The hidden defects that lurk in many commercial buildings


Many building owners may have thought about construction flaws over the summer after their condo collapsed in Surfside, Florida. The tragic collapse of the South Champlain Towers killed 98 people and triggered a frantic search and rescue effort amid the rubble and debris that lasted 14 days. A 2018 structural study of the 15-story condo found that waterproofing under the pool deck was causing significant structural damage to the concrete slab below the area. The investigation into the exact causes of the building collapse is still ongoing, and the legal and regulatory fallout from such a major disaster is just beginning.

The Surfside condo collapse is the stuff of nightmares for homeowners. It is also an extreme example of the consequences of construction faults. Construction faults rarely cause entire buildings to collapse, but they can lead to a host of other headache-causing problems for property owners, such as expensive and lengthy litigation and costly repairs. These flaws can be obvious or they can hide in a building for years before they are detected. And because of complex statute of limitations laws that vary in each state and local jurisdiction, whether or not landowners can successfully get a building contractor to fix them depends on how quickly they are spotted.

The most common construction defects are classified in terms of design, materials and workmanship. Design flaws occur when the architect or building designer makes a mistake or omits something in the design plans. If a design defect is discovered after the construction project is complete, the only recourse for property managers is often a construction defect lawsuit. Building owners can be proactive by identifying design flaws early in the construction process. If any errors are found, they will usually require some component redesign. Design flaws can also optionally be corrected by adding to the project scope of work or through change orders. Constant communication with the construction team can quickly detect these errors.

Material defects are usually blamed on the manufacturer of substandard building materials, but they are less common. These defects often result in costly repairs and the need for new materials. Often, material defects are not discovered until they are already incorporated into the finished construction project, making them more expensive to repair. A good way to prevent material defects is to make sure building materials are tested before they are used in a project. Professional committees and independent testing laboratories should subject materials to a review process.

Finally, manufacturing defects are the most common of all and refer to significant structural issues or more minor design issues. They often occur when the contractor takes shortcuts, failing to complete the construction project in accordance with code requirements, approved plans, or standards of care. Repairing manufacturing defects when they are spotted can be tricky, because if repairs are made and litigation subsequently arises, repairing a defect, even in good faith, could be considered “tampering.” the proof “. If you spot a manufacturing defect early on, contractors may have to follow a specific process to reduce their liability, such as notifying any subcontractors who may be responsible, inspecting the defect and taking photographic evidence, and asking for advice. experts regarding the fault. Remedies for manufacturing defects will vary depending on their impact. Landowners usually have several options, including getting someone to fix the defect and then taking legal action for the cost of the repairs.

Tyler Berding is the founding partner of Berding & Weil LLP, a construction defect development and common interest law firm in California, and he said most construction defects develop over long periods of time. periods in a “glacially slow” fashion. “If you find a fault early enough in the life of the building, before decay or other deterioration sets in, fixing a problem is relatively inexpensive,” Berding said. “But if you wait and don’t know a fault develops, you may need to replace entire building systems. “

Berding said low-rise condominiums and wood-frame apartments have long been prone to construction errors, which has resulted in legal disputes with contractors and developers. High-rise buildings are also vulnerable to these defects, and an entire industry of law firms has grown to handle construction defect litigation. Berding added that some of the causes of construction defects are often a shortage of skilled labor during times of high real estate prices and demand. Builders are eager to capitalize on a booming real estate market, but good construction takes time and talented workers. With limited time and talent, errors in the construction of a building can accumulate.

With the widespread shortage of skilled construction workers across the country, homeowners and developers should be especially mindful of flaws in new construction projects at this time. Another big factor could be the supply chain issues that have prevented contractors from obtaining the necessary materials. Berding stressed that homeowners need to be vigilant about spotting and early detection of construction faults, and he said there are a variety of ways to do this with technology.

“Use an infrared camera and photograph the outer skin of a building perhaps shortly after a rainstorm,” Berding said. “The camera will allow a homeowner to see patterns under the skin of the building, as different colors appear that suggest where moisture might be seeping into the building.”

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Building owners can also use endoscopes, an optical instrument designed to perform visual inspections of hard-to-reach areas. Berding explained that this is usually done by drilling a small hole in the envelope of a building and then looking inside to see if there is any water intrusion. Rigid or flexible endoscopes are usually connected to a camera or videography device. These instruments are commonly used in the visual inspection of airplanes, industrial gas turbines, steam engines, and truck engines, but they are also useful in property inspections.

Endoscopes and infrared cameras can detect the most common construction defect, the facade leak. Facades are complex architectural elements to build, so they are more likely to have construction errors. Failed facade elements can lead to serious water infiltration problems that can become difficult to identify and repair. If a facade is poorly constructed, water infiltration can cause mold growth, rust and structural problems. Once issues are detected, homeowners can seal the substrate spaces to ensure the building is watertight. Leaks around windows are also common, damaging a building envelope and leading to higher energy bills. And although roofs are rarely installed incorrectly, any mistakes can lead to water build-up, leaks and structural damage.

Depending on when the defects are spotted, you may not be able to charge the building contractor for the repairs. Many states impose time limits on construction defect claims, and time limits begin to run when the defect is discovered or “should have been discovered by a reasonable person.” Construction defect disputes are incredibly complex and often involve multiple parties including contractors, builders, insurance companies, and many obscure legal theories.

Most construction faults will not cause anything about the extent of the Surfside condo collapse, which is a nightmare scenario for any homeowner. But construction defects should be taken very seriously from the construction phase of a project until it is completed and occupied. Taking a proactive approach to identifying faults can prevent many headaches down the road. The use of technologies such as endoscopes and infrared cameras can help detect faults such as water intrusion into building facades which often remain dormant and avoid easy detection. As Berding said, construction flaws can develop slowly, so the sooner you look for them the better.


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