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudi, 1904

8. Architectural ceramics are also celebrated as a unique material with a natural affinity for colorful expression.


Ceramic tile mosaic at the Darb-e Imam shrine, Isfahan, Iran, ca. 1453

9. Peter Lu, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of Physics at Harvard, demonstrated that medieval Islamic architects were able to create non-repeating tile patterns with fivefold rotational symmetry – a feat not achieved by western mathematicians for another five hundred years. These patterns, created using girih tiles, were executed in ceramic tile mosaic and other media beginning in the thirteenth century.

10. Continuing on the mosaic theme were videos on the excavation of the Lod Mosaic and the construction of the Moroccan Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Guastavino tile vaults in the crypt chapel of the Church of the Intercession, designed by Bertram Goodhue, 1915

Guastavino tile vaults in the crypt chapel of the Church of the Intercession, designed by Bertram Goodhue, 1915

11. Of course, a conference on architectural ceramics wouldn’t be complete without some Guastavino! MIT Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering John Ochsendorf gave an overview of the Guastavino family’s innovations in ceramic technology and identified preservation challenges.

It was an action-packed couple of days, and we’re looking forward to the next conference in this series!


Guaranty Building and Church of the Intercession photos by Kristen Olson. All other photos via Wikimedia Commons.


The truth about New York’s scaffold law is irrefutable …

March 20, 2014

The title of this post is the opening sentence from a guest viewpoint published in the Ithaca Journal on March 14, 2014 – Scaffold Law Hurts Contractors, Economy, by Brad Walters.  It goes on to say …

A recent Cornell study exposes the ugly truth about New York’s antiquated Section 240 of the Labor Law, more commonly known as the scaffold law. The law was created in 1885 and has remained unchanged over the years, in spite of greatly improved materials, methods, safety procedures and safety equipment. The law was put into effect in the days when contractors used wooden scaffolding to build high-rise buildings in New York City. Today, no other state in the country has such a law. In fact, the Cornell study suggests there is no other law like it on the planet.

The last state in the United States to have such a law was Illinois, and lawmakers there abolished it in 1995. So what were the results when Illinois put an end to the law? A study done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Illinois from 1995 to 2006 found that construction fatalities fell from 1.7 per one hundred thousand to -2 per 100,000 workers, and construction injuries fell from 2.7 per hundred workers to -0.7 per 100 workers. That same study found that statewide construction jobs increased from roughly 220,000 annually to a high of almost 280,000 jobs. continued – download full article (pdf)

The full Cornell study is available to download here:
The Costs of Labor Law 240 on New York’s Economy and Public Infrastructure
Final Report to New York Civil Justice Institute
December 31, 2013

Exploring Beth Hamedrash Hagodol

March 11, 2014

Getting to see exclusive spaces is one of the perks of our work at Vertical Access. Last summer we were asked to join Robert Silman Associates and the New York Landmarks Conservancy to work inside a rarely-seen Lower East Side Landmark: Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, a historic synagogue and home to this country’s oldest Russian Jewish Orthodox congregation. Closed since 2007, the building has weathered storms, fire and global recession, and with a dedicated coalition of groups working for its preservation, we hope that many more people will soon be able to visit its remarkable interior.

From Baptist church to synagogue

The synagogue began its life as the Norfolk Street Baptist church in 1850, designed by an unknown architect in the prevailing Gothic Revival style. The expanding and upwardly-mobile Beth Hamedrash Hagodol congregation, founded in 1852, purchased the building in 1885 and modified it to meet the needs of Orthodox worship.

37. General view of the central nave from the east facade oculus

The congregation was unique in welcoming members from all countries at a time when New York’s Jewish synagogues typically served congregations hailing from the same town or region in Eastern Europe – a reflection of the localized settlement patterns of the city’s immigrant neighborhoods.

Historic designation

Beth Hamedrash Hagodol was designated a New York City Landmark in 1967, and noted in the designation report “especially for the services it has rendered to the many orthodox Jews from eastern European countries who migrated to the United States during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries.”

By the time it was added to the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1999, however, the synagogue had long been subject to a combination of forces that are all-too-common among houses of worship throughout this country, including an aging, dwindling congregation and decades of deferred maintenance.

Time and disaster take their toll

The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have not been kind to the 160-year-old building. A 1997 storm blew out the two-story arched window on the street façade, leaving the building open to the elements for weeks until the New York Landmarks Conservancy stepped in with a grant for temporary repairs. Then, a fire in 2001 severely damaged the roof and plaster ceiling. With only 15 or 20 active worshippers in its congregation, the synagogue was closed in 2007.

In 2012 Beth Hamedrash Hagodol’s rabbi applied for a demolition permit under the economic hardship exception, which – very rarely and in extreme cases – grants financially-strapped owners permission to demolish landmarked buildings. Following outcry from neighbors and historians, the application was withdrawn in spring of last year.

See more photos of our investigation on Bowery Boogie

Saving a cultural landmark

In a demonstration of the cultural value of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, groups including the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and the Friends of the Lower East Side have been working to raise awareness about the building and to raise funds for its stabilization.  Last summer, the New York Landmarks Conservancy sponsored an engineering study, a first step in planning a sustainable future for the synagogue.

As part of the study, our team inspected and evaluated the synagogue’s roof structure. By using Industrial Rope Access to reach the space between the ceiling and roof, we were able to document the structural system and its condition.

We are happy to report that the engineering study showed the basic structure of the building to be sound, though there is extensive water damage and most of the interior plaster will likely need replacement. Beth Hamedrash Hagodol is an irreplaceable record of New York’s Jewish immigrant history – a landmark of the Lower East Side which we hope will be preserved and revitalized. We’ll keep you updated as the story unfolds.

For more, check out ongoing coverage of the synagogue on Curbed, Bowery Boogie, and the Wall Street Journal, or read the National Register nomination .

Hanging Flume Project Receives 2014 Stephen H. Hart Award for Historic Preservation

February 17, 2014

Kent Diebolt was in Denver on the evening of February 5th to help celebrate the Stephen H. Hart Awards for Historic Preservation, honoring the Western Colorado Interperative Association, Anthony & Associates and the Bureau of Land Management for their work and leadership on the Hanging Flume project. Vertical Access has been involved since 2004.

2014 Stephen H. Hart Award – The Hanging Flume from History Colorado on Vimeo.

Removal of the Clock Hands on Fordham University’s Rose Hill Campus

February 17, 2014

by Kevin Dalton

We recently worked on an interesting project at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.  Our mission: to remove the clock hands from four clock faces on the tower of Keating Hall and one clock atop LaLande Hall in Martyrs Court.

The hands were removed and turned over to The Verdin Company so they could be restored. Once restored, the hands will be re-installed. The project was coordinated by Bob Rush with Structure Tone, Inc.

The crenellated parapet at the top of the tower on Keating had bird protection on the top of the walls so we had to lower ropes through the crenels and climb up to the clock which was about a 150’ climb from the roof of the main building below.

The clock hands were pretty big; the hour hand was a little over 6’ long and the minute hand was over 7’ long. We rigged all the hands to lower before loosening any of the nuts or bolts that connected them to the shaft.

One of the minute hands was stuck and we had a really hard time removing it. It typically took us 30-45 minutes to remove both hands on each of three out of four faces but we spent over 3 hours on the southeast face on the first day trying to remove the minute hand without success. It was a little over 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) and the wind was blowing 15 – 20 mph directly into my face so I decided to accept defeat and go get warm before moving onto another set of hands. We came back to the southeast face the next day with a specialty tool provided by Dennis Lindo from The Verdin Company and after a few minutes the hand was free.

We finished up the second day at Martyrs Court which was only about 50’ off the ground but in an area that is difficult to access with a lift. Due to icy conditions on the roof we thought it safer to toss the ropes out to the face of the building and climb up from the ground. After almost 1,000’ of vertical climbing at Keating Hall 50’ was a walk in the park.

When I arrived at the clock face I had the minute hand off in a matter of minutes but the hour hand looked like it might take hours to remove. It was completely rusted onto the shaft and wouldn’t budge. Luckily the entire mechanism is being replaced so Dennis cut the shaft from the inside with a reciprocating saw. The white part of the clock  is just a thin piece of glass (probably 1/8” thick) so we had to saw very carefully. Fortunately we were able to keep the shaft off the glass and the hand came off without incident.

The Quarterly – February 2014

February 17, 2014

Check out our February 2014 Quarterly newsletter.


It’s Time for New York to Reform the 1885 Scaffold Law

January 30, 2014

By Kent Diebolt

scaffold-law-graphicOne of the state-specific challenges of doing business in New York has to do with two little-known New York State Labor Law statutes from the late 19th Century. Described as necessary and good laws when they were passed in 1885, things have changed in the last century, particularly with the advent of mandatory Workers’ Compensation insurance and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations passed in the early 1970s.

Intended to protect construction workers and also known as NYS Labor Laws 240/241, these statutes place “absolute liability” on the contractor and building owner for injuries or fatalities resulting from a fall from height. In cases such as this, the entire onus is on the employer and no findings of liability on the part of the employee are permitted.  Liability on the part of the employer is assumed in all cases and the concept of proportionality of responsibility or use of recalcitrant worker or culpable conduct defense may not be considered by the courts and by statute, are considered irrelevant to these cases.

Findings of fault without a jury trial or damages result and judgment are made by a trial judge. However, since the defendant (employer) is de-facto guilty and cannot defend against claims, virtually all of these cases result in a guilty judgment or a settlement associated with very high costs for the insurance companies involved. Hearings for settlement amounts are made in front of a jury and since the guilty judgement has already been rendered, the awards tend to be “huge”. If they are held at all, mediation hearings essentially determine the amount of damages, since culpability has been established by statute.

At one time, all 50 states had similar legislation on their books but with the exception of New York State, these were all repealed or reformed subsequent to OSHA and worker’s compensation legislation. As a result, worker’s compensation is the sole recourse in these states unless negligence can be demonstrated on the part of the employer. Similar to the other 49 states, proposed reform of New York State’s 240/241 will not eliminate the rights of a worker to sue an employer for negligence but will allow employers to defend themselves in court. Reform would allow owners/contractors to present evidence, which is not presently allowed.

A Toxic Insurance Environment in New York State

All of this has resulted in a toxic insurance environment in New York State, with general liability and worker’s compensation premiums for companies that employ workers at height far exceeding the average rates in the rest of the country. Many insurance companies have left the New York State market because of the high frequency of successful claims, their inability to defend against claims and the severity of the rewards that result.

240/241 statures are kept in place due to political influence brought to bear primarily by labor unions and various New York State tort lawyer associations. Since a percentage of the awards are taken by the law firm, 240/241 cases represent very little risk associated with extremely high rewards to law firms trying these cases. Minor risk with very high, guaranteed returns result in a steady income stream for these law firms. Essentially, all a plaintiff’s attorney must do is establish the case as a 240/241 legal case. Historically, these cases have been broadly interpreted and are rarely turned down by the courts. Once in the courts, high rewards are all but guaranteed. Once a summary judgment is granted, interest is applied at 9% per year until the case is finally resolved.

In the last year, I have attended two excellent programs on this topic. The first was organized in March 2013 by the Greater New York Construction User Council. The second was in mid-January of this year, and was organized by the New York City Master Riggers Association, which hosted keynote speaker Tom Stebbins of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York.

Tom presented historic background on 240/241, comparisons to insurance costs in other states and an excellent overview of the current situation in Albany. LRANY has also organized an industry lobbying day in Albany, set for early February.  A link to download the presentation is provided below.

The issue of New York’s Labor Laws 240/241 is one that needs to be addressed.  It is a major reason for the high cost of construction and buildings maintenance in New York State and is significant contributor to a lack of competitiveness both between neighboring states as well as within the state.

Additional Information

The Scaffold Law and the Campaign for Reform (Tom Stebbins’ presentation, PDF download)
Scaffold Law Reform website
Contractors and Workers at Odds Over Scaffold Law, by Kirk Semple, New York Times, December 17, 2013.


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