Clay tile roofs should last a lifetime, which in roofing years is between 50-75 years, according to a study performed by the National Association of Home Builders; a roof bedecking the State University of New York’s Erie Community College city campus building in downtown Buffalo is bucking that trend — at a steep cost.
According to a story in the May 25 edition of The Buffalo News, the historic Old Post Office building that is now home to SUNY’s ECC, which was reroofed just 10 years ago, has now become such a hazard that Erie County faces few options other than to rip the damaged roof off and start afresh.
The reported price tag to replace the tile on the building's south- and west-facing sides: $4 million.
The Buffalo News reported that the curved clay tiles, which the county installed in 2012 and 2013, began failing as soon as 2015, as one or two tiles dislodged before falling to the ground. It was a sign that the tiles were not installed properly, county officials acknowledged.
Three years later, in July 2018, and again toward the end of the following winter in February and March of 2019, reported high winds exceeding 50 and 60 miles per hour led to more of the clay tiles breaking and falling to the ground.
At that point, the county recognized it had a serious safety issue on its hands and erected scaffolding to ensure pedestrian safety around the building. And, considering how long clay tiles have been used in roofing — particularly because of their strength and durability —the failure wasn’t the tiles’ fault.
“It [was] the roof design process that failed, not the tiles,” Erie County Public Works Commissioner William Geary told the paper.
According to reporting, the tiles had a 75-year warranty, but the building faced problems even durably terra cotta tiles couldn’t deflect. During a December 2022 blizzard, the century-plus-old building was plagued by water damage from a break in a frozen sprinkler system on the fifth floor. Damage was so extensive that the building was closed the following semester.
“Due to the storm, we could not use the old post office building,” Dr. Adiam Tsegai, SUNY Erie Community College provost and officer-in-charge, said. “We needed to immediately try to figure out where do we relocate all the courses that were scheduled for the spring 2023 semester.”
Tsegai described in a video interview the scrambling that took place as college administrators were forced to find temporary housing for the classes, labs and other academic instruction the historic structure housed.
While Erie County was not responsible for the water damage repairs, shouldering the cost of maintaining the roof — and now its partial “re-reroofing” is the county’s burden.
Beyond the temporary scaffolding and netting to protect pedestrians from falling tiles, the county hired New York City-based Hoffman Architects to conduct a forensic analysis of the roof and uncover why the tiles failed after less than a decade.
Uncovering the Problem
During the summer of 2020, the consulting firm used equipment to mimic wind forces on multiple roof sections to determine the amount of wind pressure required to dislodge a clay tile. The firm’s final report issued that December showed tiles on the building's south- and west-facing sides were loosest and posed the greatest liability to the county.
The report also indicated that because of the height of the four-story building, and its location, the firm hired by the county for the project should not have relied on “typical” tile installation but instead should have employed a structural engineer to determine how best to fasten the tiles to the building.
The wind pressures on the Old Post Office building at that height, the report said, meant that roofers should not have used regular, smooth-shank copper nails to secure the tiles. Rather, textured, ring-shank copper nails, which more closely resemble screws — with raised, circular ridges traveling down the long part of the nail — would have been the appropriate device to secure the tiles in place.
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, told The Buffalo News that the company installed the tiles according to manufacturer and supplier specifications, and both the roofing company and inspectors signed off on the installation process.
An Expensive Blame-Game
In 2019, after consulting with the County Attorney's Office, the county decided that the seven-year statute of limitations made it unfeasible to try to hold Flynn Battaglia legally responsible for any 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 recently dealt with the roof issue were around when the roof was originally designed.
It took months for the county to hire a new design firm. 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 told reporters.
Those bids reportedly came back around $6 million, which the county hadn’t budgeted for nor had hiding in couch cushions. Unlike asphalt shingles that can be easily torn off, clay tiles must be painstakingly removed to avoid damage. That complexity was apparently missed when the pre-bid estimates were created.
For the county, it was back to square one.
The county rebid the project in February, limiting the scope to just the most trouble-prone roof sections on the south and west sides of the building. The revised bids came back, this time including a construction contingency fund, and the total amount was whittled down to $4 million.
To cover that cost, the county searched through every couch cushion it could find, in this case rummaging its old accounts for leftover money tied to community college work dating back to 2000; officials came up with $2 million.
Anticipating that the roof would need to be replaced in 2021, the county set aside nearly $2 million for the new roof from federal stimulus aid. State officials said Albany would reimburse Erie County for half the cost of the work associated with the ECC fix.
Roof work is expected to begin in August but may extend over the next two years, according to the county; Buffalo’s winters are not conducive to roofing in the winter. While existing tile will be reused for much of the project, the tower that extends above the building’s main entrance will reportedly be clad in a new, more wind-resistant tile.
Erie County officials said they hadn’t encountered such a costly failure during their time in the Department of Public Works.