Engineering studies fall into a number of categories, from general condition surveys (such as reserve studies and pre-purchase inspections) to problem-solving investigations and forensic examinations. Within those categories, there are generally three (3) levels of need.
There is a phrase in the lives of community associations guaranteed to make the blood run cold – Special Assessment.
Property managers and boards of directors fear it, and homeowners are usually angered by it. The most common initial reaction from those affected is to find someone to blame. It has to be the fault of management, who ignored maintenance, the board of directors who didn’t budget enough to cover routine repairs and replacements, or the consultant who recommended a needlessly expensive remediation program.
It’s not always that simple and even if it is, so what? The fact remains homeowners will have to pony up or get used to living with the leaks, rotted wood, potholed pavement or whatever conditions are involved. The second option is short-sighted and will only add to the problem, so the only real option is to develop a workable strategy and sell it to the owners.
The first step is to identify and quantify the problems and define appropriate remedies. These should be done by someone who wouldn’t financially benefit from the outcome. Qualified, trustworthy contractors could do a competent job, but could be viewed as having a vested interest and their findings could be dismissed by some for that reason. Independent consultants aren’t automatically more believable, but there’s certainly less potential for a conflict of interest.
The next (and arguably most critical) issue is effective communication. Once it’s been established that a major project is necessary, the ownership should be informed and a special meeting should be convened to present it to them. The individual(s) who investigated the problems and defined the repairs should present their findings and provide exhibits (photographs, drawings, etc.). There will be questions (often pointed) and accusations should be expected. Patience, tolerance, and understanding on the part of the targets are critical.
When possible, projects should be structured to minimize financial hardship. In some cases, projects could be phased over a number of years, allowing for assessments to be paid in installments over that period. If a project doesn’t lend itself to a phased approach, it could be advantageous to obtain a loan, which would also permit payment in installments.
Reserve studies by competent professionals will help prevent the need for special assessments, but if they aren’t done early and often, or if funding recommendations are ignored, the potential could be high. Even with conscientious inspections major problems (such as latent defects) can develop without visible symptoms many years after construction.
Buying a home in a condominium differs in a number of significant ways from buying one in an independent “neighborhood.” Condominiums (in fact all community associations) have by-laws, covenants, and budgets, to which you will be bound as an owner.
An examination of the associations’ documents (especially the budget) is essential. Operations are obviously funded by unit owners and your share could be considerable. Monthly assessments can approach, or even exceed mortgage payments.
A reserve study should have been performed within the last three to five years and they should have been provided as part of the sale packet given by the seller. If not, be wary. In some jurisdictions (such as The Commonwealth of Virginia) they are mandated for specific intervals. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) requires reserve studies every two years for certification and they won’t underwrite loans for first-time buyers in uncertified associations.
Reserve studies can be difficult to interpret for the uninitiated. Nonetheless, there are things to look for.
- Reserve studies should be performed by qualified organizations, based on engineering or architectural criteria. Reports with discussion of the involved elements are preferred over simple tables.
- Most community associations fund by the “cash-flow” method, which should cover a minimum of twenty years.
- There’s no simple formula for funding reserves, but lenders have tightened requirements and may deny a loan if annual funding is less than ten percent of the total operating budget. There should be some discussion from the author regarding the adequacy of reserves funding.
There may also have been engineering studies performed to evaluate specific systems and/or investigate problems. Disclosure laws usually require that they be provided to potential buyers.
There are differences, beyond the obvious, between older and new condominiums. In Part 3 to follow, we’ll go over some that should be considered.
If you live in an apartment, condominium or townhome building, there’s a good chance you occasionally hear your neighbors’ activities. Absolute silence is an unreasonable expectation, but you shouldn’t have to overhear your neighbors’ telephone conversations or listen to their music. Most building codes have requirements regarding sound transmission between dwellings in multi-family housing, but they’re less stringent than many consider acceptable.
The current International Building Code (IBC) stipulates theoretical airborne and structure-borne Sound Transmission Characteristic (STC) ratings of 50 for wall and floor assemblies between units. A rating of 45 is allowable if field-tested. STC values are roughly the same as decibels (db). Sounds decrease by half or increase by double for every ten db of change. Accordingly, a sound measured at 90 db would be perceived as half as loud as a 100 db sound and an assembly with an STC rating of 50 would be twice as effective as one with a rating of 40.
In theory, walls and floors rated STC 50 should block most sounds coming from your neighbors. Fairly loud home entertainment systems can be heard, but faintly. At 45, the sounds would be considerably more audible. Code requirements notwithstanding, buildings under construction are seldom tested and actual acoustical characteristics could be well below acceptable.
Attenuation of structure-borne sound (such as footfalls, appliance noises, etc.) is achieved by installing materials that do not readily transfer vibrations (resilient pads) at strategic locations between living spaces. Airborne sound attenuation is achieved by installing materials (such as batt insulation) that absorb sound between living spaces. Obviously, the best time to install these is during construction.
While flooring could be removed and buffering pads could be installed after the fact, it would be extremely costly and disruptive to do so. Still, there are things that can be done to reduce noise trespass to more tolerable levels. Short of tearing up floors, the only way to reduce structure borne noise is to create an absorptive barrier between the source and target spaces. An example would be a second drywall ceiling, attached to resilient furring channels with a sound absorbing mat sandwiched between it and the original ceiling. There are also drywall products that transfer less sound than conventional gypsum board.
Airborne noise transmission could be improved by blowing loose insulation into wall and ceiling cavities between units. There are also a variety of products (sound reduction sheeting and mats) that could be installed over walls and ceilings to help reduce intrusive sounds. There are of course aesthetic considerations with this measure.
A number of manufacturers offer sound absorbing paint. The effectiveness of those products is at best, questionable. Some attenuation is possible, but only in the mid-range of the audible spectrum and only at imperceptible levels
Three-dimensional Ground Penetrating Radar (3D GPR) allows us to peer inside visually impenetrable building elements. We most often use it locate embedded steel reinforcement,tendons, pipes etc., in concrete slabs. There are other technologies that can perform such tasks, but they have a number of shortcomings.
1. Radiography can produce reliable, high-resolution images, but the process requires a potentially hazardous radioactive source and access to both sides of the scanned item. It’s also tedious and time consuming.
2. Magnetometers can detect ferrous metal (iron and steel), but cannot determine depth or dimensions. Deeply embedded materials can be elusive to most hand-held magnetometers and non-ferrous materials (aluminum, plastic, copper, etc.) are undetectable.
3. Two-dimensional GPR will locate embedded items and gross anomalies in the scanned materials, but depth cannot be accurately determined. It also produces a lower resolution image compared to 3D.
The system we use can scan extremely dense materials (such as concrete) to depths of up to 20 inches in any plane. The three-dimensional aspect reliably depicts the scanned items in context. Please do not hesitate to ask us for a free demonstration of our 3D GPR.
During any construction or renovation project (interior or exterior) it’s important to consider Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), particularly air quality. Construction practices can introduce noxious fumes, dust, and other unhealthful contaminants.
A key to maintaining good indoor air quality during construction is to implement an Indoor Air Quality Management Plan (IAQMP). The Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (SMACNA) and other organizations have published guidelines for such programs. Presented below are some items to consider.
- HVAC protection – For some activities, it could be necessary to seal off ducts and air handling equipment, or install temporary filters. It could also be beneficial to clean ducts at the end of the project, particularly if the work produced a lot of airborne solids.
Improper efforts to control introduced contaminants can contribute to other air quality problems, such as reducing exchange of stale air for fresh and/or cause damage to HVAC equipment. Accordingly, a mechanical engineer or other qualified professional should be consulted before HVAC systems are sealed, turned off, or disconnected.
- Source Control – Wherever practicable, materials with low toxicity and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) should be specified. Work areas should be adequately ventilated.
- Pathway Interruption – Where possible, temporary barriers should be erected to isolate construction areas, and minimize dust accumulation on stored materials.
- Housekeeping – Jobsite cleaning should be performed throughout the project, not just at the end. Wetting agents or sweeping agents can be used to control dust.
- Scheduling – Where possible, coordinate installation of building materials to reduce introduction of fumes, dust, etc. into interior spaces.
- Air Quality Testing – For some activities, (such as removal of asbestos or lead bearing materials, mold remediation, etc.) the affected spaces should be monitored/tested by a qualified professional. Other potential contaminants could include VOCs, carbon monoxide from generators/ compressors, etc
In order to detect concealed construction defects, intrusive (destructive) investigation is the most reliable methodology. However, that type of investigation is not always easily achievable due to difficult access, budgetary constraints, and inconvenience to building occupants. Fortunately, technology has come a long way and now we can detect a variety of construction defects with the help of thermal (infrared) imaging.
Infrared cameras work by sensing the radiant energy (heat) emitted or conducted by the objects in its field of view. The radiant energy is converted into visual images (thermograms) by the camera’s built-in software. Variations in temperature create detailed maps of the study subjects. Thermal diagnostics (for buildings) is based on the principle that materials will conduct heat at varying rates when certain factors are present. For example, materials that are normally poor heat conductors (such as wood or drywall) will readily conduct heat if wet. Missing or compressed insulation and air leaks are also detectable.
In order to perform a successful infrared study of a building, it is highly recommended to have a stable temperature difference of at least ten degrees (10°) between indoor and outdoor temperatures. The imbalance is necessary to facilitate heat gain or loss through the subject materials and reveal their conductivity. If there’s no heat movement, there are no thermal differences to detect.
A common scenario would be to scan a building wall from the outside, during cold, cloudy weather, before sunup or after sunset. Heat lost through the building elements would register as colors and they vary with the degree of loss. Wet or missing insulation might be rendered at the yellow or orange end of the spectrum, whereas dry insulation would be nearer to blue or purple.
Infrared imaging can also be used to detect destructive insect activity (termites, carpenter ants, etc.). Severe damage can be readily observed during a conventional scan, but more advanced equipment may be needed to catch early stages of infestation.
The next time you plan an investigation of your building, consider having an infrared study done. ETC has personnel fully trained and certified to perform infrared studies, and we will be more than happy to walk you through the steps
Maryland Mold Remediation Services Act Beginning in July 2013, the State of Maryland will enforce The Maryland Mold Remediation Services Act, which will require all contractors that perform mold remediation on private homes (includes the interior, non-common areas, of Condominium units) must be licensed to perform mold remediation service by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission (MHIC). This is a different license than a typical contractors license. Additionally, each employee who provides mold remediation services must be properly certified as a microbial remediation technician or supervisor by an organization such as the Council for Accredited Certification. Finally, any contractor that provides mold remediation services may not provide mold consulting or develop the mold remediation plan and vice versa. This eliminates the classic “fox watching the hen house” situation when it comes to mold assessments and clean-up projects. We would like to thank Susan White of Sussex Environmental Health Consultants for making us aware of this new requirement.
To date there are only eight states that require replacement reserve studies, by law, for homeowners associations, condominiums, and cooperatives. The only one in the Mid-Atlantic region that does so is Virginia, which mandates studies every five years. Maryland requires budgeting of reserves but there is no current statute or regulation stating ”perform a reserve study.”
Legal requirements notwithstanding, reserve studies are essential to responsible financial planning and a reserve study can only be accomplished by physical inspection of the common elements of a community. You can buy reserve study software wherein you fill in some blanks and it disgorges an annual contribution, but it would be imprudent to assume all systems are “typical”. The five-year period cited in the Virginia statute should be adequate for most communities. Three to four years would be better, particularly for older and/or more complex associations.
More and more synthetic materials are being used in the building trades. Vinyl siding, PVC pipes and their like have been around long enough that we know how they behave, but there are things about other products (cellular PVC trim boards, composite deck planks, etc.) that are not as widely known.
* Synthetic trim is not a direct replacement for wood. PVC (even cellular PVC) experiences far more thermal movement than wood and attachment provisions could differ from wood, depending upon a number of factors. Manufacturers could require extra fasteners and adhesives for certain configurations.
* Synthetic trim won’t rot, but it can degrade when exposed to the elements. Painting is recommended for some and required for others and there are considerations apart from adhesion and compatibility issues. Because of the elevated thermal expansion of plastics, certain colors are not recommended for exterior applications. Dark colors absorb more thermal energy from sunlight and the resulting rise in temperature will exacerbate movement problems. White is generally the best choice.
*Synthetic (composite) decking will not usually have the same strength as wood and its span rating is usually reduced. If you replace wood with composite, it may be necessary to add floor joists or other support.
These are just a few things to consider when dealing with synthetics. You should always consult with the material manufacturer before using, modifying or treating these products.