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How to Prevent Buildings from Leaking!
By Bruce Wingfield, Building Restoration Consulting, LLC

Almost a decade ago Arthur O’Leary, FAIA, MRIAI wrote an article published by Design Cost Data™ entitled, “New Buildings that Leak Analyzing the Causes and Pinpointing the Responsibility.”

This excellent article clearly identified the frustrations with building owners. However, it seems that the problems a decade later are still as prominent as ever. Beware all building owners the “can” is still being kicked down the road. Your building will probably leak, and soon!

How can a building owner avoid uninsured and certainly unbudgeted costs from a building they thought would be weather-resistant? The obvious answer is hiring good Architects and good General Contractors. But does this work? The answer may surprise you.

A standing joke of mine is what do nearly all of the tall buildings in our metropolitan areas have in common besides height? The answer – Most have all leaked at one time. Whether it is from hydrostatic pressure below-grade, wind-driven rain vertically, or a roofing membrane failure, buildings leak. The frustration for owners is they can understand and deal with a building leak from a building they have owned for 20 years, it is called maintenance. They are upset when the leak is in a new building. This is especially true when the leak occurs in the first year.

So what is the answer? Better materials, better Architects, better General Contractors? I propose that the answer is better Subcontractors watched by Paid Consultants. The old adage comes to mind, “you get what you paid for.” The following are actual jobsite examples.

Example One – New Window Design Flawed
A window manufacturer comes out with a new design that is less expensive and easier to install. The only problem after window installation the Sealant Subcontractor reports that the top head joint is a “blind” joint. In other words, it is difficult to seal because it cannot be seen by the applicator when tooling the edges.

The Sealant Subcontractor calls in the manufacturer representative who agrees with the Sealant Subcontractor. The Architect and General Contractor are told that a Warranty (typically written in all job specifications) would not be provided. The Architect calls for a field water test which fails miserably soaking the inside of the building.

Since the new design windows were already installed the General Contractor and Architect decide to bring in another Sealant Subcontractor who seals all the windows “blindly.” No warranty was ever issued and the building has leaked for sixteen years. The building owner constantly has the same subcontractor blind caulk windows over and over again.

If a Consultant had been hired and paid directly by the Owner, this sad scenario would have been avoided. The Consultant would have either caught the mistake that the Architect and General Contractor missed (flawed new window design) or proposed a better solution to the problem. In reality a solution did exist, after the windows were installed, but would have cost the owner additional money. This money would have been perhaps well spent given the energy loss for the life of the building. Sealants properly installed not only keep out water they limit air infiltration and thus save on energy.

Example Two – Wrong Building Product Specified
Sometimes the wrong building product is specified for the intended application. With all the products on the marketplace it is impossible for Architects, Engineers and General Contractors to know all the nuances of each one. Also it is important to know that just because the manufacturer claims that the product is appropriate does not mean that this is so. I have even witnessed a manufacturer representative on a jobsite supervising the installation of a failed mock-up.

In 2006 a public works project was bid wherein a single building product was specified to provide additional insulating properties to a glass building. The contractors were required to inject foam into the cavity between the glazing and the concrete block wall behind the metal framing. The vertical and horizontal members of the window frames were to be drilled in order to inject the foam.

A mock-up was described and the manufacturer representative was required to assist in determining the proper quantity of foam to inject.

Several professional contractors during the bidding phase requested that another manufacturer be approved as an equal. This manufacturer had numerous successful jobs and warned that the competitor did not. The manufacturer warned that “for a proper application of 100% urethane foam, the glass panels would need to be removed, and the urethane foam sprayed directly onto the CMU wall.”

This manufacturer warned that the use of 100-percent closed-cell foam would create pressure on the glass and eventually break the glass. Their foam was only 60% but would more consistently fill the wythe cavity and not put pressure on the glass. The manufacturer even stressed that their foam was not toxic while the specified foam MSDS sheet clearly showed a warning that the product was toxic, which would not be an advantage for an owner-occupied building.

The Forensic Architect refused to approve the manufacturer. At the bid opening one bidder submitted a bid $100,000 less and substituted the urethane foam manufacturer with a successful track record. His bid was rejected.

The following picture proves that the manufacturer with a history of successful jobs is important for a building owner to consider. A recent discussion with an engineer friend of mine indicates that the entire glass structure will have to be replaced at a cost of approximately 1.5 million to 2 million dollars of taxpayer money.

When properly applied quality urethane sealants last ten to twelve years. Silicone sealants when properly applied last twenty years. So why would anyone ever use urethane? Does silicone cost double?

The answer is both have properties the other wishes it had. Urethane has generally a good bond to masonry. Silicone has generally a good bond to glass and metal surfaces. I have seen urethane fail cohesively from premature weathering in as little as three years from solvent tooling the surface, and silicone fail in as little as one month adhesively when it failed to bond to masonry.

Professionals know that solvent tooling or wet-tooling with soap and water is forbidden, but when no one is watching the practice is still prevalent. This speeds up production and makes the workmanship look great, but decreases the life of the sealant.

Silicone is difficult to tool in cold or hot weather and when not bonded properly will easily “ribbon-out” of a joint just by pulling on it by hand. Silicone has also been known to stain stone, and not bond to itself.

Warranty Game
Recently at a pre-bid meeting a question was asked that could not be answered well. The question from a sealant subcontractor was, “Why are the warranties for the sealant 20 years and the warranties for the roof is only 10 years?”

Extended warranties are written with good intentions. At first glance the owner seems to be well protected. But what owner desires to enforce extended warranties? Most of the time warranty claims result in a finger pointing or finger blaming contest. The manufacturer blames the applicator that the installation was flawed. The applicator blames the Architect that he specified the wrong product. The General Contractor blames both the manufacturer and the Architect. The Architect blames everyone. Only a paid consultant reporting directly to the owner can stop this madness. This is much less expensive than litigation and without the consequences of a building leak. If the building does leak, there is just one person to blame and take responsibility.

The complexity of buildings and the building products designed to protect from the elements are changing at a rapid pace. As such it is extremely difficult if next to impossible for building owners to comprehend or keep up with. For several decades building owners have mostly relied on Architects to design their buildings for weather resistance.

Architects and Engineers are for the most part reliable and have good intentions. However they are also faced with competition that spend a good amount of monies on marketing themselves and less on learning about new technology. Some specification writers are poorly paid and some specifications have not been changed for decades.

Architects and Engineers also allow manufacturer representatives to write the specification in the project manual. This opens the door to allow the manufacturer to write a specification that no one but themselves can meet. This drives up the cost for the owner by not providing any competition on the building product and without any clear benefit.

In the field it can be worse. A pre-bid question asked by a competitor of mine this year was answered by the Architect’s representative in the field in writing as, “We do not understand the question.” It was a perfectly asked question that I immediately understood. I am sure that the owner paid ultimately in a change order.

Low bidders and less than scrupulous manufacturers have made the Architects' job difficult. Many Architects and Owners have to deal with conflicting opinions from young inexperienced manufacturer representatives who always promote their version of facts in order to make a sale. As an Architect you should always know that experience counts and most tech service departments have limited experience as well. Also during these lean times, manufacturers have cut their employees and some representatives have unmanageable territories.

Architects and Engineers also tend to specify that the manufacturer representative is present for the mock-up or burden the representative with numerous site visits. If the representative is based in Texas they will not be readily available in Ohio if he/she covers a multiple state territory. Architects and Engineers need to monitor their own mock-ups and monitor their own jobs. The use of Construction Managers is one way to provide this service, but my experience finds that this is only another layer of responsibility that does not share the blame, but only gets paid to share in the total building cost.

In conclusion, the only way to avoid these complex issues as described in this article is for the Owner to hire and pay an Independent Consultant who specializes in making sure the New or Existing Building does not leak. At least the buck will stop with this one individual and make a building leak less likely a problem and obviously less a financial burden on the Owner.

Bruce Wingfield has been in the Concrete & Masonry Restoration business since 1988 as a manufacturer representative and restoration contractor. He has experience in sealants, coatings, concrete repair, concrete strengthening, masonry restoration, epoxies, and waterproofing products above and below-grade.

You can contact Bruce at bruce.wingman@gmail.com.

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