Keven Moore: Being proactive in maintaining the structural integrity and safety of commercial buildings

Many of us go to work or live in buildings older than us, and we never think twice. But when we turned on our TVs on June 26, we found that the 12 story Champlain Towers South Condominiums in Surfside, Florida had collapsed in the middle of the night, killing 98 occupants.

The lessons of accountability from this event are still being learned and chopped up, which I refer to in my July 8 post. The age of such buildings never tends to be a concern for most people, but in my profession we are paid to worry and lend our eyes and ears to insurers of such risks.

Insurers constantly inquire about the age and condition of a building in order to determine their appetite for insuring a particular structure and at what price to set annual premiums.

An aging barricaded commercial structure (Photo by Wiki Commons)

Thinking back to my early days at Fireman’s Fund Insurance as a loss control consultant, I still remember inspecting a handful of buildings in run down urban environments where my recommendation was to run and not to stop. The point is, many homeowners have chosen not to properly maintain their investment or simply don’t have the skills or understanding of why structural and aging issues are a concern and need to be properly addressed.

Not being a structural engineer or an architect by training, I cannot tell you for sure why some buildings last for centuries, while others cannot go beyond their three or four decades, but I can point out the importance of properly maintaining an aging building to get properly properly insured so you don’t break your bank account.

While modern building codes and structural engineering have made today’s buildings extremely safe, facility managers and building owners still need to maintain a high level of maintenance to keep them that way. As buildings age, they can lose their structural integrity which degrades over time. Thus, if simple repairs are ignored or neglected, they can turn into significant problems, potentially causing significant damage that can interrupt operations and / or even endanger occupants and others nearby.

Ongoing preventive maintenance and inspections are essential to ensure the safety and operation of buildings. According to the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, 72% of commercial buildings in the United States are 20 years or older. It is around this stage that insurers start to worry and demand extensive inspections of loss control properties. This is also around the time when facility managers should expect to prepare significant funds for upgrades.

Facility managers must keep a close eye on all the components that make up the functionality of a building. While it may seem that structural issues are just about the foundation and the walls, the reality is that all systems in a building need to perform well enough for the building to remain structurally sound in the long run. Many structural problems can be attributed to the following:

Older building showing decaying concrete (Photo by Wikicommons)

Concrete decay – The decomposition of concrete is natural and occurs over time as buildings age. However, there are several issues that can cause concrete to decompose prematurely, including:

Location issues – Common signs of placement issues include cracks, visible air bubbles in the concrete, pockets of rocks, honeycombs and cold joints.

Exposure – Buildings can suffer from exposure to the elements. Depending on the location, coastal sea salt or rock salt used in winter can increase the rate of concrete decomposition. Chemical deterioration can also occur as a result of acid rain due to pollution.

Wind – Excessive exposure to wind can cause the development of shrinkage cracks in the concrete and erosion of the exterior layers of the building.

Freeze / thaw cycles – These cycles moisten the concrete and cool it before there is time for proper drainage, causing expansion, chipping and delamination.

Corrosion of steel supports – When steel corrodes, it expands to create tensile stresses in concrete. Cracking, delamination and chipping are often the result.

Rotten concrete should be replaced in a timely manner. Otherwise, the building could suffer serious structural defects or collapse.

Roofing – A few factors determine the life of a roof, including the type of roof, the climate and the maintenance history of the roof. If the roof deteriorates and moisture spreads, other systems will collapse soon after. Facility managers should plan to perform a roof inspection twice a year, once when the weather is hottest and once when it is coldest.

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems – Inefficient HVAC systems can be expensive to operate and cause air quality problems, such as mold. Mold can cause structural damage as it feeds on and breaks down organic matter. When mold infests walls, insulation, paper backing or carpet, materials should be removed and replaced. Improper heating and cooling can also cause damage due to lack of efficient air circulation and ventilation.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He holds a BA from the University of Kentucky, an MA from Eastern Kentucky University and over 25 years of experience in the security and insurance industry. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works in both Lexington and northern Kentucky. Keven can be contacted at [email protected]

Electric – Hot spots can form if electrical wiring has loose connections, corroded wires / connectors, overloaded circuits, shorts, unbalanced electrical load, or faulty fuses, circuit breakers, and switches. Excessive heat from these hot spots could start a fire, and even a small fire can cause damage that affects structural integrity.

Plumbing – Poor plumbing can cause health risks and have adverse effects on a building and the environment. Leaks can lead to mold and water damage. Some of the significant plumbing issues that older buildings face include inefficient fixtures, poor equipment, and lead in pipes, the latter of which can contaminate drinking water.

Apart from a disaster or major event, buildings usually do not deteriorate overnight. Several preventive measures can be taken to ensure the sustainability of a structure.

These include:

Hire a good facilities manager – Facility managers must know the building better than anyone and act as the first line of defense in identifying the repairs to be made. Having a proactive facilities manager can save money and ensure buildings remain safe to occupy.

Planning of repairs and maintenance – While it may seem pointless to set aside a large sum of money for repairs that have not yet taken place, it can be beneficial in the long run when it is time for routine maintenance or when unforeseen expenses arise.

Carrying out building inspections – Inspections should be performed by qualified inspectors with site specific expertise. Inspectors should be familiar with signs of damage due to local weather conditions, such as areas with salt water or snow. Structural engineers must assess the major structural components of the building to identify the corrective actions required. They should document the inspections to allow for year-over-year comparisons of problems, making sure to take plenty of photos. Inspections should take place:

• Annually
• After any significant event, such as windstorms, earthquakes or hurricanes
• Before and after any major addition or renovation

Know the local building codes – Building codes help keep buildings safe and structurally sound. Knowing and understanding local building codes is essential so that all requirements are met. Some regulations in more difficult environments may have additional requirements.

Act on identified problems – When a problem arises, it must be dealt with quickly. Early action can reduce costs only if a problem becomes more serious. The safety of those who live or work in the building depends on the structural issues addressed and resolved.

All buildings will eventually need repairs and updates. By being proactive, facility managers can ensure the structural integrity of a building and the safety of its tenants.

Be safe my friends.

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