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Keven Moore: Being proactive integral in maintaining structural integrity, safety of commercial buildings

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

The liability lessons from that event are still being learned and hashed out, which I reference in my July 8 article. The age of such buildings never tends to be a concern to most people, but in my profession, we are paid to worry and lend our eyes and ears to the underwriters of such risks.

Insurance underwriters are constantly inquiring about the age and condition of a building so that they can determine what their appetite maybe be to insure a particular structure and at what cost to set the annual premiums.

An aging boarded up commercial structure (Photo from Wiki Commons)

Looking back to my early days at Fireman’s Fund Insurance as Loss Control Consultant, I can still remember inspecting a handful of buildings in decayed urban settings where my recommendation was to run and to do not stop. The fact of the matter is that many property owners either chose not to properly maintain their investment or simply lack the skill or understanding as to why structural and aging issues are a concern and need to be properly addressed.

Not being a trained structural engineer or architect, I cannot definitively tell you exactly why some buildings last centuries, while others can’t make it past their three or four decades, but I can emphasize the importance of properly maintaining an aging building to adequately get them properly insured so that won’t break your bank account.

While modern-day building codes and structural engineering have made buildings today extremely safe, facilities managers and building owners still must maintain a high level of upkeep for them to remain that way. As buildings age, they can lose their structural integrity which degrades over time. As such, if simple repairs are left ignored or neglected, they can expand into significant issues, possibly causing significant damage that can interrupt operations and/or even endanger occupants and others nearby.

Continuous preventative maintenance and inspections are vital for keeping buildings safe and operable. According to the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, 72% of commercial buildings in the United States are aged 20 years or older. It’s around this milestone that insurance underwriters begin to get concerned and require in-depth loss control property inspections. It is also about the time facilities managers should expect to prepare significant funds for upgrades. 

Facilities managers need to keep a close eye on all components that make up a building’s functionality. While it may seem that structural issues only refer to the foundation and walls, the reality is that all systems within a building must be working sufficiently to keep the building structurally sound for the long haul. Many structural issues can be attributed to the following:

Older building showing decaying concrete (Photo from Wikicommons)

• Concrete decay – Concrete decay is natural and occurs over time as buildings age. However, several issues can cause concrete to decay prematurely, including:

• Placement issues – The common signs of placement issues include cracks, air bubbles visible in the concrete, pockets of rocks, honeycombing, and cold joints.

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

• Wind – Excessive exposure to wind can cause concrete to develop shrinkage cracks and erode the outer building layers.

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

Steel support corrosion – When steel corrodes, it expands to create tensile stresses in the concrete. Cracking, delamination and spalling are often a result.

Decayed concrete should be replaced in a timely fashion. Otherwise, the building could sustain severe structural defects or collapse.

Roofing – A few factors determine a roof’s lifespan, including the type of roof, the climate and the roof’s maintenance history. If the roof is allowed to deteriorate and moisture spreads, other systems will fall apart soon after. Facilities managers should plan to conduct a roof inspection twice a year — once when the weather is at its hottest and once when it’s at its coldest.

• Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems – Inefficient HVAC systems can be costly to operate and cause air quality issues, such as mold. Mold can lead to structural damage since it feeds on and breaks down organic matter. When mold infests in walls, insulation, paper backing or carpeting, the materials must be removed and replaced. Improper heating and cooling can also cause damage due to a lack of efficient air circulation and ventilation.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@higusa.com

Electrical – Hot spots can form if the electrical wiring has loose connections, corroded wires/connectors, overloaded circuits, short circuits, imbalanced electrical loading, or faulty fuses, breakers and switches. The excessive heat from these hot spots could start a fire, and even a small fire has the ability to cause damage that hurts the structural integrity.

Plumbing – Bad 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 older buildings face include inefficient fixtures, bad equipment, and lead in the pipes, the last of which can contaminate drinking water.

Outside of a significant disaster or event, buildings don’t typically deteriorate overnight. There are several preventive measures that can be taken to ensure a structure’s longevity.

These include:

• Hiring a good facilities manager – Facilities managers should know the building better than anyone else and act as the first line of defense by identifying any repairs that need to take place. Having a proactive facilities manager can save money and ensure buildings remain safe to occupy.

Planning for repairs and maintenance – While setting aside a large sum of money for repairs that haven’t happened yet may seem unnecessary, it can be beneficial in the long run when it’s time for routine maintenance or when unexpected expenses occur.

Conducting building inspections – Inspections should be performed by qualified inspectors who have location-specific expertise. Inspectors should be familiar with signs of damage due to local weather, such as areas with saltwater or snow loading. Structural engineers should assess the major structural components of the building to identify any necessary corrective actions. They should document inspections to allow for year-to-year comparisons of issues, being sure to take ample photos. Inspections should occur:

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

• Knowing local building codes – Building codes help maintain safe and structurally sound buildings. It’s essential to know and understand local building codes so that all requirements are met. Some regulations in harsher environments may have additional requirements.

Acting upon identified issues – When an issue arises, it should be dealt with swiftly. Early action can keep costs lower than if an issue is allowed to become more serious. The safety of those who live or work in the building depends on structural issues being addressed and resolved.

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

Be Safe My Friends.

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