Building Epidemics

Published: November 13, 2014 By: McIntosh Perry

Building Epidemics have been in the news recently, but the term is not always used to describe a disease. It can be used to describe an unpleasant occurrence that becomes widespread, and in this sense it can be applied to buildings. Across Canada we are experiencing a building epidemic – the leaky condo crisis in Vancouver, Bill 122 legislation in Quebec to ensure building safety, the new home warranty program in Alberta – and the responsibility is on building owners and property managers to combat the epidemic.

A building epidemic is a defective condition associated with a material or building component that:

  • Develops after construction,
  • Is totally unexpected,
  • Is common to virtually all buildings containing that particular product or component,
  • Must be repaired,
  • Is expensive to repair, and
  • The owner normally has to pay for.

During the last 30 years, numerous epidemics have occurred as a result of defective materials, design oversights or changes in mandatory regulations governing the occupation and maintenance of buildings.

Materials

In the 1960’s glazed bricks were extensively used in the exterior cladding of the building. However, a few years later, extensive spalling of the outside face of the brickwork resulted in the ugly disfiguration of many of these buildings.

A few years later, urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was developed and, encouraged by the government, numerous residential and commercial building owners retrofitted their buildings by injecting UFFI into the exterior walls as an energy conservation measure.

Subsequently, UFFI was identified as a hazardous substance injurious to health. Those same building owners were faced with a choice: remove all UFFI from their building of suffer a significant decrease in resale value.

The costs associated with removing UFFI were horrendous given the labor-intensive work involved. PCBs and asbestos has similarly been expensive problems for the building owner.

Design

Design oversights are another cause of major epidemic which are costing owners billions of dollars.

Parking Garages

Parking GarageSince the late 1970’s, we’ve seen a multi-billion dollar program of parking garage restoration work made necessary by the presence of salt in the floor and roof slab concrete. The resultant deterioration has caused rusting of the reinforcing steel and delamination of the concrete. The salt causing the deterioration was either road salt carried into the garage by cars, or salt incorporated into the concrete at the time of mixing as a winter accelerating admixture. The latter was commonplace during the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 1980’s. The results were so severe that in some cases it was necessary to replace entire floor slabs.

In one instance, the owner of a twenty year old apartment building had to replace an entire upper parking level floor slab at a cost of about $5 million. This particular epidemic struck in waves with the first relating to garage floor slabs and the second to garage roof slabs.

Balconies

Investigation of balconies in high-rise residential building constructed in the 1970’s has revealed severe deterioration of many balcony slabs to an extent such that complete replacement is sometimes required. This deterioration normally first becomes apparent at the slab edges in the form of cracks and pieces of concrete falling off to reveal rusting reinforcement.

Investigation of this slab edge condition often reveals much more extensive problems to be present in the balcony slabs. These problems to be present in the balcony slabs. These problems are sometimes associated with the presence in the concrete excessive amounts of salt which would have been put into the concrete at the time of mixing to speed up the hardening process. This means that in many buildings the balcony slab problem is similar to the parking garage floor slab problem with regard to both the causes of the problem and the operations that should be considered in repairing the concrete.

Brickwork

For years, the brick cladding to high-rise buildings was designed and built without provision in the brickwork of horizontal control joints at each floor slab level, resulting in spalling and buckling of the brick-work. The only solution is to repair the brickwork and install the missing horizontal joints.

Government Regulations

Another cause of major epidemics is change to mandatory government regulations governing the occupancy and maintenance of buildings. Case in point is the regulated and mandatory installation of window washing safety anchors. Other regulations relate to such commonplaces items or concerns as light ballasts, fire safety systems, and the height and configuration of balcony and stairwell enclosure railings or panels.

Window Testing

Window Test Windows should allow the sunshine in and keep the wind, rain, heat or cold out. They form an integral part of the exterior walls of a building and such must be designed and installed such that they do not reduce the overall integrity of the walls. In recent years, the trend in designing high-rise condominiums has been towards incorporating ever-increasing areas of glass into the exterior walls and this tends to make more widespread a problem already well recognized by people living in older buildings condensation on the window units during periods of cold weather and related damage to interior finishes.

Windows are often a source of great annoyance and aggravation to people in both new and old buildings due to air leakage and condensation problems. The poor performance of window units is frequently a major item of complaint and often significant sums of money are spent correcting problems which should not have occurred in the first place.

To ensure that well designed and properly fabricated window units are installed, testing should be carried out before and during construction both in laboratory and on site.

A well planned and properly implemented program of testing will help to ensure that the installed units are water and air tight and will provide information regarding those combinations of relative humidity and indoor and outdoor air temperatures which, if allowed to occur within a unit, will result in condensation.

This information will enable unit owners to be advised of the specific conditions which must be avoided in their unit by the proper use of bathroom and kitchen air exhaust fans etc., in order to avoid condensation occurring during periods of cold weather.

Listed in the Ontario Building Code are minimum requirements regarding four important properties of window units.

Namely:

  • Resistance to rainwater leakage
  • Air tightness
  • Structural rigidity
  • Condensation

In an existing building, the correct evaluation of the condition of the exterior walls, windows and skylights will provide the information needed to design a rational and cost effective program of repair or renovation work required to eliminate existing problems.

Environmental Property Audits

Concern for environmental liability created by recent legislation has resulted in the development of a new consulting service providing property site assessments to prospective property buyers, sellers and developers. Property owners are now responsible for potential environmental problems and the related cost of corrective work.

Some of the advantages of an environmental site assessment include identifying liabilities relating to potential environmental problems before buying the site, screening investment buildings to identify sites with a high probability of being expensive to clean up, and establish criteria and procedures for ensuring that a property is kept clean by future tenants.

A complete environmental audit would identify both designated toxic materials within a building, such as asbestos and PCB’s, and designated toxic materials in the soil such as heavy metals and hydrocarbons. Based on such an audit, the cost of cleaning up the site can usually be estimated.

Soil contamination clean-up is a major component in Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act and today no real estate investor should purchase an unaudited property.

Audit information may be used to:

  • Confirm the valuation of an existing property portfolio;
  • Determine whether the property would be a profitable investment
  • Obtain a low price during purchasing negotiations;
  • Provide information for future management plans and asset assessment;
  • Allow for more accurate long-term budget projects;
  • Provide protection against future potential environmental liability.

Tenants also benefit from the information contained in an audit particularly, if their prospective lease agreement includes “make-good” clause.

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