Property Management

Foundation Forensics

Crack in a foundationCracks in foundations are by far the most common structural complaint raised in either reserve fund studies or transition studies.   They can occur in the youngest or newest condo building. As condo documents usually assign the maintenance responsibility of their repair to the association, board members and property managers take them very seriously.  Missouri condo buildings have many types of foundations including concrete block; brick; and mortared stone with the most common being poured concrete.

Most basements and garages have 4 to 6 inch concrete slabs and unless this is a slab-on-grade foundation, the slabs were poured independently of the foundation walls.  They are said to be ‘floating’.  Often the construction joint between the slab and wall can easily be seen.  The common slab crack complaint is hairline cracks appearing in spider web-like patterns.  These cracks can show up shortly after construction and are normally caused by shrinkage during the curing process.  The key point here is this type of slab cracking is rarely a structural problem, for after all, the slab could be completely removed leaving a dirt floor while the foundation walls and columns with footings will easily maintain a stable building.

Therefore, slab cracking is often more of a cosmetic problem.  Cracks are often repaired with a variety of grout, caulk, or epoxy products primarily to prevent groundwater penetration, insect entry, or radon gas infiltration.  Cracks showing differential movement on opposing surfaces can be a tripping hazard but more importantly an indication of serious sub-surface conditions needing further investigation.

Regarding foundation walls, the most typical problem with concrete walls are vertical hairline cracks, often starting at the top of the wall and traveling down to the floor slab.  A sub-set of these types of cracks are those that propagate often in a diagonal direction from stress concentration points such as the bottom corners of basement window openings.  The key point to remember is these types of cracks, even when they penetrate the entire thickness of the wall, normally do not constitute a structural problem as the loads from above pass unobstructed on both sides of the crack to the footings below.

However, when the wall surfaces on both sides of the crack are moving out of plane or the structure above shows stress in the form of movement or cracking sheetrock walls and ceilings above, further structural evaluation is warranted.  Foundation cracks should be sealed if periodic water infiltration occurs.  Repairing cracks from the outside if often the best method, but due to the excavation costs involved, repairing the crack from the interior by injecting a crack filling material has become a routine solution.

When horizontal wall cracks; multiple closely spaced vertical cracks; or large diagonal cracks in basement corners are observed, these conditions may indicate more serious problems related to settlement or other structural problems.  Similarly, a single vertical crack that is much wider at the top of the wall may indicated foundation settlement problems stemming from poor soil conditions; hydrostatic groundwater pressures; or frost heaving.  These problems should be directed to a knowledgeable consultant.

Regarding concrete block foundation walls, most of the guidance above can be used with some exceptions.  By their nature concrete block walls are often not well reinforced and are subject to inward movement from various soil pressures causing these types of walls can bulge inward.  Ice lens forming about 3 feet below the ground surface can expand and push concrete block walls inward.  This can even occur from a vehicle’s weight being too close to the foundation, such as oil delivery truck.  When horizontal cracking is observed in block walls, steps should be taken quickly to prevent further movement.  These types of walls are also very susceptible to water penetration even when foundation drains are present often requiring serious water proofing repairs.

The key to maintaining a sound brick or concrete block foundation is periodic vigilance to ensure loose or dislocated masonry elements are not ignored.  If you observe a ‘stair step’ patten crack in the mortar joints of a masonry foundation wall, it typically means settlement has occurred under the ‘step’ section of the wall. .  Any observed bulges or horizontal movement, as well as new cracks, should be quickly addressed.

Many Missouri condominiums have been converted from old multi-family apartment buildings with mortared or un-mortared stone foundations, some with brick foundation walls above the ground surface.  These foundations have stood the test of time and are more than 100 years old and if well maintained can last another 100 years.  They are more likely to allow the entrance of ground water due to their porous nature and the necessary steps should be taken to protect the structural elements and indoor air quality of the building if high moisture is a problem.  Old foundations are like people.  As they age, they need some extra care but they have already met the test of time.

Read more

Hidden Dangers of Dryer Vents

Who would think venting a unit’s clothes dryer was so complicated?  When was the last time the cleanliness of dryer vents was on your Board’s meeting agenda?  Yet, clothes dryers may be one of the most dangerous appliances in the home.  The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports there are more than 15,000 home fires each year directly related to dryer maintenance and overheating with blocked exhaust venting contributing to half of those fires.  Dryer venting falls in the category of what you can’t see, can hurt you.



Just as condo units and their buildings come in many shapes and sizes, so does dryer vent systems.  It is not unusual for new Boards not only not understand the exact nature of their condo’s in-unit dryer vent system but they also are not certain who is responsible for its maintenance.  Most dryer vent ducts pass through common space, except for HOA unit owners who are responsible for their own building envelope and everything within.  Some condo dryer vent ducts are dedicated to a given unit while others are shared with other units.  Many dryers vent pass through an exterior wall while mid-rise and high-rise condo buildings share a vertical rooftop vent system.

With these different types of systems and variances often found in the governing condo documents, it is not always well understood by the Board members who is responsible for maintenance and repair of dryer duct systems.  This includes basic routine cleaning even if it is clear maintaining the in-unit dryer is part of the unit owner’s responsibility.  This is an important issue to resolve with the assistance of your legal counsel, as it is the first step in meeting the Board’s responsibility to oversee the safety of the units’ venting system and its occupants.

Once dryer vent system maintenance responsibilities are understood, a policy should be put in place.  This policy should provide authority for unit access and performing maintenance and repairs when owners fail to comply with the dryer policy including assessing charges to the unit owner incurred by the association in providing the required dryer maintenance.  The policy should specify the required maintenance including cleaning of the dryer vents and ducts on a scheduled basis, typically every two years.  Often communities will engage a dryer maintenance contractor at a bulk rate to provide a cost effective and consistent maintenance program.  Should a unit owner opt out of this service they would be required to provide proof of compliance of the required maintenance being conducted by others.

Before the dryer maintenance program can be implemented, the Board must understand their system.  This may require the assistance of a maintenance repair contractor or the association’s building engineer who will need to inspect the present system.  This inspection may reveal common and shared duct systems; long duct runs with booster in-line fans; improper duct materials.  As an example, any vent duct found to be vinyl, PVC, or flexible is a problem.  Most of these types of vent ducts are violations of the local and national building codes, as their interior surfaces collect lint creating a build up of highly flammable material as well as a medium to collect water whose weight can bend duct pipe and create an environment susceptible to mildew and mold.  Improper duct should be removed and replaced with smooth-walled metal ductwork.  If flexible duct is found forming an elbow at the rear of the dryer, it should be replaced with non-flexible metal elbow duct so as not to be crushed when the dryer is pushed against the wall.

The policy may set specifications on the type of dryers to be allowed in units.  Not all dryers are the same.  Beyond the differences between electric and gas-fired dryers, some dryers have significantly different exhaust characteristics.  Building codes recognizes this by allowing the manufacturer to specify the maximum length of straight vent duct to be used.  This typically can range from 15 to 90 feet.  This duct length is further defined by reducing the allowable length by 5 feet for every 90 degree bend and 2 ½ feet for every 45 degree bend in the duct.  For this reason, the policy should provide specific direction to unit owners of the minimum type of dryer performance allowed as well as advising the unit owner of the length of duct the dryer will be connected.  Some associations even place a placard at the duct wall connection with this information for future dryer installations.

In hiring the dryer maintenance contractor the Board should take the normal insurance precautions as when hiring any contractor, including coverage for general liability; automobile liability; workers compensation and umbrella liability coverage with key required endorsements.  These are needed to protect the association from both having to defend itself as well as pay damages as a result  of the contractor’s activities while also including additional insured endorsements; waiver of subrogation endorsement; and primary/non-contributory wording.

The contract with the maintenance contractor should specify the method of cleaning the dryer duct.  Typically the cleaning is a combination of extendable brushes and vacuum cleaning.  The scope of work should include specific clarification of disposal of duct debris both inside and outside the building.  Safety issues should be addressed, particularly regarding movement of gas-fired dryers.

Dryer vents maintenance policy can include some preventative maintenance guidance to unit owners.  Unit owners should be advised to report unusual dryer performance including longer than normal drying times or the dryer surface or clothes feeling hotter than normal.  The owners should also report their observations of the outside louver on their dryer vents not opening as much as before.  Excessive humid or burnt smells in the laundry area are all signs of blocked exhaust vent duct.  The recognition of dryer malfunctions and a good preventive maintenance policy will ensure the common safety for all.

Dryer Vents are just one aspect we inspect in our Home Owners Association Services

Read more