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Facade Integrity Inspections

The decay of the infrastructure in the United States is of concern to many.

All building owners should have a program for the regular inspection and maintenance of building elements in place.

The 1992 failure of major drainage systems in Chicago that crippled a large portion of that city is but one example of infrastructure decay. Almost any major metropolitan area has examples of utility systems, bridges, highways, and buildings whose normal function is compromised or at risk as a result of aging, deterioration, and decay.

Building facades are one of many aspects of the decay of the infrastructure. They are, however, perhaps one of the more overlooked building components since their significance is not so immediately evident.

It is not difficult to imagine the potential hazard created by pieces of buildings falling on passersby. The liability for the building owner is great. And with many buildings 20 years old and older being re-financed, the condition of the facade is something that should be carefully evaluated.

Several cities have begun to record deaths and serious injuries resulting from facade failure. Building components such as decorative trim, canopies and windows are falling from facades to the sidewalk and street below with death and injuries the result. Elements of buildings such as bricks, chunks of concrete, marble panels, and metal skins are also failing.

What Causes the Problem?

The facade of high rise buildings may be made of a variety of materials including masonry (brick, block, stone), glass, plastics, and other synthetic materials. Decks, patios, signs, and ornamental trim also may be attached to the facade. Methods of attachment include mechanical fasteners (bolts, rivets, etc.), adhesives, and combinations thereof.

Facade failure can result from several causes. Many existing facade systems were designed and built to standards now found to be inadequate. Deferred maintenance can lead to materials and systems deteriorating prematurely. But even with excellent maintenance, facade failures have been traced to poor design or failure to install systems per the specification.

Weather also plays a factor. Wind, sun, and rain all contribute to material deterioration. If the building is located such that there is excessive wind, too much or too little rain, or poor drainage after rains, connections between systems may fail. Other types of problems arise from the interaction between materials such as between different metals or from corrosive materials seeping from joints.

As an example, Criterium Engineers was asked to investigate a 100 unit, 13 story high rise condominium. The building was constructed in the 1960s and enjoyed good maintenance and attentive ownership. However, a weakness in the original design of the balcony railings led to a gradual failure of portions of the facade. The railing was identified as a flaw in the facade. Moisture could enter along the vertical posts supporting the upper metal railing. After several freeze/thaw cycles, this moisture caused large chunks (some weighing 20 to 30 pounds) to be dislodged from the concrete portion of the railing, with some falling to the ground below.

The solution adopted by the condominium association was to remove the deteriorated concrete surfaces, coat all steel surfaces, apply structural concrete patches, apply an elastomeric coating over all exposed concrete balcony and vertical facades, and install railing post base plates at each railing post penetration. Obviously, this was an expensive process. It takes research and creativity to develop reasonable and cost effective repairs. But the alternative could be far more costly.

What Have Cities Done?

The process of deterioration in buildings has led at least one city to enact facade integrity inspection ordinances. In 1980, the City of New York enacted what has become known as Local Law 10. LL10 requires that "a critical examination (of a building's exterior walls and appurtenances) shall be conducted at periodic intervals which are at least once every five years and shall apply to all existing buildings or buildings hereafter erected that are greater than six stories in height."

The inspection must be performed by a Registered Architect or Licensed Professional Engineer who will check for evidence of the failure of elements of the facade. When evidence of imminent failure is detected, corrective action to stabilize the condition, removal of the failing elements, or other repairs must then be implemented within 30 days and the building reinspected within two weeks thereafter.

The engineer's report must describe the building, contain a history of settlements, repairs, or revisions if available, report all significant deterioration, unsafe conditions and movement observed, as well as a statement concerning the apparent water-tightness of the exterior surfaces. It must also discuss maintenance, comparison to previous observations, and recommendations for repairs. "Unsafe conditions" and items noted as "precautionary work" must be called out separately. The city also provides specific forms that must be completed.

What Should You Do?

As a result of the decay of the infrastructure, facade integrity inspections and facade repairs and maintenance are a growing and important part of the maintenance of our buildings. Public safety is directly affected. All building owners should have a program for the regular inspection and maintenance of building elements in place. Engineers have an important role to play in the evaluation, diagnosis and repair of building facade systems.

How does one find companies that are qualified, competent and experienced? For buildings related services, we suggest two organizations, the National Academy of Building Inspection Engineers (207-828-1977) and our own, Criterium Engineers, with offices nationwide.


The Engineering Advisor is intended to enhance your knowledge of technical issues relating to buildings. For additional information on any subject, please feel free to call us. Our commitment is to provide you with timely, accurate information.

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