High Rise Condominiums | Pensicola, Fla.

Issues: Concern of hurricane damage; construction defects discovered in facade. Insurance claim that became a litigation matter regarding construction defects.

Located outside Pensacola, Florida, this 20-story high-rise condominium beach-front building has a stucco façade and fully adhered PVC roof membrane. After Hurricane Ivan hit the Florida coast in 2004, the Homeowners Association filed a claim regarding the water and wind damage they believed was a direct result of Hurricane Ivan. SBSA’s staff was hired by the insurance company to review the building’s construction, investigate the damage and, if possible, determine the cause of the stucco cracking, the  moisture intrusion and subsequent interior damages.

SBSA’s staff visited the site, reviewed the architectural plans and researched the local building codes to determine the construction methods used for the weather-tightness of the building systems and the structural response of the building due to the hurricane-generated wind loads.

This review  helped to categorize and ultimately separate the damage that were a result of the hurricane and damages that occurred as a result of construction deficiencies. The loads generated by the hurricane were, in fact, in excess of the loads used in the original design. A review of the files found that the building was designed for 110 mph winds; Hurricane Ivan had reported sustained wind speeds of up 135 mph

The stucco façade was cracked; these cracks ranged in size from hairline to 1/8-inch. The locations of the cracks typically consistently appeared at re-entrant corners and mid-wall diagonals. None of the windows or doors installed at the condominiums had sustained damage, except some debris impact. There was limited evidence that any product resulted in leaks to the interior. The water intrusion was found at the floor lines of each platform and at horizontal terminations. The investigation found that sill pan systems and daps were not used to terminate the window and door assemblies at the floor lines. Sill pans act as part of the overall weatherproofing system of a building, providing a means to direct water toward the exterior.  Daps or vertical transitions in the floor slab at the walls allows termination of the veneers and doors above the next horizontal surface, such as a balcony.  The papering system behind the stucco was improperly constructed directing water into, rather than out of, the system.

Stucco systems are  water-resistant, but are not intended to be waterproof. In order to keep a building dry, stucco is installed as a system of moisture-management components that collect and direct water away from the walls. When water does get past the stucco finish and basecoats, it’s the moisture-management system that directs the water back out of the stucco system. Redirecting this water is necessary to protect the underlying structural, thermal and interior elements of the building. Some important components of this system include: the weather-resistive barrier, expansion and control joints, backer rod and sealant, and weeps at the base of the stucco system or at  other horizontal terminations.

At this building, only one layer of weather-resistive barrier was installed. When installed in a stucco system, this single layer becomes sacrificial as it’s adhered to the basecoat of the stucco. A second layer is required in stucco systems to provide the weatherproof function and direct water away from the building; however, this second layer was not installed. Thus, water that  penetrated past the face of the stucco had a direct path to the interior of the building. Additionally, no weeps or floor line water table flashings were installed, and water that had entered the system was draining down the façade, remaining in the system from the top to the bottom floor; over 150 feet of finish surface drained water to the floor plates and to the first level. The evidence of this capture of water without release was obvious; the casing beads had corroded where weep systems and flashings were missing.

The location of cracks on the building without control and proper expansion joints was important to the review of the resultant distress. As a panel flexes out from the structure’s concrete frame, the four attached sides do not move; the center bows outward and cracks in a diagonal, cross patterned nature, similar to what happens when a balloon is stretched. However, at these condos, the cracks were located at re-entrant corners and horizontal in direction, indicating stress and shrinkage, not ballooning of the structure. The homeowner’s engineer stated that the water could be found directly behind the cracks. This is not true of a moisture-managed system; water runs downhill, behind the system, and where it becomes trapped, is drawn back up into the system by capillary wicking.

The damage at the floor lines was due to the migration of water in the improperly constructed stucco system, not related directly to the cracks. In fact, stucco will crack, and water will enter the system; the standard is to design these systems to accommodate that water. As the water moved downward, the water migrated at the terminations. The cracks may have become enlarged during the wind loading; however, they were not directly responsible for introduction or for damages.

SBSA’s staff also inspected the interiors of the units and observed biogrowth and other damage from moisture. It was clear that the moisture intrusion had been going on for some time prior to a single discrete event. The  biogrowth and corrosion in the steel walls was more advanced, indicating that it was a continuous and progressive damage from the original construction deficiencies. Other signs of this damage having occurred over a period of time included rusted carpet strips, and staining of the baseboard molding and floor finishes.

During the examination, it was apparent that other experts had been on-site performing investigations. There was evidence of other intrusive cuts, and mock-up samples were discovered. The original contractor was working with another engineering firm to examine the building envelope and conduct surveying of the site to determine the cause of water intrusion from previous events.

The review of the files found that the water intrusion was on-going, even during the construction of the building, from window and door products leaking, to construction issues resulting in interior moisture control. Without having determined the cause of these issues, the claim made for the hurricane impact would have been agreed to, at least in part. SBSA’s analysis found that the damages were not the result of a single discrete event, and the insurance company could either deny in part or seek subrogated claims in their relief actions.

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