Time and Gravity Bite: The Case for Façade Forward Maintenance Plans

This blog will look at the importance of forward maintenance plans (FMP) and how getting to know your building can prevent the type of failures occurring that could potentially harm a passer-by, or worse. This blog looks at FMPs for the façade, which is often neglected, albeit with clean windows.

We see what we want to see

As discussed in my previous blog, all buildings, and their façades, have issues. Even the shiniest, most aesthetically pleasing of façades will have defects and the older the building, the more defects will be present (generally speaking). You can’t usually see them from the ground though so, we tell ourselves the façade is fine.

A lot of these defects will be normal mundane maintenance items, but some may have the potential to become more serious over time. Failures, where a piece of a façade comes loose, happen more often than you think. Sometimes they can’t be predicted and are the result of earthquakes or severe storms but often, they can be predicted because signs of a problem are present on the façade.

These visible problems get missed because there is no process in place for inspection, recording and repair. Very few commercial high-rises have a forward maintenance plan prepared by a building surveyor and this leaves Owners and their property management team vulnerable to surprise failures.

The unwelcome surprise

Back in 2017, I was booked in to do a façade inspection of a 1980’s high-rise and prepare a 10-year forward maintenance plan. However, the façade decided to give everybody a bit of a fright before the inspection could even happen.

At some point over a weekend, a huge section of concrete render fell from about level 8 and came crashing down onto the footpath below. Before the render hit the ground, its fall was interrupted by a steel handrail on the podium roof, and this thankfully caused the slab to break into smaller pieces of about 2-3kgs.

The steel handrail was punctured by the falling render and notably deformed after the impact. Seeing the damage to a piece of steel and thinking of what could have happened to a human being, sent shivers down everybody’s spine.

To the best of my knowledge, there had never been a forward maintenance plan prepared for this building and maintenance had been done on an ad-hoc basis (painting etc.). This failure, and the fact parts of the façade were rendered, came as a complete surprise to the property team.

When I got to review the façade close-up, the picture became a lot clearer. Cast in-situ columns at the corners of the building had a render coating (see images above) and when I tapped on the surface, I could hear hollow pockets which means the render has debonded from the surface of the column. There were also some more obvious signs of render defects – cracks with water and stains leaching from them and my favourite… cracks with vegetation growing in them.

Close-up of cracked and debonded render with some vegetation in the cracks.

How do defects become failures?

With such obvious defects, how does a failure like this occur? Well, like most failures, there are numerous contributing factors. The majority of the buildings I work on are middle-aged and I get to see them close-up – wrinkles and all. Witnessing the layers of misunderstanding, neglect, bad repairs and poor record keeping gives you a feel for what typically goes wrong with older buildings and why:

Dangerous Assumptions

  • The only maintenance façades need is window cleaning, right? – This misconception is so wrong and yet so embedded in the built environment, it scares me. Façades need so much more than just window cleaning and if window cleaning is all you do on your building, you are falling short.
  • You don’t need to worry because if you have people cleaning the windows regularly, they’ll let you know if something is wrong with the façade. Nope! Window cleaners clean windows and building surveyors survey buildings. We are trained differently and perform entirely different roles.
  • The window cleaners rightly assume they are not expected to perform a surveying role. That’s not what they’ve been told to do, it’s not what they have been trained to do and it sure as heck isn’t what they are being paid to do.

Failure to assemble a team

  • A façade needs more than just a window cleaner. It needs a building/façade surveyor, maintenance contractor, glazier, window cleaner etc. and most importantly, a property management team willing to invest in all of these people and the services they provide.

Wonky Priorities

  • The building envelope, including the façade, needs to be maintained and this requires money to be spent. When available funds are limited, the preference is sometimes to spend it in areas where tenants can see it and feel they benefit from the spend – lobby refurbishments, for example. Put façade maintenance on the back burner too many times though, and it won’t matter how fancy the lobby finishes are when people can see part of the façade on the footpath.
  • When there is a façade or roof leak affecting a tenancy, this is often seen as a priority but the efforts to remedy the leak are often ill thought out and a waste of time and money. When the leak occurs, you need to investigate to make sure the correct repair can be undertaken. These types of inspection are best completed with the façade surveyor and maintenance contractor working in conjunction with one another. Sadly, what happens most of the time is the problem gets dumped on the abseil window cleaner. “There’s a leak on level 10. Please go and fix it.” – what this actually translates to is: “We don’t care that you have no information and aren’t trained to investigate the issue. We just need to be seen, by the tenant, as doing something so, get over the side and pump silicone into things.” Read this blog to understand why that is a very bad idea.

Nobody has died yet

  • We don’t have to wait for somebody to die before we take the need for appropriate maintenance seriously. As our high-rise building stock ages, we will likely see more failures and whilst taking steps now to prevent this is very practical, it is unlikely to occur without some sort of legal requirement to maintain the facade being put in place.

The Lesson

The render failure example discussed above could have killed somebody and was avoidable. If there had been an FMP in place sooner, there would have been routine inspections and maintenance planned which would have identified and addressed the render defects before they became a hazard.

All buildings need to be maintained and the process should start on Day-1. The longer you leave it to find out what maintenance and repairs are required, the more expensive defect remediation will become and the more risk you will be exposed to… not to mention the risk increase to those on the ground.

By Victoria Richardson