Routine Inspections, Maintenance Keys to Building Envelope Longevity

Words: Mark Sheehan

Words: Mark Sheehan, Western Specialty Contractors Facades Division
Photos: Western Specialty Contractors

Editor’s Note: Ensuring the longevity of building envelopes is the key to the building structure as well as the design side. This story originally ran in our sister publication MASONRY DESIGN and we thought it was important to share these tips with our MASONRY Magazine readers.  

All matter breaks down over time. The structures that surround us today are no exception to that law of physics. Some building materials are more durable than others, like stone and steel, but unfortunately, the days of structures surviving thousands of years, like the Egyptian pyramids and Roman cathedrals, is over. Most of the structures erected today have a life expectancy of less than 100 years. Therefore, preventive maintenance of building exteriors has become more important than ever. 

Structure facades can be made from any number of materials including brick, terracotta, granite, marble, sandstone, limestone, brownstone, concrete masonry units, glass curtain wall systems, Exterior Insulation Finishing Systems (EIFS) and precast concrete.  Likewise, they can all deteriorate for any number of reasons such as: lack of maintenance/funding, movement, freeze/thaw, air pollution, improper workmanship/design and moisture penetration.  

A masonry and facade restoration specialist can identify problem issues such as cracking, efflorescence, spalling, control joint failure, and sealer or caulk failure and recommend a repair and prevention plan that protects the property and tenant spaces from leaks and water damage. Proper facade maintenance will aid in reducing the likelihood of unexpected costs and repairs, plus help to maintain the property's value. 

How extensive the program needs to be will depend directly on the size of the building, number of different materials and components, geographic location and personnel available to keep it maintained.  

A preventive maintenance program consists of two major parts - the inspection and the execution. During the inspection of a building's exterior, some of the more complex structures may require special access and assistance from a contractor, however for most structures, an in-house maintenance crew – with a little bit of training – is capable of doing the job.  

When performing the inspection, it is extremely important to document the findings and keep them in a consistent format from year to year. This can be achieved by simply using a three-ring binder with notes and pictures or a multi-layered spreadsheet. It is also necessary to inspect any work that has recently been performed as those repairs may still be under warranty. 

Some specific items to inspect and document regarding a building’s exterior condition include: 

  • Gutters, drains, downspouts, drainage, roof- Decaying leaves, pine needles and dirt run-off can all contribute to ponding water and clogged gutters and downspouts, which is why it is essential that all roof drains remain clear of obstructions. In addition to the risk of water pouring into the tenant spaces should a breach in the roof occur, the freezing and thawing of ponding water during the fall and winter months can cause extensive roof damage.   
  • Perimeters of doors, windows and other wall penetrators- The exterior walls of a building can be a significant source of unwanted water leakage. Many openings are required in commercial building walls for plumbing, irrigation connections, lighting, HVAC system elements, exhaust vents, air intakes, joints around windows and doors, and fire alarms, to name a few. Unplanned holes may also be present caused by aging brick joints that need re-pointing, vanishing sealants, damage from acid rain and settling cracks.  
  • Building control and expansion jointsLike any other element of a structure, its controls and expansion joints can become damaged. Evidence of damage includes warping, cracking, leaking water, loosening screws and building settlement or moving.  
  • Walking/driving surfaces - When water infiltrates concrete, it can freeze, causing the water to occupy nine percent more volume than in its liquid state. This expansion causes distress on the concrete, which can lead to fractures that will continue to grow exponentially as saturation of the material increases. Cracks, spalls, rust spots, deterioration, pot-holes and heaves are all signs of damage.  
  • Copings and flashingsWhen surveying the roof, be sure to inspect the copings and flashings. Water damage to exterior and interior walls can be significant if these important elements are not maintained properly.  

The second part of any preventive maintenance program is the execution. The data collected during the inspection should be presented to the owner for budget considerations. Depending on the condition of the structure, repairs may need to be prioritized. It is also important to evaluate the need for protective measures such as scalers or coatings. A specialty contractor with experience in facade maintenance and restoration can itemize each inspection item and offer the owner specific recommendations for repairs.  

Spring marks an ideal time for building owners and facility managers to survey their buildings and structures for any damage that may have resulted from the cold, winter weather, make repairs and perform preventative maintenance to protect the exterior going forward. The spring is also a great time to thoroughly clean a building’s exterior.  

A clean facade projects professionalism, can increase sales for businesses located within the building, increase the life of the property, improve the building's value and make surveying winter damage easier to see.   

Facade cleaning can be performed using a variety of methods including: high-pressure water, low-pressure water, sandblasting, wet aggregate blast, hot water steam, chemicals, soda blast, poultice, glass bead and sponge blast. 

Just like our skin protects our valuable internal organs and projects our outward appearance, so does a building’s exterior. Every building or structure should have a preventive maintenance program in place for its exterior components, no matter the building material used. Preventive maintenance keeps the building off the deferred maintenance path, which usually results in exponential restoration costs, prevents structural failures and promotes safer structures, plus a well-maintained exterior helps to attract and keep tenants.  

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