How to Prevent Buildings from Leaking!
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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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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