Saturday, November 1, 2008

Here was the typical multi-family building as constructed 25 years ago: Wood siding, single pane aluminum windows, flat roof, a one or two-ply built-up roof membrane, and galvanized iron water pipes. To make matters worse, the siding often wasn't real wood. Wood substitutes like Masonite, essentially sawdust mixed with glue and pressed in a steam press to resemble wood planks, was used extensively. This was a design formula for disaster. The siding dissolved over time. The flat roof usually didn't stay flat, it deflected causing water to collect because it had nowhere to drain. These “ponds” stayed on the roof until they evaporated. The roofing materials used then could not resist this continued immersion in water and failed prematurely. The plies became separated and the water quickly found its way into the interior of the building. Or, the moisture that the material absorbed heated within the plies and the resulting vapor caused huge blisters to appear on the roof, blisters which eventually cracked and became yet further sources of water leaks. The iron pipe corroded over time, of course, and many buildings had to have all of it removed and replaced with copper.

Many single family houses were built the same way, but since it was up to the owner to deal with all of this, it never gained much attention, because if the owner wanted to maintain the value of her property, she had to repair these problems by re-siding, re-roofing, including adding slope to the roof, and eventually re-piping. But the condominium association saddled with this nightmare had a more difficult problem—it had to find the cash to do the repairs, cash that has always been in short supply. We've written for years about the long-term effect of an association's inability to maintain its buildings—a gradual deterioration of both the physical plant and the value of the individual interests.

But over time, things have changed. Maybe it was the eventual realization that many of these building products were prone to failure. Or maybe the litigation that ensued finally drew attention to the flaws in the design. But whatever the reason, changes have taken place. Buildings constructed in the last decade bear little resemblance to their earlier cousins. Stucco has largely replaced wood siding. Vinyl, dual-pane windows replaced the old leaky single pane assemblies. And most buildings not only have sloped roofs, they are covered in concrete tiles which, theoretically at least, never need replacement. Copper has replaced iron as the pipe material of choice. Drainage around the buildings is better, and building wraps made of vinyl or other waterproof materials solve any moisture problems with the walls.

Of course, even these new materials and designs had problems if not installed properly, and some of them , like certain concrete roof tiles, became the subject of class actions because they deteriorated over time. Synthetic stucco was invented because it was cheaper to use, but it was also more vulnerable to installation errors. But compared to the old wooden buildings, these new designs are superior, and, more important to community associations, they take less long-term maintenance and thus require less reserve funding. Wood pieces are still a feature of many new buildings, and it still rots like it always did, but the percentage of wood used has decreased dramatically and with it, a decrease in construction problems and maintenance costs.

Many stucco buildings are designed with no exterior wood at all—just concrete and glass exteriors. Stucco, concrete roof tiles, and vinyl windows, not unlike their highrise cousins which are made of concrete, glass, and steel and are designed for, among other things, low maintenance and permanence. Framing on low-rise buildings is still largely wood, but steel interior framing is coming into widespread use. With no exterior wood trim or wood framing, the problem of rot would be eliminated.

Even paint can sometimes be eliminated with color included in the stucco exterior coating. What does this mean for legions of community associations? Believe it or not, it could mean buildings with less long-term replacement needs, and less cash to raise. Do these new materials eliminate the need for a reserve budget? No, because as buildings age, there are components which will fall within the 30-year service life requirement of the Civil Code. Even a maintenance-free concrete tile roof will eventually need to have tiles or underlayment replaced-it just takes longer before they wear out. Any wood products, like trim and staircases will rot out in time. But if they are constructed as the manufacturers of these products require, it  is likely that these new buildings will last longer, wear better, and look better longer, than the old versions.