Protecting Building Exteriors

Preventive, ongoing façade maintenance is vital to proper function and desired appearance.

By Tom Brooks
From the February 2021 Issue

All matter breaks down over time. The structures that surround us today are no exception to that law of physics. Some building materials are more durable than others, like stone and steel, but unfortunately the days of structures surviving thousands of years, like the Egyptian pyramids and Roman cathedrals, is over. Most of the structures erected today have a life expectancy of less than 100 years. Therefore, preventive maintenance of building exteriors has become more important than ever.

Structure façades can be made from any number of materials including brick, terra cotta, granite, marble, sandstone, limestone, brownstone, concrete masonry units, glass curtain wall systems, Exterior Insulation Finishing Systems (EIFS), and precast concrete. Likewise, these can all deteriorate for any number of reasons, including:

  • Lack of maintenance/funding
  • Movement
  • Freeze/thaw
  • Air pollution
  • Improper workmanship/design
  • Moisture

Ongoing maintenance is always recommended to minimize exterior damage, no matter what the building material. Every building or structure should have a preventive maintenance program in place for its exterior components. How extensive the program needs to be will depend directly on the size of the building, number of different materials and components, geographic location, and personnel available to keep it updated.

xterior preventive maintenance
(Photo: Western Specialty Contractors)

A preventive maintenance program consists of two major parts—the inspection and the execution. During inspection of a building’s exterior, some of the more complex structures may require special access and assistance from a contractor, however, for most structures, an in-house maintenance crew—with the proper training—is capable of doing the job.

Spring marks an ideal time for building owners and facility managers to survey their buildings and structures for any damage that may have resulted from the cold winter weather, make repairs and perform preventive maintenance to protect the exterior going forward. A thorough cleaning of the façade using a variety of methods that include high-pressure water, sandblasting, hot water steam, glass bead or chemicals, among other techniques, will increase the life of the property and make surveying damage easier to see.

When performing the inspection, it is extremely important to document the findings and keep them in a consistent format from year to year. This can be achieved by simply using a three-ring binder with notes and pictures or with a multi-layered spreadsheet. It is also necessary to inspect any work that has recently been performed since those repairs may still be under warranty.

Some specific items to inspect and document regarding a building’s exterior condition include:

Gutters, drains, downspouts, drainage, and roof. Decaying leaves, pine needles and dirt run-off can all contribute to ponding water and clogged gutters and downspouts, which is why it is essential that all roof drains remain clear of obstructions. In addition to the risk of water pouring into the occupant spaces should a breach in the roof occur, the freezing and thawing of ponding water during the fall and winter months can cause extensive roof damage.

Perimeters of doors, windows, and other wall penetrators. The exterior walls of a building can be a significant source of unwanted water leakage. Many openings are required in commercial building walls for plumbing, irrigation connections, lighting, HVAC system elements, exhaust vents, air intakes, joints around windows and doors, and fire alarms, to name a few. Unplanned holes may also be present caused by aging brick joints that need re-pointing, vanishing sealants, damage from acid rain, and settling cracks.

Building control and expansion joints. Like any other element of a structure, its controls and expansion joints can become damaged. Evidence of damage includes warping, cracking, leaking water, loosening screws, and building settlement or moving.

Walking/driving surfaces. When water infiltrates concrete, it can freeze, causing the water to occupy nine percent more volume than in its liquid state. This expansion causes distress on the concrete, which can lead to fractures that will continue to grow exponentially as saturation of the material increases. Cracks, spalls, rust spots, deterioration, potholes, and heaves are all signs of damage.

Copings and flashings. When surveying the roof, be sure to inspect the copings and flashings. Water damage to exterior and interior walls can be significant, if these important elements are not maintained properly.

All data collected during the inspections should be put into a budget for needed repairs. Depending on the condition of the structure, repairs may need to be prioritized. It is also important to evaluate the need for protective measures such as sealers or coatings. A specialty contractor with experience in façade maintenance and restoration can itemize each inspection item and offer specific recommendations for repairs.

Appropriate exterior waterproofing plays an important role in protecting every aspect of a structure’s construction. Knowing which waterproofing coverage to specify for a particular structure is more than just a science; it is an art form. Consulting with an experienced specialty contractor for the best waterproofing options available will ensure a quality job that will extend the life of any structure.

Water is moved through a structure via any number of forces including: hydrostatic pressure, capillary action, wind/air currents, surface tension, and natural gravity. If there is any breach in a structure’s envelope, water is sure to find its way inside.

Technological advancements in materials and techniques can completely waterproof a building from the roof to its below-grade exterior and interior walls and everything in between.

A structure’s first line of defense against the elements is above-grade waterproofing, which includes the use of caulks and sealants to seal the perimeters of windows and other openings. The amount of sealant needed on a new or existing structure depends on exposure and expansion/contraction problems that may be identified.

Applied over concrete, wood, or steel, a variety of deck coatings are available to prevent leaks from penetrating to areas below and can maintain the surface’s color and keep it looking like new for years. Recent technology has provided materials for these special coatings that are ideal for suspended slabs, recreational roof decks, garages, patios, balconies, sun decks, areas around pools, and other areas that require a durable surface.

xterior preventive maintenance
Sunlight, changing weather, water, and building settlement all contribute building façade deterioration. (Photo: Western Specialty Contractors)

Applying waterproofing to a structure’s roof is important and requires a professional’s expertise to determine which option will work the best. Some available roofing systems include: synthetic rubber materials; hot rubberized asphalt; and insulated roofing membrane.

A number of excellent below-grade exterior foundation waterproofing systems have become available within the last 20 years for preventing water penetration through basement walls, concrete lids, pits, and other below-ground areas. These waterproofing materials may be applied on the inside or outside of the wall or foundation.

Metallic, capillary/crystalline, and cementitious materials are currently available for waterproofing a structure’s interior. These materials may be applied by brush, trowel, spray or dry-shake methods to concrete or masonry substrates opposite the source of moisture. For foundations, these materials are applied to the interior of the structure. For tanks, reservoirs, and other structures that hold water, these materials are applied to the exterior.

No matter what the quality, performance characteristics, and cost of a material or system, they are only as effective as the caliber of their installation. Even the best systems may prove worthless or ineffective if not installed and transitioned properly. Improper installation can lead to structural and interior damage that could result in problems for the building owner. A critical aspect is contractors. It’s not about finding the one with the cheapest estimate; it’s about finding the right contractor for the project.

If you are in charge of a structure that does not have a preventive maintenance program in place for its exterior, consider implementing one immediately. Preventive maintenance keeps the building off the deferred maintenance path, which usually results in exponential restoration costs. A maintenance plan will prevent structural failures and promote safer structures.

xterior preventive maintenanceBrooks is Chief Operating Officer at Western Specialty Contractors. With more than 25 years of construction industry experience, he oversees and manages all aspects of day-to-day operations, while implementing strategies long-term growth. Brooks has a degree in Building Construction Management from Purdue University-North Central Campus and an AAS in Electrical Engineering Technology from Southern Illinois University. He was a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps, a veteran of Desert Storm, and a graduate of the Military Police Academy.

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