December 14, 1999

City offers advice on leaky condos

Journal A/E editor

Just in time for the Puget Sound's rainy season, the Seattle Department of Design, Construction and Land Use this week will release a pamphlet to help consumers avoid buying a condominium that leaks.

DCLU spokesperson Alan Justad described the brochure as a "wake-up call" for prospective condominium buyers. The pamphlet is a culmination of the city's year-long process of gathering public testimony and conducting preliminary research into the problem.

The brochure gives telltale signs of moisture damage, suggests how consumers can take action and lists questions potential buyers should ask before taking the plunge on purchasing a condominium. (See box.)

Seattle Councilmember Jan Drago, who has spearheaded discussion of the issue, said her message to prospective condominium buyers is the old stand-by for consumers everywhere: Buyer beware. Drago recommended that potential condominium buyers hire a professional inspector before they purchase a unit -- both for new structures and older ones.

"Unfortunately, there's no single action we can take to remedy the problem," Drago said, adding that the city is taking a "broad approach" to dealing with the leaky-condo problem. Educating the public is most important step, she said.

Jud Taylor, project manager of The Soltner Group, Architects, a Seattle firm that specializes in repairing moisture-damaged buildings, half-jokingly observed that there are two kinds of condominiums in the Puget Sound area: those that are leaking and those that were leaking and have been repaired.

Questions condo buyers should ask

According to the Seattle Department of Design, Land Use and Construction's new brochure "Leaky Buildings and Moisture Damage: A Guide for Apartment and Condominium Owners and Buyers" potential condo buyers need to know:

  • Has the structure ever suffered moisture damage?

  • How was the damage fixed? How much did it cost? How much were individual owners assessed to fix the damage? Are photographs available showing the damage before, during and after it was fixed?

  • Were architectural drawings prepared to fix the problem?

  • Is there a preventive maintenance program? Is it funded? When was the building last inspected?
  • "I've seen some decay that would make your head spin," he said.

    Asked to comment on the scale of the problem in Seattle, Tom Harader, chairman of the city's Construction Codes Advisory Board, agreed, saying, "unfortunately, it's very significant." Harader, a Seattle architect, said he's seen water damage so severe that it rotted frames and other structural supports. In such cases, exterior walls need to be completely rebuilt, he said.

    "I'm at a loss," he said, to explain what's causing the leaks, though he suspects the city's energy-saving building codes and indoor air-quality codes are factors. He said leaks seem more prevalent in newer structures, built since the 1980s when energy-efficiency codes were implemented. Such codes, he argued, make buildings airtight and unable to ventilate moisture. He said that pressurizing residential structures may be a solution, but he worried that such fixes may further jack up the cost of housing in Seattle.

    In an effort to gauge the severity of the problem, the DCLU conducted an informal survey last year of residents in condominiums and other multifamily structures. According to the survey, about 20-25 percent of the multifamily buildings built in the last 15 years are estimated to be experiencing moisture intrusion damage. The repair costs and related expenses, such as attorneys' fees, are conservatively estimated at $120 million.

    DCLU code development analyst Michael Aoki-Kramer, considered the point man on moisture-damage issues, sees moisture-damaged buildings as a "quality of construction problem.

    "We want to stress to people to pay attention to your (building) details," he said. The DCLU, he said, is considering a proposal to perform special inspections for flashing on multifamily structures, but he added that "it has never been the focus of the building department." The DCLU's primary mandate is for life-safety issues, not building details, he said.

    According to the survey, decks and windows are the most common problem area for leaks.

    Aoki-Kramer said a committee of the Construction Codes Advisory Board is looking at how the city's energy codes, affect -- and perhaps contribute to -- moisture intrusion. "We don't have a really good sense of the effect (of such codes) on the building envelope," he said.

    In order to figure that out, a committee of architects, engineers, DCLU representatives and a siding manufacturer is conducting research with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility in Tennessee. The lab will be analyzing the "hygrothermal" performance of walls in multifamily structures, to determine how a wall transfers heat and moisture.

    Aoki-Kramer said the city and the Oak Ridge lab will also be comparing data for buildings built before 1984 and newer structures.

    A report on the results of the city's research is tentatively due by the end of next year, he said. The research is a "long time coming," he said, though he admitted the city is showing "deliberate caution" in dealing with the problem. "We need to diagnose the problem before we can recommend treatment," he said.

    The problem of leaky buildings made headlines last year in Vancouver, B.C., which is reported to have experienced about $660 million in water damage to its condominiums. Though Seattle's condo market remains hot, alarms bells are ringing among some building professionals and condominium-owners associations.

    As the city grapples with the cause of the problem, some condo dwellers affected by water damage have resorted to legal action. The condominium-owners association of Seattle Heights in Belltown filed suit against a host of individuals, from the contractor and architect to a siding manufacturer. The suit was settled in October, according to Seattle attorney James Strichartz, who represented the association. The settlement involves monetary compensation for water-related damage. Strichartz did not disclose the terms of the settlement, which, he said, are confidential.

    "There are still a lot of buildings (in Seattle) having ongoing problems," he added, a point with which many in the building industry would agree.

    What remains up for debate is the culprit. Many point to a popular cladding material called External Insulation and Finish Systems (EIFS), also called synthetic stucco. A European product introduced to the United States in the late 1960s, EIFS consists of layers of adhesive, insulation board, fiberglass, mesh and an impermeable finish coat. The material comes in a variety of colors, can be sculpted to almost any shape and is said to have higher energy efficiency than traditional insulation.

    Seattle Heights, like many new condos that have sprung up recently in Belltown and Queen Anne, is clad in EIFS. The most common version of the material, called barrier EIFS, is "inherently unsuitable for this climate," according to Strichartz because it does not permit moisture that may get trapped behind walls to drain out.

    He said Seattle Heights will be repaired, but the cladding system will "not (be) totally removed and replaced."

    More help is available

    Further resources on water damage:

    • "Managing Major Repairs: A Condominium Owner's Manual" was produced by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. The guide can be downloaded from the Web site.
    • The DCLU Web site
    • To be included in the DCLU's "moisture damage mailing list," contact Michael Aoki-Kramer.
    • The Northwest Wall and Ceiling Bureau Web site.
    • The National Association of Home Builders Web site.
    Don Severide, vice president of McCarthy, a construction company in Bellevue, said he shuns the material altogether "except in limited circumstances" for small detailing work. McCarthy has repaired several Seattle-area buildings on which other contractors improperly installed EIFS -- including a $3 million repair job of Elliott Bay Apartments.

    The material was the basis of a recently settled class action lawsuit in North Carolina. In that suit, major manufacturers of EIFS, including Dryvit and Parex, agreed to compensate affected owners of single-family homes $6 per square foot of the material. The companies admitted no liability. Synergy, another EIFS manufacturer, last year set up a $20 million fund to pay for claims filed anywhere in the country.

    Despite the product's bad reputation, some people in the local building industry say there's nothing wrong it. According to the Northwest Wall and Ceiling Bureau, a trade group of manufacturers, dealers, labor groups and builders, the material is sound but requires proper application by professionals. The Northwest Wall and Ceiling Bureau trains inspectors and maintains a list of several EIFS manufacturers it regards as reputable.

    Martha Barkman, project manager for Harbor Properties in Seattle, said EIFS is used in many of the developer's buildings. "We love the product," she said. One-third of Harbor Steps, a downtown residential high-rise, is clad in EIFS, which, she said, has not caused any leaks.

    Barkman said EIFS is being unfairly singled out as the cause for water damage. "This is a design problem," she said.

    Like others in the industry, Barkman said the devil is in the details, such as window sealants, joints and flashing; properly installed, she argues, they will prevent leaks. A simple design feature in a condo like a 3-inch eave will also stave off water intrusion, she said.

    Harader, who designed and owns the Bay Villa condominiums on Alki Avenue, said that with condominiums, in particular, building upkeep is often lacking. Many property managers, he said, are good at collecting rent but "don't know how to maintain a building." Condominium-owner associations need to set aside sufficient funding to perform at least an annual maintenance, he advised.

    Also considered at fault is the area's building boom, which, some in the building industry say, has absorbed the region's best construction labor, leaving the plethora of remaining projects to less experienced or more mercenary companies.

    Aoki-Kramer and Diane Sugimura, another city staffer, have also considered these factors. In a June 8 memo to Drago, they wrote:

    "Our economic system allows cutting corners to improve bottom lines to a certain, and sometimes devastating extent. The economic questions with which it seems we are wrestling are how much does it cost to ensure buildings are designed and built correctly; which parties (public or private) should bear the responsibility; and whether it is appropriate for government to impose these costs on the market."