What to do when your building has a significant defect

Defects are a reality of construction process and remedies can be costly and inconvenient to implement

The construction or renovation of a building or home can be an exciting experience. But enthusiasm wanes, and the economics of the project deteriorate quickly, when the project suffers from construction defects. What was envisioned as an exciting place to live, work or play can quickly become a nightmare when your project doesn’t go as planned.

What is a construction defect?

A construction defect is the failure of a building to meet reasonable performance expectations established by the building owner, user or the building code. While catastrophic structural collapses certainly would be considered defects, these are fortunately rare. More common building construction defects include sloping floors, skewed door and window openings, leaking or sagging roofs, leaning or cracking walls and foundation settlement. Less common, but equally concerning, defects include excessive floor vibrations, poor ventilation, hidden moisture accumulation and unacceptable acoustics. Defects with the building’s structural system, often initially hidden from view, can evolve into highly visible problems. While some of these defects may merely be annoyances, others can affect or prevent use of the building and adversely affect property values.

How do defects happen?

The building construction industry remains a comparatively inefficient system. Unlike the repetitive and refined manufacturing process for consumer products, such as cars, most buildings are designed and built once on a custom site by a project team uniquely assembled for that singular project. When the project is completed the team disbands and everyone is off to the next unique project. While experienced contractors, engineers and architects can apply some “lessons learned” from past projects, the lack of repetition in the construction industry, especially building renovation projects, can facilitate the introduction of defects and errors. Specific causes and contributors to defects include:

  • Misreading or deviating from plans: The contractor must read and interpret a unique set of plans for each project, frequently under the pressures of a tight schedule. A misunderstanding of, or a deviation from, the plans can lead to a defect.
  • Bad plans: Even if the contractor interprets the plans correctly and builds in accordance with the plans prepared by the design professionals, errors in the plans may result in construction defects.
  • Calculation errors: Engineers validate the design of a building with technical calculations. The misuse of engineering software, mathematical errors and simple human error when producing these calculations and the resulting design can result in troubling defects.
  • Poor specifications: Specifying the wrong product or installing the specified products incorrectly are common sources of defects.
  • Miscommunication: The failure of project team members, including the owner, to properly understand project goals can be a source of defects. If the owner is expecting a building performance standard that is different from what the contractor and design team provide, the difference can be considered a defect.
  • Schedule pressure: A strong and booming economy can be a contributor to defects. In favorable economic times the greater demand for contractors, engineers and architects encourages the acceptance of more projects. The resulting schedule pressure reduces the time and attention afforded to each individual project. The resulting hurried pace of work can lead to defects, often coming to light in slower economic times after the building has been in use and the defects have manifested.
  • Ever-evolving building codes: In most states the building code revises every three years, often adding complexity to the construction and design process. When a state adopts the latest code it’s usually accompanied with state-specific amendments. Contractors, engineers and architects must learn and apply new code requirements on a frequent and state-by-state basis. When the latest building code requirements are not known, understood or followed, the resulting construction can be rendered non-code compliant, which is a defect.
  • Soils and foundations: Many buildings are designed and built appropriately, but are founded on poor soils, improperly compacted soils or problematic foundations. The resulting defects are often very difficult to remedy.

What if your building has a defect?

First, if the defect is sufficiently problematic determine if the building use should be curtailed or suspended. Second, identify and document the extent of the defect(s), and third, develop and implement a remediation plan. Securing the cooperation of the project’s original design and construction team to resolve the defects will likely save time and money. However, most owners turn to third party engineers and architects to provide independent and objective recommendations, or at least to review the remediation proposals of the original project team. Recouping the remediation costs often requires the involvement of an attorney.

Minimizing defects

There are no perfectly constructed buildings and no perfect plans, specifications or calculations. Building owners and users should understand that even a successful building project will still have some “defects”, but they are minor or inconsequential. The goal is to avoid major defects. The chances of realizing a successful building project can be improved by following these guidelines:

  • Retain a competent contractor and design team: A well-qualified contractor and design team is the single most effective means of avoiding defects. Insist that the engineer and architect periodically visit the jobsite to observe and verify the work.
  • Retain a construction project manager: Most building owners lack sufficient knowledge or familiarity with building design and construction to adequately represent their own interests during a project. Retain an experienced owner’s representative to interact with the design and construction team on your behalf.
  • Follow a reasonable schedule: Avoid unrealistic schedule demands and allow your team to do their work without the added stress of unreasonable time pressure.
  • Insist on a soils investigation: For a small percentage increase in project costs, a geotechnical engineer can help you and your team minimize the chances of experiencing a soils-induced defect.
  • Establish a reasonable budget: Quality construction is not cheap. Consider deferring a project until an adequate budget can be made available to allow for quality building materials and building systems.

Summary

Defects are a reality of construction, and their remedy can be costly and inconvenient. The sources of defects, and the defects themselves, are varied. But with careful planning and assembling a team of qualified design professionals and contactors, construction defects and their consequences can be minimized to an acceptable level.

Brandon Erickson, PE, SE is the principal and founder of Erickson Structural Consulting Engineers, PC (www.ericksonstructural.com) in Vancouver. His practice focuses upon existing buildings, including structural forensics, remedial design, renovations, evaluations and seismic upgrades. He can be reached at (360) 571-5577 or brandon@ericksonstructural.com.

Comments

comments