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Design

Scaffolding as Status Symbol? One Company Has High Hopes.

Construction scaffolding represents a billion-dollar industry in NYC, and an omnipresent eyesore. Will building owners pay more for an upscale alternative?

The Urban Umbrella promises to be an less unsightly way to protect sidewalk users from rain and falling debris.  

The Urban Umbrella promises to be an less unsightly way to protect sidewalk users from rain and falling debris.  

Photo: Courtesy Urban Umbrella

In the first season of the HBO docu-series “How To With John Wilson,” the charmingly deadpan protagonist aims his camera at the ubiquitous green construction sheds that cling to almost 350 miles of sidewalks in New York City. “This is called scaffolding,” Wilson says in voice-over, before leading viewers on a meandering tour through these semi-permanent fixtures of city life. “Almost everywhere you look in Manhattan you are guaranteed to see some form of it.” 

As Wilson explains, sidewalk sheds have been a mandated safety feature in New York City for decades: After a woman was killed by debris falling from a building in 1979, the city ruled that building facades needed to be physically inspected every five years, which requires erecting protective sidewalk enclosures; another recent tragedy has led to even stricter maintenance regulations. Scaffolding lifts construction workers and sheds shield pedestrians below. But once it goes up, there’s little to ensure anyone takes it down. The average duration of scaffolding on a New York City building is currently 268 days. In extreme cases, scaffolding can linger for upwards of a decade, to the frustration of many New Yorkers.