Building failures: It is never just one thing

[fa icon="calendar"] Dec 13, 2021 4:35:33 PM / by Greg Hoyt, PE

Buildings are complex systems, with multiple components that must work together to maintain structural integrity, keep the weather outside the building, and provide services for occupants, such as running water and air conditioning. Like any complex system, each building starts its life shiny and new, then deteriorates over time—slowly from regular wear and tear, or suddenly because of an external force such as an earthquake or tornado. Because of this complexity, building failures are seldom caused by just one thing.

 

What is building failure?

Most of the time when a building fails, only part of the structure is damaged. While we think about the catastrophic, newsworthy failures like the hotel bridge collapse in Kansas City in 1981, most malfunctions are less spectacular. For example, a roof collapsing from an increased load (such as snow or hurricane winds) or parts of the façade breaking off as a result of water intrusion. In most cases, the trouble is not obvious to owners or occupants and is only discovered when part of the building deteriorates beyond repair, stops working, or collapses.

 

Three main issues could lead to building failure:

  • Poor design
  • Poor construction that doesn’t follow the specifications
  • Lack of maintenance

 

A significant portion of building failures involves water infiltration of the building envelope. Once water gets behind that first layer of defense, it can travel far into the building and find its way into other materials and adversely act upon them. Water that cannot properly drain from masonry buildings can cause spalling—flaking or breaking off of the materials. Water that gets behind the façade to the structural steel can corrode and rust the metal, causing it to break down.

 

What to look for

As part of a structure begins to fail, it will deflect significantly and redistribution of loads puts excess pressure on other building elements. Some of the visual clues of pending failures:

  • Excessive cracking in walls and floors
  • Excessive settlement of floors
  • Cracking in concrete structural members
  • Deteriorated wood (from water or insect damage)

 

Maintaining a building

Absent a catastrophic event, like a natural disaster, most of these types of building failures are preventable with regular maintenance and by addressing issues as soon as they are discovered. Some municipalities have regular inspections for buildings to ensure they remain safe for occupants and visitors. In New York City, for example, any building more than five years old must be approved as sound by a qualified inspector every five years; and any identified issues addressed before the next inspection.

  

Ensuring that your building remains safe requires time and investment—regular maintenance is the critical step to catching issues before they worsen, as are periodic inspections by a qualified engineer or architect to find hidden issues. Call CCA today to find out how we can help prevent failures in your building.

Topics: Building Envelope

Greg Hoyt, PE

Written by Greg Hoyt, PE