The Wood-Framed Condo Conundrum
Alberta, and particularly northern Alberta, is known for its harsh climate and unforgiving winters. In this setting, it’s crucial that structures be built for resilience and that those not built with the climate in mind be retrofitted and restored to optimize building performance and improve the sustainability of our built environment.
Brian Shedden, BSS® is a building scientist and a Principal based out of our Edmonton office who leads the Building Envelope and Restoration team there. We sat down with him to explore some of the biggest challenges he has been solving for clients in Western Canada.
Brian, tell us a little about the structural issues you are seeing in wood-framed condominiums.
For at least the last 10 years in Alberta, commercial buildings, condominium corporations, and specifically condominium unit owners in wood-framed buildings that average 3-5 stories in height (and rising), have been the victims of some of the worst building envelope construction practices seen since the leaky condo crisis of Vancouver in the 1990’s.
Typically, these buildings also include face-sealed or poorly drained cladding systems as the major cladding item, such as stucco installed tight against underlying building paper, and vinyl membrane covered balconies.
What begins with typical symptoms such as staining that are often overlooked as purely cosmetic, can lead to decay of the building’s structural components, which are the very things holding the building up. These problems will continue unabated until someone decides to call in an engineer to take a look.
Does your team help assess the problems as well as fixing them?
Yes. We begin to remove areas of the cladding to reveal, in some cases, decay so advanced that the wall sheathing is completely gone and the structural members such as wood studs can easily be crushed by hand.
Often, there are no visible interior damages associated with failing cladding assemblies. Water, which if the building had been constructed according with drained wall assembly design principles, would normally drain to the exterior of the building. If water has become trapped inside the wall assembly it will sit on the wood surfaces of the structure, where it will start the cycle of the decay mechanisms due to its inability to dry out quickly. Repeated wetting exacerbates the situation and within a relatively short period of time, in some buildings as little as 6-7 years, structural decay can be so severe that emergency shoring is often required, just to keep the building upright and the residents safe.
Owners will have had building permits issued and assume the professionals involved understand how to prevent these problems. So how does this happen?
In our experience there are several factors at play:
- The building permit drawings illustrate correct detailing for the building envelope, but the as-built conditions on site do not match the drawings and are many times constructed in reverse order, allowing the water to bypass the cladding and enter into the wall/balcony assemblies.
- Once the cladding is installed during construction, you are no longer able to see if there are any deficiencies in the construction of the water drainage plane, as it is hidden.
- Site supervisors, even if they are experienced, cannot be everywhere at once, so work goes on that is incorrect and undetected.
- Professionals who have signed and stamped the building permit B & C schedules, the ones where they pledge to ensure compliance with the building code and review construction while it is ongoing, have not provided adequate levels of field review, or simply cannot review every detail in every location.
- Until recently, the building department inspections by the authority having jurisdiction have not included the building envelope.
So how do we resolve these problems for property owners?
Solving these problems can often involve major restorations, so the challenge becomes how to carry out these fixes while people still live in the buildings. And of course, our clients are concerned with how to cover the unexpected cost and inconvenience.
We can’t displace the residents during these projects. The restoration, unless it extends to the interior, must be completed from the exterior of the buildings, frequently by erecting costly scaffolding or employing mobile lifts. Residents often lose access to their balconies, sometimes for months on end. Unit owners are hard-pressed to sell their units during a major project and tenants for rental units typically shy away as well.
Our goal is focused on how to mitigate these challenges and complete the project in a timely and cost-effective manner. The right project team can collaborate to get this done. Like a three-legged stool; all three legs must be working together well:
- A representative from the Owner(s), such as a member of the Board of Directors of the Condominium Corporation.
- A professional consultant
- An experienced and qualified general contractor
What should clients expect of the renovation process?
A building permit will be required and as such, contract documents which outline in detail, the scope of work prepared by the consultant and including such things as:
- A contract such as a CCDC2 between the owner and the contractor
- A detailed set of project specifications that, in writing, detail exactly the materials and standards required to complete the project.
- A detailed set of project drawings, typically depicting each elevation of the building, a site plan and very detailed drawings of specific connections of materials and types of materials.
Without these necessary documents, no corporation should undertake a project as the liability associated with it would certainly expose the corporation to more of the same issues they are trying to correct in the first place.
Funding major condo restorations – how does it work?
The next challenge concerns the cost of carrying out these projects. All condo corporations must have a reserve fund established to build up the necessary funds to carry out major replacement projects, if building envelope components actually serve out their intended service lives. Structure is typically not considered, as in a perfect world this would never be damaged. In the case of major structural restoration or remediation projects, there is rarely sufficient funding available to draw on and the corporation ends up having to issue a special levy, formerly called a special assessment, to raise the funds necessary.
Many of these projects carry a price tag of between $30,000 and $50,000 per unit and given the typical demographics of condo residents – who are largely either seniors or young first-time homeowners – the availability of ready cash is often a challenge. In these cases, there are providers of commercial loans that specialize in the intricacies of condominiums, and we regularly see this route being pursued as it allows unit owners to spread the costs out over much longer periods of time through increased monthly fees.
Often, third-party loans can also be pursued by corporations in lieu of a large-scale levy for restoration projects. This helps “spread the load” over the coming years.
Depending on the determined cause of the issues, we have even seen litigation against the original developer, the original contractor, the architect and/or other professionals associated with premature system failure. This is a very costly approach that doesn’t have guaranteed results, so consider it wisely before proceeding.
The most recent changes to the New Home Warranty Program address some of these concerns and will hopefully continue to evolve. In the meantime, there are solutions to restore condominiums in a sustainable manner, ensuring a resilient future and we’re here to help.
To discuss this article, or your existing building concerns with Brian, reach out to him here.