What’s “rainscreening”? Intern Architect and former Building Envelope Remediation Consultant Rick Morrow joins Adam and Matt to discuss the leaky condo crisis in the lower mainland and things to consider when buying a condo in an older building.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m an intern architect, with an architectural degree. I graduated from UBC in 1992 and worked in traditional architecture firms for 15 years, mostly in custom high-end residential and single family, some multi-family, and some commercial work. After that, I decided to try something different. A friend was running a building envelope remediation company; over the years prior I’d helped with technical, architectural or construction advice and he’d asked me for years to come work with him. I worked there for about four years, which was very interesting.
What was your role in the company and when were you there?
2007-2011. I was dealing with buildings from the early 80s to late 90s, and even newer. In 1992, the industry was quiet, Expo was a boom, and in the early 90s things were slow. Many classmates had trouble finding work. There was a buzz in the 90s about issues with condos in Vancouver. I took professional courses for engineers and architects on building envelopes through our association. Though I didn’t pursue this specifically, I thought it was good education for anyone in the architecture/design/construction business to have.
What was the leaky condo crisis and can you define the term “building envelope”?
In construction, it’s related to building science. The building envelope has to do with the skin of a building: the exterior cladding systems, windows, doors, flashings, roofing. When I was in school there was discussion about detailing, and you always thought of good practices and principles.
In the 80s there was a big boom and whenever this happens in construction, things move quickly, workmanship quality is questionable, there are different education levels of the workers, new materials can be introduced to the industry – all sorts of things are happening. Building science is evolving all the time. This was when a lot of buildings were done as “face-seal stucco systems”. Problems became apparent after buildings went up quickly in the 1980s. Some of this had to do with code, some with workmanship, and some with maintenance. It’s still relevant now, but code and workmanship are being addressed by other means. Code didn’t dictate the things that it now does.
Vancouver is unique because we have the Vancouver Building Bylaw, which is separate from building code, and it has some rules and regulations that are more stringent. If we go back a step, the National Building Code was designed years ago by scientists and building technologists. Much of that information came from things they were doing in Saskatchewan, but Canada is a series of many different climates. If you design a house for Northern Saskatchewan where it can maybe reach minus 40, this isn’t the same as North Vancouver where you can get 95 inches of rain in a year. You must identify the uniqueness of each climate and have things in your code to identify those problems.
Was that the issue, that they were relying on a national code?
It was a contributing factor, but I think there were three factors:
- The building code didn’t address specific issues particular to the West Coast of Vancouver and our climate.
- Workmanship was not always as good as it could be; detailing was not as robust for some of these issues.
- Maintenance was not always taken care of. People forget that in condos it’s still a home and you must do maintenance.
Let’s back up and talk about what a leaky condo is.
The ones that were really bad, the big, full remediations, were typically face-sealed stucco. With this type of stucco, buildings were typically concrete structures with steel stud framing, exterior drywall on the outside of the building, and lath and stucco right on top. In the old days with traditional housing, you’d see this on houses in Point Grey and Shaughnessy and there was no problem because 1) there was hardly any insulation in the walls, and 2) the heat would go through and dry it all out. With the new buildings, they were made airtight with extra insulation and they no longer dry out. Things start to rot and never dry because of all the rain we get here. Once rot starts, it snowballs – it can be drastic. You hear about these horror stories. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars per unit to fix the problem.
As part of the building science, they determined a rainscreen could address many of these issues. In Vancouver, they mandate a certain dimension of required space. You would now have an air space – metal or wood strapping with lath and stucco on top. So, there is a gap or void that enables the wall to dry out and prevents water from coming in and absorbing into the structure and rotting the building.
So, it drains better and allows the building to breathe?
Yes, both. You’ll see flashings at the top and bottom of each wall on the side of the building. This is a constant challenge as architects always want to make things beautiful and hide functional aspects. Now, the art of architecture is to build a proper rainscreened building with robust details, without having it look chopped up. When it’s done by just an engineer it can look heavy-handed, but there are ways to do it now that are more attractive and discreet while still getting the job done.
Rainscreen technology has prevented the ongoing leaky condo crisis…
Yes. Also, the City of Vancouver has mandated that on all new construction, a building envelope professional must be part of the job. So not only do we have the benefit of rules in the code where you need a rainscreen cavity, but a professional also must look at the details at not only the design level but the construction execution level, too. Wall assembly is part of it, but there is a ton of other stuff too such as the window systems and flashings that have improved. Back to the maintenance thing, a lot of these systems were designed, especially with a challenging building, where it’s hard to make things come together with waterproofing. You end up relying on flashings and caulking. Caulking has a limited lifespan of 5-7 years, and many people in high-rises are unaware of the need for replacement. It’s not easy to inspect; it requires scaffolding.
Can you describe a typical building with a face-sealed system, and what to look for if you’re a buyer and a bit worried about this?
There are towers with stucco and scaffolding and nets, but the low-rise condos about 3-4 stories high suffered often because they were wood-frame and the wood is really susceptible to the rot.
So, it would be a bigger job for a wood-frame building as opposed to a concrete building?
Typically, probably. Concrete buildings still suffered because the steel stud would rust and rot. Repair sequence and procedures were different, but the concrete buildings generally fared better than the wood-frame low rises. You’d recognize it, though there’s less and less of it around town now. When I finished school and it was prevalent, they spoke of the millions and billions it would cost to remediate all these condos, and 15-20 years later a lot of the bad ones have been addressed and it seems to be less of an issue. Construction methods are better.
Apart from the exterior, if there’s a leaking issue in a building, what are the identifying characteristics?
It could be the roof, not just the envelope. Everything has a limited lifespan, even stucco. Symptoms you would see include mold typically below the windows, around openings like doors, windows, fireplaces, and dryer vents. You often find a problem in one spot, then it leaks across the roof and comes through a room.
If you were contacted by a building starting to see the symptoms of this issue, what would be your process?
I liken this to the stages of grief:
- Denial. People don’t want to believe they have a problem.
- Anger. Who can we blame? Who should pay for this?
- Acceptance. This is where we can actually help.
One reason I left this business after four years is because it’s a bad news business. Although it was really interesting and a good challenge, and I liked working with the people, it’s a bad news business. It’s money people don’t want to spend and more than they expect to spend, and they don’t have much to show for it – it’s not like adding an addition to their home. There’s a lot of hostility and sometimes people did not want us to be there, literally. You’re right in people’s faces; it’s very personal. They’re not excited to see us.
Something would prompt us to come there; usually the strata council or property manager would approach us with a problem. There were two streams under which we worked: 1) we would come do an investigation and propose a solution, or 2) they would have a consulting or building envelope engineer investigate and direct the work. Because of my background in architecture, I understood construction details and assemblies well and could analyze lots of this for customers without using an engineer, which was a benefit. Typically, on very large projects, they would have a building envelope engineer come in and do testing and analysis, then put together a scope of work. This would be put out for tender to a number of companies and we’d all bid or negotiate on it.
Do you have any horror stories?
They’re all horror stories! From a customer perspective, there was a small building close to VGH where we were doing full remediation, exterior re-cladding, and upgrading the look of the building. This poor couple at the back had rot on not only the balcony but going into the whole living room and kitchen, too. They had a young baby and had to move out. This lasted months. Not only is there the defined scope of work that the engineer sets, but there’s the unknown. Typically, in a building envelope remediation, there’s the fixed scope and a contingency allowance for the unknown stuff. You demo all the stucco off; you see how bad the structure is. Then it’s the plywood, studs, and insulation. In this case we had to pull out and redo all the flooring structure and repaint the suite. It’s painful, especially if you’re not expecting it. And they’re often first-time homebuyers. You don’t always know what to predict or look for and even if you do, there are still hidden problems.
Yes, and in a hot market like this where we see buildings with major challenges, people are willing to overlook that just to get into the market.
We get asked this a lot: for someone looking to get into a building that has not been rainscreened and has the EIFS stucco exterior, how long on average might this type of project take and what are the costs? And, would you ever buy into a building that hasn’t been rainscreened but has no visible [problem] signs?
I might buy into a building that hasn’t been remediated and is face-sealed stucco. It depends. We saw a spectrum of buildings and strata councils and property managers. Some buildings didn’t want to spend any money and did not do proper maintenance. They would wait until severe problems manifested to finally take care of them. You don’t want to be on that end of the spectrum. Look at the strata minutes and building history; these things must be disclosed. By looking at the building, you can tell if it’s well maintained. Sometimes you have a well-meaning building manager who hides problems with a coat of paint. If there’s too much caulking or misshapen cracks, this could be a red flag. You can see patches over holes. It’s good if the council is proactive and doing proper work. I think it’s mandated now for new buildings to do building envelope maintenance plans, which is big. We would do this work for stratas and property managers. It makes sense. Different components of buildings last different amounts of time. You want to be sure the building you’re considering has a building envelope plan: you can see what’s scheduled and when, and ensure the strata has the proper contingency.
What about the process of rehabilitating the envelope? It’s not uncommon to see places under tarps for 1-2 years.
Yes, it’s tied to the severity of the damage and scope of work, and whether it’s a full or targeted remediation. Some firms tend to push for the full remediation; they don’t like doing targeted repairs. But the reality is some strata councils and owners can’t afford to do the whole deal. Some engineers have the logic of not taking any chances, but when you start the work some parts of the building may be OK. In Vancouver, the northeast side of buildings would have the most damage as it doesn’t get as much sun. It gets wet and moldy, while the south side wouldn’t be as bad. It depends on the type and size of building, too.
We have many clients who are willing to take on the cost of a rainscreen, but we tell them it’s more so about living through the invasive work.
The costs have come down a lot as the business is more competitive. When I first started with the remediation company, prices were still on the rise. There were only about half a dozen big names. Now there are more.
It’s an interesting business because there are still several buildings that need remediation, but I guess a big part of the business is the [buildings’] maintenance programs.
Yes, and it’s shocking that there are still newer buildings getting remediated.
Is it true that if a building’s envelope is going to fail, it will usually happen early on in its life? Within the first five years?
Yes, it’s not surprising in the 5-7-year period, as that’s the caulking’s lifespan. The other unpredictable thing is the maintenance work; if you have a proactive program and council and are addressing things regularly, you may catch these things early on. Don’t burrow your head in the sand; go to the dentist. Look at the strata documents. I heard anecdotally from several building envelope engineers we worked with that often the costs were later realized in building units’ equity when the work was done. In the end, people usually get their money’s worth.