By Alyssa Gautieri
As a property manager, you notice that the balconies in a few of your units are beginning to show signs of water damage. Meanwhile the stucco is beginning to crack along the exterior of a few different units. Neither problem seems to be widespread or urgent at this time, but you’re concerned that similar construction defects may cause future damage to other units. How can you control the issue before it gets out of hand?
To better understand common construction defects, we spoke with Christopher D. Ling AIA, NCARB, PP, LEEDap, CCT ARCHforensic and Timothy Ronan, PE and Principal at ARCHforensic. The duo also shared their advice for tackling and prioritizing these issues, particularly those related to stucco, EIFS, and brick.
During a visual walkthrough, Ling and Ronan noted, they will look for construction defects throughout the community — this may mean cultured stone that is not installed according to code or a dated EIFS that is deteriorating due to water damage. Other common concerns include roof deficiencies, deck and balcony deficiencies, railing deficiencies, and warped garage door headers.
According to Ling, water is the cause of most damage — whether there is water seeping into the foundation around a window or doorway, a balcony with poor drainage, or a roof that is not up to code. “If a structure is built wrong, water is going to get in and it will lead to consequential damages. With any facade, if water is getting behind the system or the barrier, water wins,” he added.
In the case of a water leak, a manager’s initial reaction may be to use a caulk sealant. However, Ling noted that this solution can be problematic. Caulking the space will leave the water trapped inside, which will continue to cause damage.
According to both men, there is a lot of controversy surrounding EIFS. Some insurance companies may exclude coverage if any part of a structure contains EIFS — even if it’s only a foam trim around a window.
Prior to the year 2000, even 2010, barrier EIFS wall systems were known to cause a lot of structural issues — whether falling or rotting off buildings. Often two weather barriers were used, which leaves water trapped between the two barriers — and this issue led to some massive lawsuits. “Barrier EIFS are generally not residentially code approved,” said Ling.
Modern EIFS use a wall drainage system, which Ling noted are much more effective. While the new system is entirely different, insurance companies and lawyers sometimes use the dated exclusion of EIFS to get around insurance claims. “When you hear EIFS today, you might want to be a little more open-minded,” said Ronan.
In order to determine if there’s a construction defect, look for visual cues such as cracking and discoloration (often a black or brown stain). An ant or bug infestation is also a huge telltale sign, according to Ronan.
Code requires that any two different materials be separated by a caulk joint, especially around windows. “If you don’t see a caulk joint, with the section of vinyl, that is a telltale sign that the structure is not built right,” Ling said. When it comes to garage door headers or roofing, mushroom growth through joints is another sign.
When it comes to why certain construction errors are made, the men noted that it isn’t always about a lack of money but often a lack of coordination among trade workers that may leave an important detail overlooked. For example, when it comes to installing kickout flashing, who is responsible? — the roofer or the framing contractor?
If there are any visual issues, Ling said to first conduct a moisture reading — which involves inserting two small probes into the surface. “Take it step by step,” said Ling, who noted that a moisture probe can save the association a lot of money if the results come back clean. Anything above a 20 may mean there is damage beneath the surface. Ling then suggested doing a few test cuts of the area to further examine any damage. Infrared thermography is also used to look behind surfaces for any damage.
After a test cut or infrared thermography, the association must decide how it wants to proceed. Ling and Ronan have devised a four-point priority rating system in order to assist the association in the allocation of funds toward remediation and ranking of construction defects per building.
Priority level one is intended to repair the buildings, so they are watertight to prevent further damage to reduce risk of injuries. Priority level two includes any construction defect items that do not represent an urgent and immediate emergency, but are likely to continue to cause damage. Priority level three consists of a construction defect that may be causing minor issues but poses no direct and immediate harm. Priority level four is defined as a known and latent defective construction detail or method which has caused known damage and issues in another location, but has not manifested in the specific building. They noted that Priority four concerns should be closely monitored and observed.