Protect Through Building Façade Inspections

Safety ordinances in major U.S. cities are prompting renewed focus on building envelope inspections.

By Mickey Parker
From the December 2019 Issue

Building Façade Inspections
(Photo: Getty Images/EyeMark)

So, there he was… it was Christmas morning, and the kids had just finished opening their presents. The smells coming from the kitchen promised a delicious meal, and 20 family members were coming to share the meal and spend a nice afternoon together. It seemed like everything was going well, until he heard his daughter yelling that the upstairs toilet was overflowing! Just like that, his plans of an enjoyable day with family went right out the window, or more precisely, flowed down the stairs. By the time the situation was under control, the traveling family members were diverted, the meal was cold, his wife was aggravated, the carpet was wet (and smelly), and his bank account was greatly depreciated (more from the plumber’s bill than from the cost of the presents).

What does this have to do with façade evaluations and maintenance? I say that this story is an illustration of how emergencies are not only disruptive to our plans and expectations, but they can also be even more expensive than they are aggravating. When it comes to building façades, unexpected circumstances can range from frustrating (water intrusion) and somewhat destructive (damaged interior finishes and belongings) to downright dangerous, such as when pieces of the building exterior fall and either damage other property or injure people.

Many cities throughout the United States have adopted ordinances that require building façade inspections on a regular basis. These inspections vary widely in their requirements. For example, some cities exclude buildings less than six stories or 60 feet in height (often eliminating more than 90% of the buildings in the city). In other cities, the ordinance may require inspections of all buildings that contain more than two tenants, which could allow a single occupant in a large building to be exempt. In some cities, the inspector is required to have “hands on access” to every square foot of the façade, but in other cities, the inspector may only need to have “hands on access” to a certain width of each face of the building.

The reporting requirements and the enforcement of these ordinances are just as diverse from city to city as are the other requirements. This makes it very important for a façade inspector to carefully review the local ordinances and to provide a service that, at the minimum, meets those standards.

The U.S. cities with building façade ordinances to date are: Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and St. Louis.

Inspecting For Safety

One of the primary motivations for these inspections is the idea that a building should not endanger the people entering/leaving the building and/or the people around the building on sidewalks, streets, or neighboring property. So, during the inspection, the first goal of an inspector is to identify any loose, missing, or damaged building façade elements that could potentially pose a safety hazard.

There is no arguing the concept that a building should not endanger people or other properties, and the adoption of ordinances to reduce these dangerous situations is certainly a step in the right direction. However, a façade inspection can yield much more information and can provide excellent guidance on how and where to focus maintenance efforts and funds.

Assessing For Building Conditions

Protecting the public is the primary objective of a façade inspection, and the second objective is to identify locations where water may be entering the façade. Unanticipated openings in the façade can allow water intrusion, and water intrusion often leads to accelerated deterioration of the building components (both façade and structural elements).

Building Façade Inspections
Cracked stucco at elevated locations may indicate a delamination of the system, and if the system is not adequately secured to the structural wall, it could come loose. (Photo: Rimkus Consulting Group)

One example of such damage would be the corrosion of embedded steel reinforcement that can lead to spalling of masonry and/or concrete (see photo on page 14). Similarly, water intrusion can lead to corrosion of the masonry ties that secure a masonry veneer to a structural element; the loss of this attachment can lead to falling/collapsing veneers. Water flowing through a masonry wall, can cause deterioration of the mortar between masonry units (blocks, stones, brick, etc), which leaves individual units susceptible of falling away from the building.

When water is trapped in a confined cavity, and the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, trapped water can freeze, and the force from the expansion of the water as it transitions from liquid to solid can displace the elements of the façade. In addition to the danger to the public related to the damaging effects of water, water intrusion can also lead reduced insulation values and to the growth of fungi, which can be damaging to building materials and can lead to indoor air quality (IAQ) problems. So, it is critical to find and correct façade deficiencies that would allow uncontrolled water intrusion.

Next, the façade inspection can often identify areas where air is infiltrating or exfiltrating (leaking into or out of) the building. Since air can carry a significant amount of moisture, humid air that leaks into a building and condenses on a cool surface (in an air conditioned building) can lead to moisture problems very similar to a leaking window or missing sealant joint (deterioration of building components and fungal growth). Similarly, in cold climates, when warm humid air from the inside of a building leaks into the cavities of exterior elements (walls, soffits, balconies, parapet walls, etc.), the condensation that forms can be damaging. Even if air leakage isn’t causing a moisture problem, it will increase heating/cooling costs and can lead to reduced IAQ when elements from the exterior of the building (dust, pollen, odors, etc.) flow to the interior of the building.

Air leakage from the interiors of some buildings could aggravate the neighbors (releasing unpleasant odors) or could harm people or property outside of the building if the air contains substances (chemicals or other contaminants) that are damaging. So, along with looking for loose façade elements and sources for water intrusion, a good façade inspection will also identify potential sources of air leakage.

A façade inspection may also identify problems with the insulation in the exterior walls. Deficient insulation issues are detected by touch (feeling an area of the façade that inexplicably has a different temperature than the areas around it), through the use of non-destructive tools (infrared imagers; thermometers), and through visual indicators (e.g. when ice has formed on an isolated portion of the building). Deficient insulation can increase heating/cooling costs, and can contribute to condensation formation that leads to the kinds of water related problems discussed above.

So, who needs a façade inspection? The answer is pretty much anyone that owns or is responsible for the maintenance of a building. Obviously, the complexity and level of the inspection would vary with the local ordinances, building complexity, building use, and the building’s environment. Without the façade inspection though, it can be difficult to know if repairs are justified, when identified repairs need to be completed, and whether the repairs are critical or optional. When we don’t prioritize, budget, and plan the work that is needed, this can lead to overspending. Either we are wasting money on unnecessary work, we are spending too much because the problems that develop come at inconvenient times (like the overflowing toilet on Christmas morning), or minor problems become major issues when something simple like a damaged sealant joint allows water to leak into the building, which leads to IAQ issues and damaged building components.

So, be sure to keep a close eye on your building’s façade, and don’t miss the opportunity during a façade inspection to find the potential problems related to water intrusion, air leakage, and deficient insulation. Also, keep in mind the old saying that “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Building Façade InspectionsParker is building science practice leader at Rimkus Building Consultants. His professional experience has focused on forensic evaluations of buildings, preparing structural engineering designs, roofing consultant services, and building envelope consulting services. In the realm of building enclosures, Parker has been the engineer of record on numerous reroofing projects for public entities, and he has provided building enclosure consulting services for projects in the private, public, medical, and military environments.

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