maintenance

How Safe Is Your Deck?

May is National Deck Safety Month® and your spring maintenance checklist should include a thorough inspection of your deck and railings. It’s important to check their safety before the outdoor entertainment season begins with family gatherings and neighborhood barbecues taking place on your deck.

Deck Safety

Here are a few items to consider as you check your deck:

  • Check Connections: make sure all railing connections are secure. Anchorage points for wood railings often rot and may fail. Perform a stress test by cautiously pushing on the railing to make sure it doesn’t give at any point.
  • Stair Railings: stairs with two or more stair risers should have a railing.
  • Guardrails (railings): are required on “open-sided walking surfaces” higher than 30 inches from the ground, including decks. On single family homes, guardrails must be 36 inches high for decks (measured from the deck surface to the top of the rail) and 34 inches for stairs, measured vertically from the tread nosing.
  • Strength & Spacing: both guardrails and handrails must be able to withstand at least 200 pounds of force applied at any point and in any direction. The balusters should withstand 50 pounds of pressure exerted over a one-square-foot area. Spaces between balusters cannot exceed 4 inches to prevent children from getting their heads stuck in the openings or falling through them.
  • Benches: a bench installed around the perimeter does not serve also as a guardrail. The bench may be the required distance from the ground (36 inches), but without a guardrail behind it, which both the building code and common sense require, there is nothing to prevent someone from toppling backwards off the deck.
  • Touchup with Paint: repaint or stain the wood, if necessary (the experts suggest at least every five years). Consider using paint with slip-resistant additives for the deck and stairway riser surfaces.

With regular inspections of handrails and guardrails, you can identify and correct problems before they become an accident you could have prevented. Making sure that your deck, handrails and guardrails are safe will help to ensure the safety of all who use them from toddlers to seniors.

Related Deck Safety Resources:

  • Your Home – a Criterium Engineers article “Stairways and Decks Aren’t Safe Unless their Railings are Secure.” This document outlines building code requirements for guardrails and handrails, as well as design elements that may cause problems such as rail height and benches along the perimeter.
  • The North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA) provides tools for consumers to Check Your Deck® for the upcoming season.
    • NADRA’s Check Your Deck® consumer checklistNote: these deck safety resources are provided for consumer guidance only. Contact us to have a licensed, Professional Engineer perform a structural inspection of your deck.
Read more

Masonry Myths

masonry myths 1

Addressing the Reality

Since brick masonry exterior facades are supposed to have useful lives of 100 years or more, a prevalent myth is masonry facades are virtually maintenance free, needing little discussion by the condo board, and a rare cost item in reserve fund studies. In reality, masonry maintenance is discussed often with a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of the key issues.

Inspection and Maintenance

A condominium’s brick facade is one of its most important common elements. As such, its condition should be well-known. This can only be accomplished if it is inspected on an annual basis with full documentation including written comments, photographs, and sketches as needed. This facade report can be done by the building committee with proper training and consistent reporting protocols in place. The report should comment on the presence of structural and maintenance issues but does not have to suggest methods of repair.

Maintenance issues could include the presence of plant or vine materials on exterior walls; blocked weep holes; surface efflorescence; damaged brick; and mortar decay. Structural issues could include the presence of mortar/brick cracks >0.075 inches (2mm) in width in multiple brick units; stepped or diagonal cracking; heavy rust on window/door opening lintels; out of plane wall movement; and negative slopes on masonry sills. The scope of the exterior wall inspection should include the viewing of interior walls where water infiltration or wall staining has been reported.

Structure Matters

Equally important in a facade investigation is understanding what structure makes up the facade, as it is a myth all brick buildings are the same. Most of the old brick buildings in major cities use the exterior brick to support the interior floor framing and are thus called “bearing wall masonry.” These heavy walls were designed to prevent moisture from entering into the building’s interior spaces by the brick absorbing water in its multi-layers (wythes) of brick and drying out when the weather improved.

Over a hundred years ago, steel framing was introduced, allowing the building designer to hang the exterior facade skin using steel anchors on the perimeter of the building’s steel frame to produce more lightweight and cost-effective buildings. Today’s brick buildings use brick as a veneer in which the brick is only the first line of defense against water infiltration. The brick actually provides mechanical protection to the true water barrier, namely, sheathing behind a cavity space. This cavity acts as a drainage plane with weep holes at the bottom of the brickwork. It is also a myth to assume all brick veneer facades are the same. Brick veneers systems built before the mid-1980s did not have the robust framing members designed into today’s buildings, thus older exterior walls are subject to more flexibility from wind and other forces causing more cracking in both mortar and brick units.

Water Considerations

Many absorptive facade materials (concrete, sandstone, mortar, fired-clay masonry) can be seriously damaged by cyclical freezing and thawing of water entering the material through natural porosity or surface hairline cracks. These pockets of moisture can be trapped in facade walls whose freezing can expand, causing further cracking, spalling, or displacing adjacent masonry by a phenomenon called ice lensing. It should always be kept in mind, though, bricks can last 100 years, the sealants and caulks used around window/door openings and expansion joints only have useful lives of less than ten years and thus require replacement every ten years or so.

Another myth is all brick buildings need to have water repellant sealant applied periodically. Older buildings having load-bearing exterior walls with the original lime-based self-healing mortars typically do not need to be sealed. If a modern building with an anchored brick veneer system is deemed to need water repellant sealant, only siloxane-based products should be used to maintain breathability in the masonry wall. Never use sealants with acrylics or silicone that trap moisture in the masonry.

Therefore, the lesson to be learned about brick facade maintenance is even though masonry appears to be maintenance free, in reality, maintenance decisions should be based on knowledge and technical understanding. In older buildings, boards should seek advice from those with historic masonry experience who have worked with ‘limey’ mortars while veneer brick contractor applicants should know the advantages of re-pointing versus face grouting. With some research and planning, boards can make myth-busting maintenance decisions.

 

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media
Download a PDF Version of this Condo Media article

Read more

Building Maintenance Check List

building maintenance check list

A Proactive Approach is Best

If you are responsible for your condo or HOA’s physical condition, this is no time to relax. Planning now can pay big dividends in being able to hire a repair contractor before the spring/summer crunch arrives. With that in mind, the following list can provide a guide to issues for you to consider.

Building Maintenance Check list

  • Inspect the roofs.
    Too often, missing shingles and other storm related damage to roofs goes unnoticed during the winter. Now is the time for each roof surface to be scanned by eye, or better yet, by binoculars. Avoid going up on the roof unless it has a very low slope. Leave that to the pros. Other damage comes from removing ice dams and snow.  Snow removal can be the cause of more damage than the actual snowfall itself. Most buildings are designed to handle snow, and it is very rare that even a large storm will dump enough snow to cause damage that will seriously harm your homes’ roofs. Let the snow melt naturally with the rain and warmer temperatures.
  • Gutter, downspout, and roof drain repairs.
    Frozen gutters and downspouts can cause ice dams, but the most likely cause is building heat escaping due to poor insulation and/or inadequate venting of the air below the roof. Nonetheless, ensuring gutters run free to remove snow melt and spring rains is very important. Those condos with low-slope roofs and internal roof drains need to ensure those drains are clear of winter debris block water and causing surface ponding.
  • Ground surface drainage pathways.
    Clearing out your drains on a regular basis will ensure they are free of debris for the summer thunderstorms. April and May are notorious for high quantities of rain no matter where you live. For communities located in snowy areas of New England, the additional water from the snow runoff can equal a great stress on the community’s drainage system. Avoid the potential of blocked drainage systems by habitually cleaning them every other month. Subsurface drainage culverts need periodic cleaning to ensure the winter sanding operation and other debris runoff has not prevented the proper storm drainage.
  • If you have a basement, check your sump pump regularly to ensure its operation throughout the rainy season.
    The snow run off (or rain in warmer climates) can create an overload of moisture your sump pump may not be able to handle. Perform monthly inspections of the pump by opening the sump pit’s cover to clear any debris out of the bottom of the pit.
  • Replace snow stakes.
    It’s a common mistake to replace the snow stakes only once a year, usually at the beginning of winter. The stakes can be the first thing to be damaged after a heavy snowfall, particularly if the snowplow knocks it over!
  • Landscaping plans.  Landscaping can often take a hit during the cooler months. Recover quickly by bringing in your local specialist and discussing the various shrubs and flowers needing planting in spring.
  • Send out paint bids for summer work. The major advantage to getting your bid requests out early is the extra time and accessibility your vendors are likely to have. Outside work requests often drop during cold weather and getting a head start will ensure your association is at the top of their list during the summer rush!
  • Security enhancements. Now is the ideal time for associations to make the security enhancements they’ve been thinking about all winter. Security fencing and an alarm system are two timely projects for the post-winter months.
  • Equipment rechecks. Even if pre-winter checks have been done, halfway through the winter is a good idea to do it again. Test emergency generators, keep batteries fully charged, check outside light fixtures are operational, ensure outside utility meters and hydrants are accessible, confirm clearance for both outside vents and exhausts, and change quarterly air filters.

Of course, this list focuses mainly on operating issues. When was the last time you took a hard look at your Reserve Fund Plan for capital repairs? Is your condo on schedule? Have things changed? Does the Reserve Study need a major update? Perhaps it is time a for a building condition survey to be conducted. This top to bottom review can be performed in-house or by a professional building inspector engaged to provide an informed, unbiased assessment of the physical condition of the various common building and site elements including siding, roof surface, structural framing, foundation, water infiltration, electrical, plumbing, HVAC systems, flooring, light fixtures, paving, and more. Providing a questionnaire to the unit owners during this process not only engages them in this important work but also may reveal common defects not readily known

Many maintenance projects have a double bonus—they will improve the appearance of your association while preventing costly repairs or replacements down the road. By undertaking some maintenance tasks now, you can lessen the costs many associations rack up in the rush to recover from winter.

Building Maintenance Check List – Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media
Download a PDF Version of this Condo Media article

Read more

Why Plan a New Roof Now?

why plan a new roof now 2

Analyze Cost and Replacement Options

When was the last time you hired a contractor? When was the last time you checked construction material costs? You are in for a shock. With a shortage in skilled workers, supply chain uncertainty, and inflationary pressure on petroleum products (shingles, underlayment, etc.), just finding a contractor willing to commit to a schedule or budget will be a challenge.

Whether your community has a single roof or multiple buildings, your annual inspection by a qualified roofing consultant or engineer should provide a reasonably accurate roof surface replacement schedule. Often, a roof surface is one of the most expensive components in a building to replace. This makes the decision to resurface a roof a difficult one for building owners and managers. The temptation is to postpone the inevitable for one more year. A roof can be nursed along year after year, but this is likely to prove to be a false economy.

In the long term, it makes economic sense to replace a roof surface earlier rather than later. If the life of a roof is extended much beyond its useful life, maintenance costs are likely to increase beyond prorated replacement costs. There is also the danger water penetration (some of which may not be visible) will cause damage to the underlying structure or other building components. The reduction in insulation value of wet insulation and the resulting increases in heating and cooling costs are other factors that contribute to making roof replacement a good economic decision. Finally, the liability of a major failure must be considered.

Thus, roof problems are among the most frequent areas of concerns for condo associations. Here are a few helpful thoughts about roofs for your association:

Surface materials have been improved.

  • Shingles:  These consist of a composite base (asphalt, fiberglass, etc.) and sand wearing surface. They are relatively easy to install and moderately priced. The thickness (weight) generally defines the likely service life. In other words, a thicker shingle will last longer. The weight is given as pounds per square (100 square feet equals one square).
  • Membrane roofs: These have become the primary way to cover flat roofs within the last 20 years. Membrane roofs are typically somewhat more expensive than the other alternatives for flat roofs. However, they generally last longer and have fewer maintenance problems.
  • Metal roofs:  Metal roofs are becoming more common in northern New England. There are a variety of reasonably good products on the market. Metal roofs are used on sloped surfaces. A successful metal roof is very dependent on good workmanship. Unskilled hands installing a metal roof will almost always lead to problems.

Flashing is at least as important as the surface.

The roof is a system that includes the sheathing, underlayment, flashing, and the roof surfacing. If you are having problems with your roof, it is important to understand there are several different components involved.

The roof flashing is as often the cause of leaks as the roof surfacing. Repairing flashing requires skill. Caulking flashing leaks is not adequate. If there is a flashing problem, the only effective repair usually requires installing new flashing. That work, to be successful, must be done by someone specifically trained and experienced with flashing work.

Workmanship makes the difference.

Roof problems are more frequently the result of poor workmanship than material deficiencies. While there have been some defective roof materials, our experience inspecting thousands of buildings in New England has shown us that workmanship is more commonly the problem. When you select a roofer, you should check their references.

Five steps to a better installation.

  1. When you evaluate your existing roof, make sure you have an independent consultant. If you ask a roofer to evaluate your roof, it is very likely the conclusion will be the roof needs to be replaced very soon.
  2. When you decide to install a new roof, you should prepare a detailed set of construction documents. The documents should:
    • Define exactly how you expect things to be done, what is the scope of the project, what materials are to be used, and what is the intended schedule for completion.
    • Be very specific about the materials to be used.
    • Be very specific about how waste material is to be handled.
  3. Retain the services of a consultant to prepare the construction documents and to monitor the work while it is underway. As an association, you need someone knowledgeable about the construction industry who does not have any direct interest in your project other than serving your best interests.
  4. You should choose time proven materials. You should not experiment with untested products and/or installation techniques.
  5. You should make sure there is a three-to-five-year guarantee against problems with both material deficiencies and workmanship backed with a bond.

Roofs are expensive and disruptive to install. Diagnosing problems objectively is difficult. You should always work with a good, independent consulting engineer or roofing consultant. That person can help evaluate problems, prepare construction documents for repair or replacement, and monitor the work to be sure it is done well. Using a consultant also means that the officers of the association are less vulnerable to liability from the owners.

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media

Read more

Building Science: 101 Ventilation Best Practices

ventilation best practices

I am often asked what cold-weather planning the building committee should be considering. Surprise is expressed when I suggest the condominium’s attics and their venting. It is true an attic only needs one tenth the ventilation in the winter than in the summer to control moisture buildup and temperature, but the wintertime also has some unique issues.

  • First, if the building committee wants attics to be inspected by an engineer or contractor, it is a lot easier inspecting a cold attic than an attic on an August afternoon.
  • Secondly, if repairs are needed, it is better to prepare bid documents before the busy spring and summer construction season.
  • Finally, ice dams are caused by excessive heat loss through an inadequate attic insulation/vapor barrier. If the attic ventilation system cannot properly remove this hot air against the underside of the roof sheathing, a cycle of freezing and thawing of expanding roof ice may infiltrate through the roof surface, causing interior water damage.

There are a lot of myths about what makes good ventilation in an attic. One venting myth to dispel is the best natural ventilation is rising hot air venting solely through ridge or gable vents. This is sometimes called gravity ventilation. Tests have shown this chimney effect is negligible when compared to wind movement which has a much higher efficiency and allows for considerably smaller net venting area to be successful.

Maximizing Wind Movement

The difficulty with relying on wind movement is areas of high and low pressure will change with wind direction; thus, existing buildings are dependent on the structure’s design and orientation for determining the type and location of vents. The best designs have the outlet as high as possible, such as a ridge vent, and the inlet as low as possible such as the soffit area. To improve this airflow, air chutes are often installed during initial construction or later retrofitted. These chutes are formed plastic channels that are attached to the roof joists and are butted up to the soffit vents to act as a pathway conduit for air coming through the soffit vents. They also serve as a barrier to prevent the attic insulation from clogging the soffit vents.

Soffit vents are probably the most important of all vents as they can act as both an inlet and outlet for airflow. That is why it is imperative they be kept free of debris or other material that could clog the vents. For this reason, attic inspection should ensure the attic’s floor insulation is not currently blocking the soffit vent’s air pathway. This blockage can occur as early as the initial installation of the attic floor insulation or after the insulation is disturbed by recent attic work on the sprinkler or electrical systems found in the attic. Without soffit venting the ridge or high gable vents would draw make-up air through the ceiling instead of from outside. For this reason, the soffit vent should have at least 50 percent of the net free area (NFA). This NFA rating is stamped on vent products. A rule of thumb is that the summer ventilation requirement can be estimated by determining the volume of attic space and dividing by two, which will produce the needed cubic feet per minute (cfm) of ventilation. Local building codes often require one square foot of venting for every 300 square feet of ceiling space.

When selecting replacement vents always seek vents that will have low airflow resistance. They come in either perforated or slotted. The slotted has a reputation of resisting clogging by airborne debris. Some ridge vents come with baffles designed to draw air out due to the suction developed.

Areas of your complex with cathedral ceilings can be more difficult to inspect for proper ventilation. These areas typically do not have attics. Instead, the ceiling sheetrock and vapor barrier is installed directly to the underside of sloping cathedral roof rafters. In these cases, plastic pre-formed rafter baffles are installed between the rafters from the soffit vent all the way up to the ridge vent to form an unobstructed airway and not blocked by the insulation installed between the rafters.

Problem Indicators and Solution Alternatives

Other visible signs your attics’ ventilation is underperforming are the attic ceiling is hot to the touch; mold growth is visible on the underside of the roof sheathing; or moisture droplets are detected on the roof rafters. If attic ventilation problems persist and ridge/soffit venting cannot be improved, other ventilation options could include the installation of roof turbine vents and electric or solar powered vents. These steps will improve indoor air quality, reduce energy consumption, and extend the life of an overworked HVAC system.

In the summer, of course, the main problem from poor attic ventilation is heat. Ninety-degree weather can create temperature of over 150 degrees in an attic. Heat kills. It can kill your air conditioning budget and reduce the lifespan of an asphalt shingle roof by one half its rated life. So, if you start having cabin fever, make sure you vent.

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media

Read more

Liabilities and Risks of Ignoring Issues: An Engineer’s Perspective

Liabilities and Risks of Ignoring Issues: An Engineer’s Perspective

Repairs reserves

Question:

A recent reserve study identified a number of repairs/replacements that should be addressed in the community. However, while the reserve is being funded on a monthly basis, there isn’t enough in the current reserve fund for the repairs/replacements. With inflation and knowing that owners won’t be happy, the board decided not to increase condo fees or approve a special assessment and instead will wait to make the repairs/replacements when the money is available in the reserve fund.

Since the reserve study has indicated that these repairs/replacements should be addressed, how might the board’s decision impact our liability should one of these items fail and/or cause damage to the community or someone is injured by our failure to address the repair/replacement?

Answer:

Unfortunately, underfunded condo or Home Owners Association (HOA) reserves are a common occurrence in New England, especially in communities with buildings greater than 25 years old. Most New England states do not have specific requirements for the level of needed reserves nor even a requirement for a full reserve study. States’ HOA and condo statues do place an obligation of fiduciary duty on boards and their members. They must act in good faith and be prudent and faithful in furthering the association’s best interests. A current reserve study and a properly funded reserve fund are often key to protecting a community’s long term financial health and provide good risk management.

Commissioning a reserve study by the board is a good first step in planning for the future. Problems can arise when the reserve study reports underfunding the correction of current common asset deficiencies. In an ideal world, the board recognizes the importance of these reported deficiencies, initiates a plan to raise the needed funds, and orders repairs. But in reality, circumstances may occur when the board feels the community cannot afford an increase in assessments or will oppose a special assessment to fund the needed improvements. It is at this point the board should be aware it may be incurring significant known and unknown risks and liabilities.

Reputation and Building Risks

Some of these risks and liabilities fall in the “legal” category while others in the “quality of life” or “financial” category. That is, if a member of the community or visitor were to be harmed by tripping on an unrepaired sidewalk hazard or a broken deck component, litigation could ensue. Leaving aside the potential success of this type of litigation or the protection of board of directors by liability insurance, the long-term effect could be damage to the community’s reputation. One of the most important duties of the board is the protection of the owners’ net worth. If the community is seen by the real estate market as a dangerous or risky place to live, its future average unit sale value will be reduced. This situation will signal two red flags to potential buyers: First, it will raise doubts about the latent condition of other community assets; and second, it will underscore the significance of the underfunding and future need of special assessments or other emergency measures for future owners. These circumstances could impact the timing of future unit sales.

Most professional property managers will agree ignoring important repairs or putting off needed improvements typically will only increase the damage and costs over time. Not only will the community’s curb appeal be diminished but so will the desirability of banks providing unit loans or refinancing. Responsible communities recognize it is in their own best interests and will not kick the can down the road but face their current and future fiscal needs. Banks and real estate agents often review reserve studies to understand their investment risks. Having the need for future repairs and improvement projects is not the problem. The problem is not having a plan to carry out or fund the repairs and improvements.

Written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Senior Consultant Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media

Read more

Moisture: The Root of all Maintenance

Moisture: The Root of all Maintenance

Moisture maintenance

One of the primary issues in building science is the study of how moisture damages buildings and reduces the quality of life of its inhabitants. Moisture penetration can cause mold, rot, and interior damage. Serious moisture problems and their cure are often hard to solve as the physics of air flow, dew points, and vapor transmission can be complicated even with invasive inspections and the introduction of modern tools such as infrared scanning and moisture meters. As these more difficult problems will need a longer article to fully explore, let us focus instead on the more common problems faced by homeowner association and condo boards.

Leaking Foundations

Foundations are usually constructed with poured concrete or concrete block. Modern foundations are protected with a waterproof coating on the exterior surface and a foundation drain around the foundation perimeter at the base of the footing, often with an under-slab drainage system with an associated sump pump. With these operating properly, basements should be dry. If a modern foundation (less than 30 years old) experiences water infiltration, something is not working right and the source is probably surface water. If someone tells you it is due to rising ground water, be skeptical. Keep in mind the water table is the depth in the earth that is permanently saturated with water. According to the building code, modern foundation basement slabs are built above the water table. If the water table is too high, then the building will not have a basement but rather it will be built on a slab on grade. If you have any question about where the water table is, the municipal code officer or a local foundation excavating contractor can help.

Two-Step Approach

If your foundation is leaking, you need a two-step action plan. First, fix the wall problem allowing water to infiltrate into the basement and second, minimize surface water reaching the exterior of your foundation wall. As it will prove difficult and expensive to re-apply waterproofing to the exterior wall, the typical repair is a pressure injection of polyurethane or other type of foam product into cracks in the wall. The second step is just as important.

Surface water comes from a variety of sources. It can be rain or snow melting on the roof, rain falling on the soil near the foundation, or water from nearby sloping land. Roof gutters are supposed to divert water away from the building, but often they are the primary source of water to the ground around the foundation. Gutters are often poorly designed – either they are undersized in handling the flow of water off the roof area, do not have enough downspouts to handle the quantity of run-off water, or the gutter/downspout is broken or incorrectly placed.

If gutters are installed too low at the roof edge, steep roofs will create a velocity in the laminar flow of water to overshoot the gutter during heavy rain events. Downspouts often discharge their water near the foundation rather than diverting it away from the wall. I recommend adding a minimum six-feet extension to the end of the downspout. Furthermore, you should treat the drip edge area along the foundation wall as a ‘secondary’ roof. By this I mean, you should seal the drip edge from allowing water from the roof or other source to enter the soil near the foundation.

Keep in mind the soil has been cultivated and it absorbs water readily. Newer homes also have the problem of the soil along the foundation being backfill soil that is not compacted well, allowing easy water passage, in effect creating a short circuit from the roof to your basement. This soft soil also is susceptible to settlement, creating a place for water to pool or cause erosion allowing even more water to enter the soil.

To prevent this problem, you must first create a positive slope on the surface away from the foundation. A good rule of thumb is to create a slope dropping three inches over six feet. Once the proper slope is in place, cover it with 6 mil poly plastic approximately 18 inches wide along the foundation perimeter. This is your “secondary’ roof preventing water from entering the soil. Cover this waterproof barrier with stone or other suitable material to prevent the poly sheet from moving.

You may also have to slope the land nearby to prevent your neighbor’s land from contributing to your surface water. This can be done with shallow surface ditches called swales or buried ditches called French drains. This type of drain is a trench at the foot of a slope shedding water toward your home designed to intercept surface water from reaching your foundation wall. Buried in the trench is a perforated pipe to divert water. Your landscaper or property manager can provide details on available options. With a logical plan, you can have the dry basement you deserve.

Read more

Hidden Structural Flaws

Like people, no two condos are the same. Establishing methods of managing all types of condos by the same rules and standards is fruitless. A 40-year-old high-rise condo on the beach in York County needs a different maintenance plan than a community of new wood-framed duplexes in Franklin County. Following the collapse of the Champion Towers in Surfside, Florida, state legislators and condo industry leaders across the country have been scrutinizing past best practices of condo capital repairs with mixed results. As an example, earlier this year Florida signed into law the “Florida Condo Safety Act.”

This well-intentioned Florida legislation will require structural inspections by licensed engineers of all 25-plus-year-old condo buildings of at least three stories and within three miles of the coast as well as 30-plus-year-old buildings everywhere else. The law also will require all condos to have enough money in their reserves by 2025 to maintain these buildings’ structural integrity. At first thought one might think, “what’s wrong with that?” The problem is 2 million Floridians live in these 30-plus-year-old buildings, and Florida has 1.5 million condo units and 28,000 community associations. Where will these condo boards find the engineers or architects needed to fulfill the law’s goals? Needless to say, changes will need to be made in the next Florida legislative session.

Finding & Diagnosing Flaws

So how can Missouri condos avoid Florida’s dilemma? Missouri’s condo inventory is beginning to age. Older buildings can hide their structural flaws, which only can be revealed by looking for them. Whether it is water infiltration, spalling concrete, crumbling brick, or cracking wood, it is only a matter of time for some of Missouri’s aging condos to need similar inspections and repair. The villain in most façade or structural frame failure mysteries is typically water. It causes corrosion, erosion, internal leaking, paint peeling, rot, settlement, and a host of other building woes. If your building has concrete elements suffering from spalling or cracking it might be due to the reinforcing steel in the concrete becoming heavily corroded due to water penetrating the surface. Ordinary rust scale expands with incredible force per square inch when confined, think bulldozer power.

Many absorptive façade materials (concrete, sandstone, mortar, fired-clay masonry) can be seriously damaged by cyclical freezing and thawing of water entering the material through natural porosity or surface hairline cracks. These pockets of moisture can become trapped in façade walls whose freezing can expand causing further cracking, spalling, or displacing adjacent masonry by a phenomenon called ice lensing.

This spalling can create dramatic loss of structural integrity to parapet walls, retaining walls, and cantilevering decks, not to mention the safety hazards from falling façade components. Complicating the diagnosis problems and the repair solutions is that spalling concrete can be caused by other forces other than water. Similar concrete failures can manifest themselves by compression, tension, or vibration overloading.

Materials Matter

Equally important in a façade or frame investigation is understanding what materials make up these structural elements, as looks can be deceiving. Most of the old brick buildings in major cities use the exterior brick to support the interior floor framing and are thus called “bearing wall masonry.” These heavy walls were designed to prevent moisture from entering into the building’s interior spaces by the brick absorbing water in its multi-layers of brick and drying out when the weather improved. Over a hundred years ago, steel framing was introduced, allowing the building designer to hang the exterior façade skin on the perimeter of the frame to produce more lightweight and cost-effective buildings. Today’s brick building uses brick as a veneer in which the brick is only the first line of defense against water infiltration. The brick actually shields the true water barrier sheathing behind a cavity space. This cavity acts as a drainage channel with weep holes at the bottom of the brickwork.

Similarly, many older buildings are covered with a stucco façade surface, which is a cement parge coating over a steel lattice similar to plaster placed onto wood lathe strips. Modern buildings use an exterior insulation finishing system (EIFS) seen on many condominium and retail building exteriors. An EIFS façade depends on interior drainage surfaces and is totally different in repair methods than stucco.

Investigative Techniques

In addition to judging the cause of the façade problem, it is important to determine its seriousness and whether immediate repair steps are necessary or whether it is not an “active” problem that can be set aside to allow other more pressing issues requiring capital outlays from the reserve fund.

To address these questions, there are a variety of invasive and non-invasive techniques to investigate the problem. If the concern is corroding imbedded steel, there are firms providing chloride ion content testing of concrete or mortar to gather quantitative evidence of corrosion potential. Simple stain gages can be placed over cracks to detect active movement. Infrared thermography can discover unseen façade connection failures, delaminations, or thermal “short circuits” due to wet insulation. There are a variety of water moisture content meters available at building supply stores and woodworker hobby shops that can accurately detect and measure moisture in a variety of materials including wood, drywall, and concrete.

So the good news is there is plenty an observant building committee or property manager can do to prevent small structural problems from growing into something major.

Read more

5 Ways to Prevent Water Pipes From Breaking

5 Ways To Prevent Water Pipes From Breaking

Ice forming inside of pipes often is not the cause for pipes breaking.  Rather, water pipes typically break when an ice blockage occurs and the freezing and expansion causes an increase in pressure between the ice blockage and a closed faucet downstream of the blockage.  Pipes that are protected by heat or insulation are typically safe, while pipes in crawlspaces, attics, and outside walls are vulnerable to freezing.  Extremely cold weather and holes in the exterior for things such as telephone wire, cable, gas lines, etc. can allow cold air to come in contact with water pipes.   

  1. The water in pipes freeze when heat is transferred to subfreezing air.  Cracks and holes in outside walls near water pipes should be sealed with caulk to keep cold air away from the pipes.   
  2. Kitchen and bath cabinets can prevent heat from reaching the pipes.  It is a good idea to keep the cabinet doors open during a cold spell to let warm air circulate around the pipes.   
  3. Letting a faucet drip during extreme cold weather can help reduce the risk of a pipe freezing.  Pipes can still freeze with running water but by opening the faucet, pressure is relieved between an ice blockage and the faucet.  Even if the pipe freezes the risk of pipes bursting is reduced.   
  4. With exterior piping the best solution may be to have a plumber re-route piping to better protect the piping.  Other options include using electric heating tapes and cables which can be applied to the pipes to keep the water inside from freezing.  Pipe insulation can also be installed to slow the transfer of heat and better protect the pipe.   
  5. When away from the house be careful how low you set the temperature in the house.  Consider draining the water system during extreme weather if leaving the house or during a power outage with no heat source.  Turn off the main water valve and open all the fixtures in the house until the water stops running.   

If you open a faucet and no water comes out you should call a plumber.  If a water pipe bursts turn off the water at an isolation valve or at the main shut off valve usually located where the main enters the house.  Leave the faucet open until repairs are complete.  You may be able to thaw a pipe using handheld hair dryer.  With the faucet open begin heating near the faucet and work upstream on the pipe.   

Read more

Your Roof: 8 Things to Consider!

Your Roof: 8 Things to Consider!

Image result for roof picture
If your house, condominium or commercial office building is like most built in the last 50 years, it probably has a sloped roof with one of the following roofing materials:
  • composition shingles
  • composite tile
  • cement or clay tile
  • wood shingles
  • metal roofing

Each type of roofing has its unique characteristics. However, there are also some common considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Life – The actual service life of a roof varies according to the location and exposure to sun and weather. You should not assume that the age determines its condition.
  2. Leaks – These are not usually the result of the roofing itself failing. Leaks usually occur due to the failure or improper installation of some related component such as flashing or underlayment.
  3. Resurfacing – When resurfacing a roof, you should strip the existing material to the sheathing to allow for a visual inspection of the sheathing, and replacement of all of the related components.
  4. Stains – If you have dark stains on a composition roof, it is probably mold. Diluted chlorine cleaners and products such as Shingle Shield are effective at removing the growth. New shingles are more fungus-resistant than some of those manufactured in the 1980s and ‘90s.
  5. Trees – Cut back overhanging tree limbs. They can wear a hole in your roof from the wind blowing through the trees.
  6. Gutters – If you have gutters, keep them clean. Gutters full of debris are far worse than no gutters. Debris encourages fungus, which can infect the roof sheathing. Rot and mold are the result.
  7. Wood – If you have wood shingles, make sure that they are treated for fire resistance and that the treatment is kept current.
  8. Clean – Keep your it clean, especially the details around skylights, dormers and valleys, and take note of any change in shape – this is where leaks start.

Your roof has an important job to do—to keep you dry in all kinds of weather. If you take care of it, you will get the most reliable protection and longest life.

Read more