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By the time Denise Washington noticed the crack opening along the walls of her Shaw town house on Aug. 9, she had already complained three times to the workers excavating in the empty building next door about the noise they were making. But after seeing the rapidly widening fissure, she went outside once more and yelled hysterically. A worker came in, took one look, and bolted; Washington followed. Moments later, her home tumbled sideways into the pit next door.
“I ran out with the clothes on my back and nothing else,” says Washington. The president and CEO of a management-consulting firm has had to live in a hotel for the two weeks since the collapse. She doesn’t yet know if she’ll be able to salvage anything from the wreckage of her home, which has been condemned and blocked off with a chain-link fence. Her 20-year-old business no longer has an office, and she’s been struggling to replace such essential items as her driver’s license and Social Security card. And the disaster might have been worse—Washington says the foreman of the project credited her with saving the lives of the crew.
Take a walk through Shaw these days and you’ll notice construction projects everywhere—evidence of a continuing building boom. But Washington is the victim of another type of “boom”: a rash of old houses collapsing to the ground, many due to spendthrift developers’ hiring inexperienced contractors to gut old buildings while retaining their façades.
When longtime neighborhood activist Lydia Goring walks through Shaw, she notices not only the construction but also the stop-work orders, abandoned projects, and sites where buildings have collapsed. Goring isn’t a structural engineer, but she has experience in predicting the fates of neglected and improperly renovated buildings. Within a three-block radius of her M Street NW home, two houses have collapsed in the last year, and three are showing signs of imminent disaster.
“Just looking at it, you feel you’re in danger,” says Goring, in front of a house on 4th Street NW that is completely gutted, partially excavated, slightly leaning, missing its back wall, and shedding bricks from its side. On the other side of the block, she points to a decrepit red-brick townhouse with lumber propping it up inside and out. “Oh, this is gonna fall down,” she says, dismissively waving her hand.
The problems arise as developers try to squeeze profits out of properties occupied by very old buildings, some of which have façades that historic-preservation authorities say must not be changed. Goring says that sometimes developers will simply do a partial renovation, receive a stop-work order, and then neglect the building until it collapses. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), she holds, has been allowing developers to get away with such “condemnation by neglect,” as well as shoddy contracting in general. “The city can stop this,” she says.
Lennox Douglas, acting administrator of the DCRA’s Building and Land Regulation Administration, suggests that the city actually can’t. Collapses are inevitable with so much construction, he says, especially when contractors start projects with little knowledge of the structural integrity of buildings erected 100 or more years ago. But the agency doesn’t screen contractors to find out if they’re qualified to do the work; when somebody wants a permit, Douglas says, “the only thing we inspect is to ensure compliance with construction codes and zoning regulations.” The agency has a four-person illegal-construction unit that patrols the entire city, but it largely falls to the citizenry to report violations.
Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alex Padro thinks the city can do better. “Luckily, as far as I know, no one’s been killed when one of these buildings has come down,” he says. Last December, a gutted brick house at the corner of 9th and Q Streets NW overwhelmed its lumber supports, collapsing into the street and bringing much of the house next door down with it. A little government oversight, Padro says, might have prevented this collapse and others: “If the DCRA had been inspecting these construction sites where 100-plus-year-old houses are being gutted, they could have ordered the contractors to put up steel bracing to keep these buildings from coming down.”
Matthew Daw, a structural engineer with Keast & Hood, a firm that focuses on historic-preservation projects, says the gut-the-building-and-retain-the-façade approach is often derisively referred to as “façadomy.” (Daw and his firm stick to larger and higher-profile projects than the Shaw rehabs; he says that his projects have never had a collapse.) To carry out such a project properly, Daw says what’s necessary is “underpinning,” or stabilizing the foundation of neighboring buildings by removing earth from beneath the existing foundations and replacing it with concrete. Underpinning is especially important in Washington, Daw says; because of height restrictions and rules disallowing changes to historic façades, people often look underground when they want to develop.
But underpinning is a process that requires patience and “a pretty sophisticated level of expertise,” Daw says. “We get a lot of resistance from contractors who don’t care to follow our design sequence.” For one thing, you can’t underpin an entire wall all at once; Daw recommends proceeding in 4-foot segments. That increases time and costs—which means that some regular homeowners and small-time developers are driven to cut corners.
The corner house at 9th and Q is a case of a homeowner with a project that was more than he could handle. Its owner, Alejandro Soriano, spent a year trying to get the DCRA to allow him to renovate, but the building’s historic status interfered. When the party wall between his and his neighbor’s houses began to collapse, the agency relented, but then Soriano had a new problem: Because the foundation had extensive water damage, the renovation would be so dangerous that four contractors refused to try it before he found one that would.
Soriano, a 40-year-old development-bank employee with five children, bought the corner property in June 2003, enticed by the amount of space it afforded his family. His real-estate agent’s home inspector didn’t find the foundation problem at sale time, and when Soriano learned of the work it would eventually need, he was in over his head. “It was a nightmare,” he says.
Even though it was his own building that collapsed, Soriano also thinks the city is culpable. He claims that the DCRA should have condemned the building or at least warned him of how much work it needed. “As a consumer, I wasn’t protected at all,” he says.
Timothy Adeyemi, owner of the hole that sucked in Washington’s house, is a small-time developer: a pastor and a real-estate agent who owns a handful of properties in the District. He refused to comment because he has “no information” about what happened; he was out of the country during the collapse. Contractors for both Adeyemi and Soriano could not be located for comment.
But James Phillips, a 34-year-old architect who lives on the opposite side of Adeyemi from Washington, has been keeping a close watch on the work next door since it started in December. He realized soon afterward that the project wasn’t an “interior renovation,” as the building permit said, but a complete façadomy. The DCRA issued a stop-work order in February and sent him a letter indicating that he shouldn’t see any more work next door until after the agency inspected the site on Feb. 21—Presidents’ Day. Phillips notified the DCRA that it had scheduled the inspection for a federal holiday, but before he received a response, he watched as Adeyemi returned with a new contractor and peeled away the stop-work order himself. When the collapse happened, he says, workers were underpinning Washington’s wall all at once, instead of piecemeal.
Phillips’ home didn’t emerge unscathed. It now has cracked walls, a hole in the roof, flooding problems, and a weakened foundation. Like Washington, Phillips moved, with his fiancée, to a hotel after the collapse, but they returned to his house less than a week later; insurance wouldn’t cover the expense, because the danger to his home was caused by “earth movement.” (It makes no difference how the earth moved.) Rainy weather, though, has further endangered the foundation and has forced Phillips back to the hotel, at his own expense.
Phillips, who is familiar with preservation techniques himself, doesn’t think much of the way Adeyemi’s contractor handled the job. “He wasn’t protecting his neighbors,” Phillips says, noting that the required 30-day notice for underpinning work was never given. “I know how it’s supposed to be done, and they didn’t do it right.”CP