in 1962, President John F. Kennedy told attendees at the grand opening of the 10-building Penn South affordable housing cooperative to "keep the faith and fight to preserve this desperately needed type of housing in the middle of a real estate boom in Manhattan."

Now, more than 50 years later, the building complex still stands, but its mechanical system is in dire need of an upgrade, a situation that a team of more than 250 contractors is working to remedy as about 4,594 residents, many of whom are over the age of 60, look on.

Over the years, leaky pipes that ruptured caused significant damage, flooding whole lines of apartments, says Brendan Keany, general manager for the Penn South complex, whose original construction had been sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

An Urgent Need

"When we went into the wall, we discovered that there was no life left on the existing pipes," Keany says. Penn South's next step was to have the pipe system evaluated, and the cooperative was told that there was an "urgent need" to replace it, he says.

Led by mechanical contractor FW Sims, Babylon, N.Y., the $88-million project involves replacing the dual-temperature pipe system at the complex, which is located from West 23rd to West 20th streets between Eighth and Ninth avenues in Manhattan.

The project, which broke ground in October 2011 and is set for completion in October 2015, includes removing the original asbestos that has insulated the pipes and installing two miles of new pipe in each of the 10 buildings.

The demolition program overlaps the installation program, says William Gillen, FW Sims senior project manager. Once the demolition of one floor is completed, pipes are installed as the demolition crew moves to the floor above, he says. "Risers feed the floor above so you need access to two floors at a time," Gillen says.

Two at a Time

Once the abatement portion is completed, FW Sims, along with its subcontractor VRH Corp. and workers from steamfitters Local 638, install the new pipes and HVAC systems. About 250 workers are on site at peak time installing pipes on two floors at a time over a two-day period.

Mechanical work is scheduled from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but a typical day last year ran from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Gillen says. The result was a low complaint rate about disruptions from occupants, he adds.

"Having the shareholders praise your work means a lot," Gillen says.

Penn South has a central cogeneration plant to produce hot water in the winter and chilled water in the summer that is then distributed to the residential units by an underground system.

The construction sequence is guided largely by the weather and keeping tenants comfortable year-round. For the project's four-year duration, mechanical work is done in the warm months from April through October and abatement during the colder months from October through March, says Michael Donadic, project manager and owner of Empire Control Abatement Inc., College Point, N.Y. The team is required to have heat and hot water on by Sept. 15.

The complex has five single-core buildings and five double-core buildings. Empire Control Abatement is preparing to remove about 11,000 to 12,000 linear sq ft of asbestos per core in two of the double-core structures, Donadic says.

When residents vacate the premises, tents are set up in individual apartments and the walls are then opened for asbestos removal. The hazardous material is broken down within the tents to protect the apartment from contamination. Once everything is cleaned up, Donadic gives notice to the cooperative and its representative, Turner + Townsend Ferzan Robbins (TTFR), New York, so that occupants can return.

The Occupation

Except for the asbestos abatement, the complex remains occupied during pipe replacement, a feat described as "unprecedented" by Robert Worsham, TTFR director. Occupants have the option to vacate their apartments and participate in Penn South-scheduled activities or to stay at home. Many, he adds, have opted for the latter.

Working in an occupied multifamily complex of this size is a major challenge for the team, Worsham says.

Gillen says that, although the roles of each contractor are different, they all have one thing in common— they're used to working on vacant buildings.