The Value of a Building Envelope Survey

By Jimmy Monahan

 

The term, building envelope, refers to all components that are found on the outside of a building. It’s what physically separates the conditioned inside of a structure from the outside elements. A simple analogy would be to liken the building envelope to the skin that protects our bodies. But a more in-depth comparison would also include the clothes we wear to adjust to, and be comfortable in, all different types of climates and weather conditions. Property managers in the metro NY area have become very familiar with building envelope consulting and restoration, especially since the New York City Department of Buildings continues to strengthen its Façade Inspection Safety Program, “FISP”, formally known as Local Law 11. The focus of this article is to highlight the importance and benefits of performing building envelope surveys.

Building envelope consulting firms like Sullivan Engineering perform these surveys to identify conditions related to the facade and roof that are unsafe, soon pose a safety risk, or will lead to active moisture infiltration. The primary goal of a building envelope or exterior restoration consultant is to ensure that facades and roofs are safe and watertight. These surveys often also cover the inspection of fenestrations, balconies, terraces and site work surrounding a building, such as: driveways, walkways, sidewalks and parking decks/lots.

These investigative reports provide insights into the building’s history, the status of active leaks and the details of past repairs. They highlight areas that need to be repaired immediately, or in the near future. The identified conditions and recommended repairs are often broken down into categories such as: facades, roof(s), fenestrations and site work. Construction budgets based on similar projects performed and average unit or material pricing will often accompany the recommended repairs in the survey. Now, the building owner or property manager understands what work needs to be performed, the timeline involved to address issues, estimated costs of restoration work, and a regular maintenance plan to fix current deleterious conditions, while better preventing future ones.

The NYC DOB already requires that buildings over 6 stories have regular FISP inspections performed, and reports submitted, every 5 years. The owners or managers of these buildings that fall under the FISP ordinance may not see the need for a building envelope survey. However, FISP inspections are geared towards maintenance and safety, and only identify conditions that require immediate attention, or must be addressed within the next 5 years. This doesn’t allow building management to forecast or plan for a 5 to 10-year range of repairs. Unlike building envelope surveys, FISP reports fall short of providing a rough estimate of repair costs that are broken down into immediate and comprehensive repairs that allow the property manager or owner to more accurately plan and budget building maintenance. Additionally, building envelope surveys are more comprehensive, and often offer recommendations to improve the overall performance and aesthetics of the building. Since they are not currently enrolled in the NYC FISP program, owners or managers of buildings less than 6 stories should certainly incorporate building envelope surveys to ensure and potentially improve the life cycle of their buildings.

“A failure to plan, is a plan for failure.” This quote is very relevant when it comes to performing building envelope surveys and establishing a maintenance program.While it is an additional expense, having a survey performed empowers an owner or property manager to understand, quickly respond, and preventatively address facade and roof related concerns before these conditions lead to much costlier restoration or issued violations down the road. Structural repairs, in particular, can be very expensive and often overwhelm already overextended construction budgets.

As an example, a survey might identify vertical cracks at the corners and midpoints of the building. This could be due to a lack of expansion joints, or more likely point to active water infiltration corroding the steel columns. When steel corrodes, it expands and shifts the face brick until cracks develop. If this facade condition is not identified and addressed in a timely manner, the property manager or owner may find themselves performing more severe structural repairs than scraping, priming, painting and installing waterproofing.

As you can see, there is tremendous value in a building envelope survey, and it should realistically be seen as an investment in a property. This tool can guide property managers and owners in developing maintenance programs, budgeting for capital improvements and planning for the future. If you are struggling with any of these aspects, perhaps it’s time to reach out to a exterior restoration consultant.

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