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General Manager Q&A: Building Supers, Engineers, & Community Managers

Serina Brancato, PMP, CMCA®

General Manager

Associa Chicagoland

Can you explore and explain the duties and skill sets of a building/HOA superintendent or equivalent?

The Chief Engineer (CE) is responsible for making a maintenance and janitorial staff schedule for department employees. The CE works closely with the property manager to develop a daily task log for their department, including cleaning, monitoring deliveries, and inspecting building components. The CE supervises the maintenance and janitorial staff and must confirm the team is following through with their assigned duties. They must have a deep understanding of the building’s mechanicals, including boilers, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, and more.

Although third-party contractors perform most significant repair work, the CE is responsible for preventative maintenance, such as filter replacement, belts, ballasts, bearings, minor electrical, replacing plumbing valves, rodding drains, changing locks, and a myriad of other internal component repairs. Providing initial guidance to the vendor to help them minimize the amount of time investigating and diagnosing the problem, they’re an integral part of the repair process.

By the time the vendor is called, the CE typically clearly comprehends the issue at hand. This adds extra cost savings to the association by ensuring they complete only needed and requested work, while limiting time spent on a task. Aside from having the proper mechanical and facility expertise and the ability to multi-task and shift focus at a given notice, a good CE pays attention to details and is a strong leader and patient teacher.

What (if any) formal qualifications do supers/building engineers need, and do those change from region to region?

In downtown Chicago, most high-rise condominiums are affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, which is a janitorial union. To obtain CE status, the candidate takes classes starting with janitorial training. They move through a series of classes earning additional certificates focusing on specific mechanicals: electrical, plumbing, HVAC, pool maintenance, and more to learn how to perform basic preventative maintenance and repairs on these components.

In many properties, the CE and their staff are allowed to perform in-unit work orders for these same basic repairs, which provides residents immediate access to maintenance and repairs, often at a lesser cost.

Some larger and multi-use properties use a Local 399 engineer whose training focuses more on commercial equipment. These engineers are often used for commercial facilities like schools, healthcare buildings, and high-rise offices. Their training is more extensive and includes a detailed focus on specifics like pipefitting, domestic boiler maintenance, and motor replacement, among others. Some high-rises in Chicago use a 399 CE with a Local 1 maintenance and janitorial staff.

Where does the super sit in the chain of command in a building or HOA?

The CE reports to the property manager. They work directly with the manager, but the CE is also managed at a higher level by the board of directors. The property manager typically writes the job description and hires and assigns daily tasks to the CE; however, it isn’t uncommon for the board to also interview CE applicants. They’ll want to confirm the candidate understands the board’s needs and has the necessary expertise.

How do supers' duties differ between urban high-rise communities vs. suburban ones?

Vertical living presents a unique set of challenges and responsibilities. Multi-unit buildings and multi-unit high-rises are mechanically different. Suburban layouts often include homes over acres, which introduces the need for groundskeeping and snow removal and a greater emphasis on curb appeal. Suburban communities with single-family homes, row homes, or townhome associations often have individual mechanicals (i.e., a standard furnace and air conditioning unit, separate plumbing directly from the city, and individually metered utilities). In contrast, high-rises are equipped with domestic hot water boilers that regulate water flow to all units, electricity is fed directly from building transformers, and the HVAC is controlled by the building.

With the exception of some newer developments, a majority of Chicago high-rises are “2-pipe” systems, meaning one supply line and one return line service each tier of units. Only hot or cold can run through these pipes at any time, forcing the building to control whether heat or air conditioning is available to all residents. This is a challenge with Chicago’s inclement weather, especially in late spring and fall.

Building engineers with solid plumbing and HVAC mechanical knowledge would better serve the metropolitan high-rise residential properties. An engineer with similar experience in landscaping maintenance, irrigation, and downspout repair might excel in a suburban community with stand-alone townhomes.

Another relevant consideration is the expectation differential. In my experience, high-end, high-rise communities with hefty monthly assessments have a resident base with a higher demand for immediate resolution.

Many of those buildings with 300+ units have 24/7 maintenance staff. It’s common for the CE to reside in the building, so they’re immediately available to address any mechanical issues. This adds pressure on the engineer and maintenance team to perform work orders quickly with minimal disruption to residents.

What are the ethics and potential problems with having one's super do repairs or other personal work for residents during working hours?

It’s not advised to have association staff perform work outside of the building’s predetermined “work order” policy. Although many residents prefer having the CE or maintenance staff perform in-unit work for tips, it inevitably poses a risk to the association. There’s an understood and accepted liability when having staff perform work orders under the guise of the association. Doing so outside of the parameters set forth by the association exposes the association to potential insurance claims if residents aren’t happy with the outcome of the work.

How common is union membership among supers, and how does that impact their relationship with their employers?

In Chicago proper, most of the larger high-rise condominiums are union members. It’s more common to see all-union staff if the CE is in the union. This makes it consistent with the association’s implementation of Collective Bargaining Agreements. It’s critical for the property manager and CE to have a good working relationship; this team effort gives the board confidence and reassurance that the integrity of the property is preserved.

Discuss the importance of continuing education for supers, and the resources available in our various markets to help keep them up-to-date and informed.

Our CE completes eight hours of continuing education each year, so they remain current on any city code changes, pool regulations administered by the health department, and fire safety regulations. The filter-down effect is also beneficial, as the CE can relay this updated training to their staff. Local 1 provides several CE classes for its members at no cost. In addition, the association can provide non-job-specific training to help their CE grow and excel in some residual parts of the job.

Any real-life examples?

In addition to our 34-story high-rise, we have 82 townhomes and a seven-story mid-rise building on our property, all managed by the same staff. Our CE must have a deep understanding of all components of these very different structures. My current CE and I have worked together for 15 years, seven of them at our current site.

Our success is built on the good working relationship we have with each other. He knows exactly how I operate and what’s most important to our board. I trust his judgment and ability, and we both aim to make decisions with the association's best interest in mind. He knows what details to share with me, so I’m fully prepared to make the most cost-effective decision, and I know when to give him space to work through something versus when to jump in and support his team. In particular, we work together very well when facing a challenge.

The mid-rise building we manage is currently experiencing chimney smoke infiltration through the rooftop air handler intake. Construction of a new building directly across the street surpassed the eighth story, changing the wind pattern surrounding our rooftop. Our HVAC firm relocated the intake, but it hasn’t completely solved the issue. We’re currently running a series of comparison studies by asking unit owners to use their fireplace during stagnant wind outside versus days with higher wind flows.

We’re documenting the results so I can prepare and deliver our findings and recommendations at the upcoming board meeting. A less experienced CE may not make as much effort to determine the cause, and simply farm it out to vendors. Ensuring the CE and property manager are on the same page is paramount to the association’s success.