Rappelling architects inspect skyscrapers from the outside

On a chilly Thursday morning in early December, Amy Deluca and Elyse Marks summit a 40-story high-rise on the East Side of Manhattan to meet a team of riggers securing many hundreds of feet of rope around seemingly anything solid on the building's icy roof before sending the rigging, and these two climbers, over the side and down to 53rd Street below.

"The only building that I was a little nervous [to rappel from] the night before was the Empire State Building," Deluca said, "because it was so much higher than any of the other buildings I'd been on."

Building envelope specialists, Deluca and Marks hang from this city's many skyscrapers, completing mandatory local law inspections looking for building deficiencies.

"Broken brick, broken stone, spalled stone," Marks said.

"We have a building stock here, much of which is now approaching or over 100 years old," Consulting Associates of New York Principal Jarrett Huddleston said. 

Deluca and Marks' boss, Huddleston pioneered this system in this city. "The first time I did rope access was actually on the Guggenheim museum probably 25 years ago," he said.

Huddleston estimates he's descended from more than 1,000 buildings since. He still rappels today.

"I actually am on-rope with him a lot," Marks said.

"I've been riding hanging scaffolds, suspended scaffolds, to look at work for my entire career—longer than 25 years—and I'd much rather be on the ropes," Huddleston said.

But while Huddleston's seen the equipment improve and the training grow more rigorous, the dearth of women on ropes hasn't changed.

"In the beginning, it was kind of intimidating," Marks said.

CANY employs an equal number of male and female climbers, but most companies in this field do not, making Deluca and Marks in their early 30s, their four combined architecture and historic preservation degrees and this morning's roped and harnessed journey down to earth something of industry outliers.

"[One time] I was just descending and I didn't have my hair secured back and it got caught up in one of my mechanisms," Marks said.

While all parties stress the safety of this system of rooftop ropes, all also devote much time, thought and money to preparation. Because things can go wrong.

"I just cut my hair and left it," Marks said.

And yet, Deluca and Marks completed their Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians certification in just one week. And Elyse rappelled from her first 20-story building a week later. "A good starter building," she said, "and then they went up from there."

"Pre-1920: Those are interesting in a beautiful way," Deluca said. "But the newer buildings, 50s-70s: Those are interesting in kind of an awful way."

Every building, especially a historic one, offers a different challenge.

"When you have to go fix something that nobody's laid eyes on in 100 years," Marks said, "it can be quite difficult."

"Usually doesn't match what was on the drawings if you have the historic drawings," Deluca said.

Weather conditions can also complicate this work. "I've done inspections in January when it's 10 degrees," Marks said.

But Deluca, Marks and Huddleston all emphasize the importance of finding and repairing deteriorating sections of brick, stone or terracotta before they tumble onto some lower building, vehicle or passer-by; the access provided—in many cases, only—by a hanging rope; the value of inspecting their projects themselves; and the enjoyment they derive from this perspective, the rush of adrenaline and the dangling hundreds of feet above the city below.