Window fix fails to keep out problems

Air conditioning retrofit at public housing site proves to be fire hazard

`It's ridiculous and it's ugly'

Architect, contractor sent back to Robinwood to find safe way to cool units

Annapolis

July 10, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Dozens of units at an Annapolis public housing complex remain in violation of the city's fire code despite a $130,000 window replacement project designed to bring the complex into compliance, a fire official said yesterday.

The problem: plywood boards installed by the Annapolis Housing Authority in recent weeks as a makeshift solution so that air conditioning units would fit the new windows at the 149-unit Robinwood community off Forest Drive.

The plywood covers the open half of the windows, which slide left to right, and keeps the other half from opening - leaving too little room for residents to escape in the event of a fire, said Capt. Leonard Clark, spokesman for the Annapolis fire marshal's office.

The housing authority is sending the architect and contractor back to find another way to retrofit the units for air conditioning, just months after installing new windows in most of the units.

"This whole project has just not been planned well, and we realize that," said Pam Kane, the housing authority's public information officer. "We are looking at other options so that air conditioning can be provided in a much safer means."

The mix-up has generated fresh criticism of the housing authority from residents and local officials who have complained about conditions at the city's 10 public housing complexes.

"It's ridiculous and it's ugly," Alderman Cynthia Carter, whose ward includes Robinwood, said of the plywood installations. "It's degrading and not only that ... [it's] unsafe and hazardous."

The new windows were installed as part of the authority's five-year plan because the old windows did not offer the amount of space required by law for escape in the event of a fire, said Kane.

But the project has been dogged by complications.

The new windows slide open horizontally, unlike the old windows, which could be pulled down to secure a typical air-conditioning unit. In March, the housing authority began notifying residents that it would install plywood boards above air conditioners to hold them in place.

Shortly after that, longtime Robinwood resident Bobbie Jean Wilkins said she presented the authority with a letter from the fire marshal pointing out that the plywood would not meet the fire code.

Alternative tried

As an alternative, the authority told residents it would install "sleeves," or casements that fit into the wall to house air conditioners, similar to those installed at the Harbour House public housing community.

But when the authority attempted to install the sleeves - which would have cost another $79,300 - contractors discovered wiring in the walls that prohibited the installation.

"We tried to make the modernization improvements and ran into unforeseen structural problems," Kane said.

Residents with new windows soon began to complain about the heat in their upstairs rooms. So the authority returned to its original plan, installing plywood in the windows to hold the air conditioners in place.

Housing Authority Executive Director P. Holden Croslan said yesterday that the authority did not know what else to do after the air conditioner sleeves proved unworkable.

"We have no choice," Croslan said. "I can't let the people not have any air when it is needed."

The fire marshal's office does not enforce the fire code at residential properties; that is done by the city's building inspectors. It was unclear yesterday whether the Robinwood situation had been brought to the building inspectors' attention.

But some residents now are worried about their safety.

"If a fire comes, how are we supposed to get out?" asked Imogene Sellman, a Robinwood resident, standing near her home Monday. "This is just as much a fire hazard as what we had before."

Other residents, including Wilkins, asked the authority to not replace their windows. Wilkins said she felt safer with her old windows, which can open on one side even when an air conditioner is installed. She also said she did not want the plywood in her windows because it looks bad.

"I did not want the plywood because it makes us look like we live in a ghetto," Wilkins said.

80% are replaced

So far, the authority has replaced about 80 percent of the windows in the community, Kane said. About one-third of the homes have air conditioners held in place by plywood, she said, and the authority is installing others.

Another development, the 84-unit Eastport Terrace community, is facing similar problems. Sliding upstairs windows were retrofitted with plywood so that air conditioners could be installed after the new windows were added in 1998. The unpainted plywood remains in most of the windows there.

Kane said the authority's architect and contractor are looking into other ways to install the sleeves for the air conditioners at Robinwood, or install central air conditioning, she said. The authority also is looking at ways to solve the problem at Eastport Terrace. Only one of the authority's 10 developments, Annapolis Gardens, has central air conditioning.

Housing Authority Commissioner Parris Lane called the Robinwood project a "waste of time, energy and money" after visiting the community Monday.

Resident Sellman says there is only one thing for the authority to do.

"We need central air," she said.

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