Our Lives, Under Construction (Published 2020) (2022)

Unloved and janky, scaffolding is New York City’s other architecture, its Tinker Toy exoskeleton. It has enraged and inspired its residents, while forever altering their behavior — there are those who cleave to its shelter during bad weather, or skittishly avoid it — as they continue to rail against its persistence and ubiquity, perhaps unaware of the history behind much of it.

On a late May evening in 1979, Grace Gold, then a 17-year-old freshman at Barnard College, was walking with a friend on 115th Street when a chunk of masonry fell from the lintel of a Columbia University building and killed her. The next year, New York City adopted a law that required building facades be inspected regularly; under the law’s current incarnation, buildings over six stories must be looked over every five years. If they fail inspection, which they invariably do, aging masonry being what it is, building owners must install a sidewalk shed — what many call sidewalk scaffolding — to protect pedestrians while owners do whatever is necessary to fix the problems.

It was a good law, and it made sense to shield the public from projectiles hurtling from the sky, but many building owners opted to simply tack on a shed rather than do the more expensive facade work. Four decades later, Ms. Gold’s legacy — Local Law 11, or “The Facade Inspection and Safety Program” — accounts for about half of the city’s sidewalk scaffolding, with over 3,000 sites and nearly 900,000 feet of sheds.


Our Lives, Under Construction (Published 2020) (1)

The system sometimes works. Not always. One morning the week before Christmas, Erica L. Tishman, a 60-year-old architect and mother of three, was walking on Seventh Avenue near 49th Street when debris fell from a 17-story building and killed her. The building had been fined in April for having an unsafe facade, and again in July, while its owners challenged the city in court. On that morning in December, they had yet to put up a sidewalk shed.

An investigation by the city began; a sweep of the 1,331 additional facades cited for repairs was made a few days after the accident. And the city has dramatically revised its policies. New measures include more frequent inspections, and if repairs aren’t made, city contractors will do them and charge building owners. In addition, the city will compel bad actors to get their sheds up and down in a timely and safe manner, through stricter fines that will be ten times what they have been in the past.

The average time for having a shed in place is about a year, but there are sheds that have been up for as many as 11 years, including at the Department of Buildings’ lovely landmarked headquarters on lower Broadway, once the site of New York’s first department store, opened in 1846. “Happy Holidays NYC,” proclaimed the building department’s twitter account announcing the shed’s removal last month.

But Local Law 11 is not the only driver of sidewalk sheds. The rest surround construction sites, and, taken together with those protecting facades, the whole adds up to more than 300 miles of scaffolding, much of it in Manhattan. If you think New York City is blanketed in the stuff, you are correct: just look at the Department of Buildings’ interactive map, with each sidewalk shed represented by a blue blob.

The city is lousy with them. And life adapts under the ongoing scaffolding occupation in curious and sometimes delightful ways.


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The City’s Biggest Canvas

This past summer in Dumbo, the architect-developers of 168 Plymouth, an elegant conversion of two historic buildings, used their sidewalk shed as a planter, laying in native trees and vines that by fall had tumbled over the plywood and down to the street in a riot of umber and orange tendrils. When the work is done, the developers, whose company is called Alloy, plan to move the plants to an interior courtyard and a roof terrace.

“Dumbo is going through a lot of construction in a way that it hasn’t really seen before,” said Jared Della Valle, Alloy’s co-founder, “and we wanted to be thoughtful about something that’s never that fun. One of the things that’s surprising is how well the plants have thrived. If you thought about it on a grander scale it could be a pretty important part of our lives.”

In 2015, Zaha Hadid designed her own shed for her space-age building on the High Line, sheathing its innards, Christo-like, in whorls of silver and white fabric and topping it with a black roof. (“Allonge,” is what she called her “sculptural installation,” avoiding any reference to the lowly scaffolding shed.)

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Over the years, the city has tried to ameliorate the look and feel of what many describe as an urban scourge. Last year, a public art initiative invited cultural institutions to treat the plywood sheds as canvas; as a result, the Studio Museum in Harlem, now in the first stage of building itself a new home, will use its sheds for art. In August, ArtBridge, a nonprofit that marries emerging artists to urban spaces, installed work on four sites.

Nearly a decade ago, the city held a competition to completely rethink the much-maligned structures. The winning design, from Young-Hwan Choi, then an architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with Agencie, a Manhattan architecture and engineering firm, was a delicate white carapace with gothic arches and LED lights called Urban Umbrella. But it leaked rain on then Mayor Michael Bloomberg during a photo op, and for a long time proved too expensive to develop and deploy in this country. So Agencie took it to Canada and tested it there.

That’s when Urban Umbrella’s designers met Benjamin Krall, a 31-year-old venture capitalist interested in smart city innovations, as he put it the other day. “I got really interested in the scaffolding space,” he said, and dove in. Because Urban Umbrella is four times the cost of normal scaffolding, at first they gave it away for free. This year, Mr. Krall has 50 paying customers, and you can see Urban Umbrellas at 37 sites throughout the city, including the Ralph Lauren flagship on Madison Avenue, and the Yale Club on Vanderbilt Avenue. He hopes to “dominate in New York,” and also expand into other cities. “We closed a $3 million round of funding this month,” he said. “We’ve made scaffolding into a sexy asset class.”

Karrie Jacobs, an architecture critic, was surprised to find herself charmed. “In general when something mundane and ordinary gets redesigned to be stylish, I hate it,” she said. “But in this case I think it’s great because sidewalk sheds stink. So what if the Urban Umbrellas are a little bit froufrou?”

Some members of the Yale Club, said Kevin Lichten, the architect who is chair of the Club’s house committee, are so pleased with Urban Umbrella’s lacy armature they are asking that it be permanent. “The whole arrival sequence into the club is very important,” Mr. Lichten said. “The brides for their wedding, taking grandma to her 90th birthday party. We knew it had to look good.” The arches remind him of the Rue de Rivoli, the Parisian row of shops from the mid-1800s. “And it really does protect you from the rain which is what everyone in New York wants.”

More grimly, they do the job they were designed for. Mr. Krall said he was sick at heart at the news of Ms. Tishman’s death. “Scaffolding is an unfortunate, necessary evil,” he said. “It would have saved this woman’s life.”




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Who Lives Here?

Recently I tagged along with Max Wycisk, the 26-year-old operations analyst for the 34th Street Partnership, which oversees 24 square blocks in Midtown and Chelsea, a quarter of which is covered in sidewalk sheds. Each month, it is Mr. Wycisk’s job to organize their inspection.

He or a colleague will set out to measure the scaffolding (are there more or less linear feet, for example) and make sure that the sheds are lit properly and well-maintained. On that frigid night, he wore long underwear, jeans, a fleece vest and jacket and a watch cap as he made his rounds, nodding to the homeless across from The New Yorker Hotel on 8th Avenue, skirting puddles, trash and traffic. It took three hours — it is his habit to listen to sports podcasts as he works — but he found nothing awry, except the happy fact that more than 1,000 feet of sheds had been taken down.

Sidewalk sheds are shelter for construction workers during smoke breaks, and a destination for dog walkers during inclement weather. They are a little bit of home for the homeless; a young man in my neighborhood keeps vandals away with sign on his bedding that proclaims, “Bed bug infestation, do not touch!”

Bats sometimes roost in sidewalk sheds, as one did a few years ago on scaffolding overlooking the High Line. “It hung out there for a couple of days and moved on,” said Kaitlyn Parkins, an ecologist and bat expert. Rats, as it happens, are not shed dwellers, at least not typically, according to Matthew Combs, Ms. Parkins’ fiancé, whose Ph.D. examined how populations of urban brown rats are related to each other and tracked their movements through the city (yes, there are uptown and downtown rats). Rats need regular food and water, which a shed might provide, but they need quiet, too. They won’t make a nest in areas with high traffic, Mr. Combs said: “It’s abandoned construction sites or neglected areas within active sites, like a pile of supplies sitting idly for a month, that will draw them.”



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For her debut novel, “The Next,” the author Stephanie Gangi made her protagonist a lair in a sidewalk shed. The main character was the vengeful spirit of a woman who dedicates her afterlife to tormenting an ex-boyfriend, and lurks in the scaffolding across the street from her old apartment. “I needed her to be hiding in plain sight,” Ms. Gangi said. “I wanted her to inhabit a dangerous stretch that was also kind of intimate. With the weird black construction netting fluttering, it was the perfect home for a ghost. ” In real life, Ms. Gangi is an avowed scaffolding avoider; she’s not phobic, it’s the bottleneck of passers-by that irritates her. “We’re New Yorkers, you don’t just randomly walk. You stay in your lane. If I do get stuck under scaffolding, I direct traffic like a crazy person, ‘Stay to the right, stay to the right!’”

“People hate their fellow pedestrians in a scaffolding confinement more profoundly than they do once liberated,” said Dina Seiden, a Brooklyn-based author and comedian. “It gets very ‘Orange is the New Black’ under there.”

To Hannah Casey, a yoga teacher, scaffolding is an opportunity for athleticism. She showed me a photo of herself and Daryl K., a fashion designer, doing handstands on the scaffolding outside of Indochine a decade ago, midriffs bared. “We were outside smoking and there was the scaffolding,” she recalled. “It always makes me want to do gymnastics. If I was a pole dancer I’d really have a go at it.”


Greg Barton, an independent curator, is also a scaffolding booster. Two years ago, he organized a show about it at the Center for Architecture. He wanted to rebrand it as an experimental kit of parts, he said, instead of a necessary nuisance and eyesore. The exhibition displayed work by designers like Assemble, a British collective, that has used scaffolding to design temporary theaters or follies than can be built by novices. He included photographs of extraordinary bamboo scaffolding used in Hong Kong and Shanghai — intricate, handmade lacings that make supertalls look like ethereal baskets. He wanted to celebrate the labor that is often undervalued, he said. “Architecture with a capital A tends to privilege aesthetics over process. The immediacy and collaborative nature of scaffolding, its utility and functionality, is what appeals to me.”

“Scaffolding! A perennial topic,” Alexandra Lange, architecture critic at Curbed, wrote in an email. “I love it when building owners take the time to make their scaffolding feel like a place. Sometimes just a specific paint color or patterns can set a mood and make you feel as if someone cares about this transitional place. A full wrap with an image, purposeful graffiti, even a branded hue, it’s all better than peeling Hunter green paint.”

Toward the end of the year, the temperature dropped and my homeless neighbor hung a blanket from the scaffold brace over his bedding, shielding his camp. Down the block, the owners of Vapiano, a pasta joint, had wrapped the poles of the scaffolding outside their building with faux pine garlands and created a wall of ivy. A few blocks away, where scaffolding wrapped around the site of what had been a coffee shop, a middle-aged man had moved with his considerable collection of belongings, which included, mysteriously, a stack of broken skateboards. He put up a spindly, foot-high Christmas tree, nicely decorated. A few days later, he was gone.


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Continue reading the main story


What is NY scaffold law? ›

The New York Scaffold Law places liability on Owners, Leaseholders, and Contractors for their failure to provide proper safety equipment to construction workers performing gravity-related work in the erection, repairing or demolition of a building.

Why does NYC have so many sidewalk sheds? ›

“Sidewalk sheds are a necessity in our city to protect New Yorkers from falling construction debris and buildings that have been allowed to fall into disrepair.

Why is there scaffolding all over NYC? ›

Under the law, also known as the Facade Inspection Safety Program, property owners of buildings six stories and up are required to undergo regular inspections and maintain buildings in a “safe” condition, leading to a proliferation of scaffolding across the boroughs.

Why is scaffolding used? ›

Scaffolding is a temporary platform that is used to elevate, offer support, and provide materials during a construction process for the repairing or cleaning of a structure. It's installed prior to construction or starting of maintenance work. So, whatever the size of a building, scaffolding will always be required.

What are the 3 types of scaffolds? ›

Workers who use scaffolds can be divided into three groups:
  • Suspended Scaffolds.
  • Supported Scaffolds.
  • Aerial Lifts.

Is scaffolding a legal requirement? ›

It is a requirement of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 that unless a scaffold is assembled to a generally recognised standard configuration, such as National Access and Scaffolding Confederation (NASC) Technical Guidance TG20 for tube and fitting scaffolds or similar guidance from manufacturers' instructions for ...

How long can scaffolding be left up in NYC? ›

Kallos told Patch none should be up for more than 90 days. There's a bill in consideration currently that would enforce the 90-day rule. “With over 300 miles of scaffolding crowding City sidewalks, hurting local businesses, and ruining quality of life, the time is now to enact this reform,” he said.

What is Local law 11 NYC? ›

The NYC Facade Inspection Safety Program (FISP), also known as Local Law 11, requires NYC buildings taller than six stories to have their facades inspected and repaired every five years. The law was recently enhanced in order to protect New Yorkers from falling debris after several deadly accidents occurred.

Why is there always construction in NYC? ›

Every day, dozens of private companies cut into the asphalt to maintain their telecommunications, electricity, gas or steam networks. Coordinating those repairs, while providing pedestrians, drivers and cyclists with sound streets, is a colossal endeavor.

How long does scaffolding take to come down? ›

Overall, as an industry average, you can expect for scaffolding to be fully set up within 2 to 48 hours. However, for larger, industrial-sized projects this can be more towards a week or even more.

How long should scaffolding be up? ›

Based on the industry average, expect that your scaffolding will be completely set up in a matter of 2 to 46 hours.

What is scaffolding approach? ›

Scaffolding refers to a method where teachers offer a particular kind of support to students as they learn and develop a new concept or skill. In the instructional scaffolding model, a teacher may share new information or demonstrate how to solve a problem.

What are 4 main types of scaffolds? ›

Types of scaffolding
  • Single scaffolding. Single scaffolding stands parallel to a wall of a structure by using vertical supports called standards. ...
  • Double scaffolding. ...
  • Cantilever scaffolding. ...
  • Suspended scaffolding. ...
  • Trestle scaffolding. ...
  • Steel scaffolding. ...
  • Patented scaffolding. ...
  • Wooden and bamboo scaffolding.
11 May 2021

What can I use instead of scaffolding? ›

Access platform

This alternative to scaffolding is similar to access towers in the sense that the platform is rectangular, meaning that you can use the flat long surface to carry out your work. An access platform is particularly great for rooftop work.

What is a good example of scaffolding? ›

Scaffolding is breaking up the learning into chunks and providing a tool, or structure, with each chunk. When scaffolding reading, for example, you might preview the text and discuss key vocabulary, or chunk the text and then read and discuss as you go.

What is OSHA Standard for scaffold? ›

[29 CFR 1926.451(d)(3)(i)] All suspension scaffolds must be tied or otherwise secured to prevent them from swaying, as determined by a competent person. [29 CFR 1926.451(d)(18)] Guardrails, a personal fall-arrest system, or both must protect each employee more than 10 feet (3.1 m) above a lower level from falling.

What does it mean if a scaffold has a yellow tag? ›

Yellow - "CAUTION” tag(s), will replace all green "Safe Scaffold" tag(s) whenever the scaffold has been modified to meet work requirements, and as a result could present a hazard to the user. This tag indicates special requirements for safe use.

What grade of wood can I use for planking? ›

Specific grades of three wood species can meet OSHA's requirements for scaffold planking: Grade 180a Sitka spruce, Grade 171b Douglas fir, and Grade DI-65 southern yellow pine.

Can I refuse scaffolding on my property? ›

In most cases, you'd have to wait for them to finish up if it was essential. However, if you can prove that it is a home improvement project or simply denying you access to your land, then you can take necessary legal action to get them off your property.

Can a scaffolder work alone? ›

NOTE: scaffolders who need to use a harness should never work alone. Lone Working Fatality, major injury Lone worker 3 5 15 • Carry out planning before arriving on site. Most sites have people on them (and as long as there are people on site then the risk is vastly reduced).

Can roofers work without scaffolding? ›

As you can imagine, the answer to whether or not scaffolding is necessary is a clear yes. The only time when scaffolding isn't needed for a roofing job is when the roof can be safely accessed from inside the building, with stairs up to a flat roof for example or a low pitched roof.

Why do we have Local law 11? ›

‌Local Law 11 was designed to guarantee that potential hazards from decaying buildings be addressed and repaired right away. In recent years, FISP emerged to further enhance the overall effectiveness of the facade repair initiative and increase safety for all NYC residents.

At what height and above is fall protection required on a scaffold? ›

The standard requires employers to protect each employee on a scaffold more than 10 feet (3.1 m) above a lower level from falling to that lower level.

What is the minimum top height of an unenclosed perimeter protection wire rope cable in NYC? ›

1. The top of the toprail shall be located at a height of 39 to 45 inches (991 and 1143 mm) above the floor.

What buildings does Local law 11 apply to? ›

As a NYC homeowner, how does Local Law 11 affect me

If you live in a building of six or fewer stories, you won't have to deal with the law. It still only applies to buildings over six stories. Residents of other buildings should be aware of the inspections that will occur every five years.

How long do Local law 11 inspections take? ›

The length of time required for Local Law 11 repairs depends on a number of factors, including the findings of the inspector and the severity of any issues that are discovered. It can take anywhere from several days to several weeks or even months to complete required repairs.

What is Local law 152 NYC? ›

Local Law 152 requires the periodic inspection of gas piping systems of all buildings at least once every four years. For multifamily properties, this includes exposed gas piping outside and inside the building, in boiler rooms, in all amenity and common spaces, rooftop mechanical spaces and publicly-accessible areas.

Why does the plaza have scaffolding? ›

The scaffolding went up because the Plaza's glazed white clay bricks are being cleaned and repointed, a job expected to be finished at the end of the year. Paul Britten, who designed the banner, said the colors of the mural were chosen to match what the Plaza would look like after the face-lift.

How long can my Neighbour have scaffolding up? ›

In a nutshell as long as adequate notice is given, a neighbour can erect scaffolding on your property (and vice versa) as long as permission is given and the repairs are deemed essential.

How high can you go with scaffolding? ›

OSHA further states that scaffolds more than 125 feet in height above the base must be designed by a professional registered engineer. These scaffold height restrictions reflect the hazards and structural stress when working at such heights.

Who is responsible for scaffolding? ›

The responsibility for ensuring that the scaffolding itself is safe rests with the scaffolding company, who should also undertake regular safety checks, but it is the construction company's responsibility, and the individual user's responsibility to ensure that it is used safely.

What is Bruner's theory of scaffolding? ›

Scaffolding involves helpful, structured interaction between an adult and a child with the aim of helping the child achieve a specific goal. The purpose of the support is to allow the child to achieve higher levels of development by: Simplifying the task or idea. Motivating and encouraging the child.

What are scaffolding questions? ›

Scaffolding Questions Are Defined As Questions Which Facilitate An Analyt. View of A Passage. A Comprehension Passage is Read by the Middle Sch.

What is pedagogical scaffolding? ›

1. An instructional approach to enhancing the quality of instruction such that language learners' can more readily access and use the target language and be successful with their learning.

Why is scaffolding important in teaching? ›

They gradually take over more of a task until they can do it without the expert's support. They can then move onto more challenging learning which continues to be scaffolded by the expert. Scaffolding also enables teachers to maintain high expectations of the learner rather than simplifying the task.

Why is it important to scaffold children's learning? ›

This is where scaffolding comes in, as it allows children to solve a problem or carry out a task that is beyond their current abilities. Practitioners are there to build a bridge between a child's existing knowledge and their new knowledge. That way, children can build upon the skills they already have.

Why is scaffolding safety important? ›

Scaffolding safety is important because it can help prevent workplace incidents from recurring. With baseline scaffold requirements to keep workers safe such as better inspections, training, and controls, frontline teams can ensure scaffolding safety and be proactive about building a safety culture from the ground up.

What is scaffolding in Vygotsky theory? ›

Vygotsky coined a definition of instructional scaffolding that focused on teacher practices. He defined this as, 'the role of teachers and others in supporting the learner's development and providing support structures to get to that next stage or level' (Raymond, 2000).


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