Where’s That Water Coming From !

Last night had been a big one. After 6 years at University I finally had some cash to spend and that night most of it had gone to bar proprietors.  I gingerly got out of bed about to embrace the day (with a headache), when I noticed a flashing light on the cell phone.

13 messages. 12 of them within the last three hours. I looked out the window, it had been pouring down with rain last night but relatively fine this morning. I only had to listen to one and a half messages before my face dropped and the sad state of affairs that would be my weekend dawned down on me……….

I had recently quit a prestigious consulting firm to join an up and coming property development company. Lured by champagne dreams and a caviar lifestyle this was my ticket into the fast lane. That all appeared a little off the mark now as I was lying on the edge of a roof of a multi-level town-home, holding a hose over the side, trying to pretend I was the likely rainfall from a northerly storm.
“Can you see it yet?” I yelled.
“Na” was the muffled reply from inside 3 stories below.
“What about now”…the conversation continued for many hours.

The problem that has held New Zealand’s residential property market ransom for almost two decades now was just starting to emerge. My role was to resolve any outstanding defects for purchasers – it quickly morphed into a job that dealt with a few minor issues (everything except water) and one massive disaster (water!). Yes I worked for a developer that did care and did consume vast resource to try to fix what effectively others had built.

As a practical introduction to construction 101 and stakeholder engagement 202 there was nothing better than spending 18 months trying to identify and rectify mysterious water leaks in peoples brand new, very expensive inner city homes – whilst they were living there.

In the early days we tried the following expensive approach:
– Tell the builder to fix it. Mostly they couldn’t without additional support and sometimes key staff had already moved on.
– Withhold the builders retention to make sure they had fixed it. Given enough time and with an industry flush with new work  builders would often drop any hope of receiving their last payment. Often the problem emerged after the last payment had been given.
– Tell the original Architect to sort it out (obviously must of been a design detail), yeah not really an approach that got any results – a  lot of blank faces on Architects in those days
– With no builder available or at least capable we took the highly professional route and pretty much assembled what we thought was the water leak A-Team. Engineers, new Architects, Project Managers, all sorts of experts you name it, we paid for it.

The problem was (in retrospect) no one really new what they were doing but were more than happy to be paid to try and dream up solutions. I was culpable because, mainly to minimise purchaser disruption, we wanted to limit intrusive investigations. That forced a piecemeal approach – fix it in the easiest way possible. Typically there was no easy fix.

Later there were consultants who appeared on the scene who specialised in weather-tightness armed with their moisture meters so we used them. They were also still learning and took a very conservative (everything is a problem) approach. As a representative for a company who could end up footing the bill you didn’t always want to hear the answer.

Over time and hundreds of thousands of dollars later we learned that in the first instance the practical approach was best.

My stakeholder engagement went something like this:
“Hello Mrs Smith, yes that annoying leak into the bottom bedroom doesn’t want to go away does it?
Hmm, well we have had all the experts in – thanks to your 7 year old daughter for letting us look at the wall in her room by the way – and checked the property as much as possible.
Well, arrrrgh, hmmm we think the best thing to do now is to knock holes in that wall and the adjoining wall in your master bedroom, lounge and daughters room and find where the water is coming in.
I am going to hold a hose on the roof and these guys, with work boots removed are going to try and not knock anything over in your house and tell me when and if they see water.”

That approach whilst a frightening inconvenience for the home owner actually fixed that leak. What we found is that the intersection between the parapet wall, the roof metal, the internal gutter and the bitumen seal was faulty. You couldn’t tell from looking at it, but once isolated with water, that’s where it was coming in. Once inside, water traveled down timber, across ceilings, down more timber, and eventually out into the inside of the young girls bedroom once it hit the concrete floor on the lower level.

So we fixed each one of those intersections on all 5 or so townhouses and while we were at it replaced all parapet capping to cover the entire parapet to the metal roof line. Like this one, often a leak does not have a single cause. Typically there are many faults that in their sum create a weather-tightness problem.

Then we lawyer-ed up and the costs and blame game went stratospheric.

Nowadays there is a whole industry of building surveyors who specialise in weather-tightness. I don’t know if they make the solutions any easier, cheaper or less intrusive to home owners – it just seems everything gets completely re-clad or rebuilt now.

Just because there is a water leak doesn’t always mean the whole building is leaky. I remember visiting an office extension we had built  that housed our new development showroom on the morning before the big launch. To my astonishment the newly laid timber floor was flooded with water quickly moving towards the carpet.  I sent a laborer to the warehouse to buy every towel they had to mop up the mess.
I eventually climbed up onto the roof. No not a leaky building, just a stupid paint subcontractor had left all their gear in the middle of the gutter and that had blocked the water from getting to the downpipes !

In another non-leaky building situation, water was coming in from the ceiling. OK here we go, thinking it was a leaky building and the consultants were about to be called in. Thankfully  the builder figured out what could be the problem and stripped the ceiling off. We found the plumber had not tightened the shower wastes to the bathroom upstairs! As a precaution we removed ceilings in a number of other units to check the plumbers handiwork.

From my experience I put the leaky building crisis down to some key points:
– Poor attention to detail at joints and where sub-trades meet. This was exacerbated  by poor construction management oversight and liberal site inspections. I understand in the United States the methods of contract and packages of work actually create better coordination between sub-trades.

– Very few people knew what they were doing when it came to trendy looking town-homes. Flat roofs, parapets, internal gutters, flush walls all can work if done properly. Almost everyone was inexperienced in this type of construction: Architects, Project Managers, Construction Managers, Foreman, Main Contractors, Sub-contractors and yes Developers.
The focus on cost control and delivery according to programme created gaps in detail for this type of construction, that many overlooked because they didn’t know what they didn’t know. In retrospect they should have known!

– Sometimes it simply was shoddy or negligent construction, often associated with cheap labour.

– Council and independent inspections were inadequate or at least not cognisant of weather-tightness issues to the same degree as they are now so they missed potential problem areas.

– Material manufacturers had a role to play.

Our town-homes used to have stucco exteriors. When cracks started to appear (literally) we searched high and low for suitable alternatives that would fit the style of modern town-homes.

There was one meeting we had which I now look back on as a game changer to the severity of leaky buildings. I am sure every developer in town was having the same meetings . In this ‘sales’ meeting sat our company, and three others; a representative each for suppliers of kiln dried untreated timber framing,  elastomeric coatings and cementitious backing board.

This was to be the new fail safe method, explained to us something like:
“With kiln dried timber there would be no shrinkage, and therefore no movement, and with the elastomeric coating on cementitious board because there was no movement there was no way the water could get in. Cavities were not a requirement for a manufacturer approved installation.”

The problem as many of us know is that the water came in through intersections and details and with this system the water couldn’t get out. Once the water was in, and stayed in, it could cause damage for a long period of time before it was noticed. With untreated timber framing this increased likelihood of rot.

Applied with the utmost precision the system could work – good builders got it to work with relentless attention to detail on many of our projects. However, the precision required in my opinion was beyond existing residential trade skills, management and inspection thereof – so the system failed on many developers projects all across the country.

So then we moved to doing everything in concrete, which in itself does not solve the problem but is a much more robust fail safe if water does get inside.

Today on residential projects I am involved in, we have the plans evaluated at concept/resource consent specifically for weather-tightness risks, then again at building consent (for weather-tightness details) and then specifically inspected for weather-tightness during construction – by an expert.

So back to that fateful Saturday morning,  I listen to the 12 messages, they went something like this:
12. “Andrew, my house is flooded”
11. “Hi, we have some water coming in”
10. “My carpet is wet in the corner”
9. “I can put my hand through the wall”
8. “Can you please send someone around, we have a problem”
7. “My neighbor has just called me and said their place is flooded, I am away – can you check mine for me?”
6. …and so on they went…

My weekend was spent coordinating three separate carpet cleaning services, a team of carpet installers (to remove the carpet) and running over 20 industrial strength fans to dry the floor out.

The problem was very simple, but certainly caused by negligence of the sub-trade and not picked up by construction managers or inspectors. The building is multiple levels high, water would hit the face of the wall during a particular storm direction and track down the wall. At the bottom level it would run down a ranch-slider door and supposedly any water trapped in the joinery would escape through the weep holes. The joinery had weep holes so we thought no problem there.

What we found eventually after having a Chinese supplier fax us joinery details was that this aluminium section had two sets of weep holes and that the plasterer had rendered over one set. So 50% of the trapped water had nowhere to go but inside.

That one was easy to fix also, unfortunately only after a lot of damage had been done, after home owners had been frustrated to their limits and after  I had to find out far too much about every minute detail of how the building had been put together.




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