Condominiums: The Five Lines of Defence

January 15, 2020

How much do you know about the condominium you live in? Is the building construction safe and reliable? Are the building envelope components and main structural systems functioning properly? Is there an engaged and knowledgeable board? These are the questions a homeowner or tenant should be asking themselves. Having a variety of experienced board members (i.e individuals with financial knowledge and construction knowledge) is an asset, as it strengthens and diversifies perspectives and knowledge bases.

Like any homeowner, proper maintenance for your condominium is key. Ensuring that a healthy reserve fund is built up through condominium fees is vital. A suitable reserve fund helps to stay on top of preventive maintenance, as well as to be ready for any unforeseen repairs that are unavoidable and required. A board should work with your property management company to put a daily, monthly, and yearly maintenance program in place. In the unfortunate event that something does go wrong, assessing an existing building can seem intimidating at first, but having the knowledge base of what signs to look for can save time, money, and resources.

A well-designed and built condo is based on a thorough architectural and structural design process and the harmonious coordination of details with the construction site crew. This should always be the case, but if there are signs of concern with your building, an investigation of your building by a professional structural engineer and architect may be required. The following steps will be required in order to determine that there are no underlying issues and to maintain your investment.

1. Complete a Visual Review of the Building:

The first line of defence to protect your building’s structure and foundation is your building envelope and waterproofing details. Small cracks in drywall and concrete do happen and are hopefully only as a result of something smaller, like incorrect drywall taping or shrinkage. Signs of movement or distress – larger cracking in drywall, concrete or facade – are visual indications that a deeper investigation may be required of your building. Water entry could mean there is movement of water diversion systems or possible failure of building envelope membranes. A building science engineer will be able to review your building details on-site to ensure they were built correctly.

2. Review of Building Documents:

The second line of defence is diagnosing the health of your building to ensure the building was properly designed to code when the building was first built and if upgrades were added later that they were designed to the most current code. An initial visual review of existing drawings will be done at this stage; checking load assumptions, ensuring the professional engineer’s stamps are in place and reviewing any construction inspection reports are also necessary. While these building drawing reviews are being done, monitoring of visual signs will need to be undertaken in order to determine the extent or severity of the areas of concern (i.e. cracks). Smaller cracks are most often a sign of changes in temperature, humidity or shrinkage in paint, drywall, or concrete. Bigger underlying issues could be at stake, such as connection issues, framing issues, or large structural foundation issues. The professional structural engineer will review the drawings to ensure these details have been taken into consideration at the design stage.

Proper file and document control is critical for your building. Condo boards should keep their construction drawings for records to be passed on to succeeding boards. As they are changed over, digitally scanning and storing files is most efficient. If the board does not have the drawings, it is important to be able to find the drawings on file from the authority having jurisdiction to cross-compare different drawings for potential reviews and analysis.

3. Code Check and Analysis of Building:

After the first review or scan of the building’s drawings has been done, if there are definite indications or cause for concern after a visual inspection, activating the third line of defence by conducting a thorough analysis of “For Construction” documents may be required. This would be a recommendation by the professional engineer, and the scope could range from undertaking “spot check” calculations of various areas, site specific structural analysis of located areas of concern or even a full analysis and check of the entire building’s original structural design. While a full structural analysis of the original design most often should not be necessary, it may be warranted based on findings from the earlier investigations.

Ideally, for the condo corporation, these steps should be done early in the building’s lifecycle so that if there may be concerns due to the original structural design, this analysis and review can be done within the building’s five to ten-year warranty period.

4. Invasive Investigation:

The fourth line of defence is in protecting your building’s structure once an issue has been discovered and for the contractor to open the walls and remove architectural finishes (drywall, ceiling, etc.). Once everything is opened and exposed, this will allow for a better determination of the extent of any potential changes in construction or if there were any incorrect methods used during the construction of the respective building.

A structural engineer will determine which structural elements were not built according to the design drawings or if any elements may have been damaged due to environmental conditions. They would then commence a repair plan process, which includes creating drawings and sketches for the actual repair.

5. Report, Recommendations and Repair Solutions:

If it has been determined that, indeed, there is a structural issue – the fifth and final line of defence would involve the determination of a proper design and repair solution. This will involve working with a reputable contractor to come up with the most economical, efficient, and least intrusive option for the owner. If you do find yourself dealing with a major repair, getting a second opinion is a good idea to confirm the problem and to provide any other creative repair solutions.

As a condominium homeowner, you should protect your own asset and become aware of your condominium’s structural integrity. Start the conversation with your condominium board and engage them with your questions and concerns. Take the precautions to protect yourself and your investment to make sure it stays structurally sound for many years to come.