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December 26, 2016

WATCH: Building inspector records descent from Center City high-rise with GoPro

Jason Coleman is a structural engineer with rappelling skills

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Rope_Inspection_2.jpg O'Donnell & Naccarato/for PhillyVoice

A screen grab from a video of the rope inspection of 1500 Walnut St.

Jason Coleman’s work life takes him over the edge.

Literally over the edge.

Coleman, 40, hangs from high-rises at heights of sometimes more than 300 feet, suspended only by a rope.

As director of restoration for the Philly-based structural engineers O’Donnell & Naccarato, Coleman’s figuratively at the end of his rope on average about once a week. Mostly he rappels. Sometimes, he ascends, rarely he moves laterally, but usually he descends.

PhillyVoice got a bird’s-eye view of his work recently when he and another engineer descended the face of 1500 Walnut St., just across the street from the newsroom.

As befits an engineering Spider-Man, he took time while dangling to make notes on issues – deficiencies in engineering lingo – on a computer notepad tethered to him. Everything – he carries a bag of tools – is tethered for safety. “Zero drop,” he explained.

NoneO'Donnell & Naccarato/for PhillyVoice

A screen grab from a video of the rope inspection of 1500 Walnut St.

Using the notepad, with information about the façade already loaded, eliminates lots of paper and speeds up producing a report, he said.

As befits a guy who is part salesman, part engineer, Coleman also took time to wave at PhillyVoice’s staff while dangling in front of one the building's several cornices.

Once on the ground, he offered to share the video from the GoPro camera anchored to his climbing helmet. 

The video offers spectacular views of his work and portions of Center City, Philadelphia. The footage “offers redundancy,” allowing follow up reviews of problem areas without climbing the building all over again, Coleman explained.

For Coleman, a certified rope technician and licensed professional engineer, it’s all about having a competitive edge in the competitive field of construction.

He added the rope skills to his résumé about six years ago when his job became as much about selling as engineering.

“It was about acquiring more opportunity. Keeping up with trends,” said Coleman, a native of the Poconos who first worked for O’Donnell & Naccarato while an engineering student at Drexel University. He returned to the firm this past summer.

Demand for the work O'Donnell & Naccarato does increased in 2009 after the city passed a façade ordinance to ensure the safety of tall structures, as well as pedestrians and traffic below.

The ordinance requires a licensed professional engineer or a licensed registered architect make routine façade inspections of buildings taller than 60 feet. Older high-rises were the initial targets of the ordinance.

NoneJustin Brugler/PROVIDED PHOTO

A pair of engineers inspect 1500 Walnut Street building while descending.


Based on the documented structural issues discovered during an inspection, a maintenance and/or repair plan follows.

In many cases, rope inspections can be done more economically than the alternatives, such as suspended scaffolding – think window washers – or aerial lifts, which have reach limitations.

Coleman's rope training took about five days and was followed by an eight-hour examination by SPRAT, the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians.

Coleman, who had considered studying architecture before pursuing structural engineering, loves the Art Deco style of 1500 Walnut. He’s working on a plan to address a few problems with the limestone façade. Limestone is vulnerable to water intrusion where steel pins fasten limestone plates in place, degradation due to freezing and thawing and also erosion due to the effects of acid rain.

Some terra cotta embellishments on the building will also need work, but overall the building looked good to Coleman, who got to see it – up close.

Next month, Coleman tests to be certified as a Level 2 rope technician -- meaning he's already spent more than 1,500 hours suspended by a rope.

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