Building defects: The problem can be larger than it seems

  • Building defects: The problem can be larger than it seems
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Nick Constantine


Nick Constantine


Perspective 2023 vol 2

Around the world, building defects are frequently and severely underestimated, and the potential safety risks and costs to asset owners are substantial. In the UAE market, where the building stock is relatively young, there is a lack of appreciation for accurate investigation, identification and analysis of building defects.

This complacency comes at a cost, as assets in the region continue to age with little independent, technical oversight. As 80% of the building stock standing in 2050 is already in existence today, it is crucial to maintain existing assets to ensure we still have high-quality buildings in 30 years’ time.

Early warnings: Identifying symptoms of defects

Early warnings are the symptoms that indicate the presence of a defect in a building. These symptoms are comparable to signs a person may experience that point to an underlying disease or condition requiring expert diagnosis.

A flaw in a structure will typically manifest as visible signs that may initially seem insignificant to the untrained eye. However, trained professionals can recognise these signs as indicators of more substantial defects lurking beneath the surface. Ignoring these early warnings often leads to the escalation of the issue, resulting in greater disruption and higher costs for rectification.

For instance, stains or wet marks on a suspended ceiling may appear as isolated issues but can indicate insufficient insulation or a deterioration of insulation around chilled water pipes. A skilled RICS chartered building surveyor would recognise this during their investigations. Chilled water runs through pipes within ceiling voids; because this water is below the ambient temperature it requires adequate insulation to prevent condensation. Ignoring the early warning signs can lead to higher repair costs and negative impacts on the building’s air conditioning system. This example highlights the direct correlation between the response to a defect and its impact on the asset.

Early warning signs are not only detected through visual inspections alone. Specialists are trained to use all of their senses during an inspection, such as sense of smell to detect presence of damp in a property or auditory observations such as recognising excessive noise during equipment operation. These initial observations of defects can then be substantiated through further investigation and use of specialist tools.

An urgent need for intervention

It’s not enough to deal with defects – they require expert intervention. An urgent and proactive approach is required if we are to address early warnings when they arise.

Based on our extensive experience working with assets in the region, we have often witnessed cases where cheap and insufficient repairs are attempted, or incorrect diagnoses lead to ineffective repairs. These scenarios waste money, resources and lead to redundant work.

Naturally, interventions vary depending on each case. Intervention does not always require immediate rectification; it may involve monitoring and recording. For example, a hairline crack may not be a cause for significant concern initially, but a proactive response could involve monitoring the crack and recording the readings periodically to identify whether the condition is progressively worsening.

We frequently come across cases where early warnings are observed by facilities management representatives or building managers. However, despite drafting a response plan, this valuable information often fails to reach decision-makers at the board level. It is crucial to keep asset owners informed about their building’s condition and accurately present them with complete information regarding early warning signs, including defect conditions, symptoms, diagnosis, prognosis and more. This ensures that early intervention can be implemented, reducing the need for costly repairs in the future.

The importance of consultations

Experienced and independent professionals can avoid the pitfalls associated with building defects. For example, lifting and cracking floor tiles on an exterior podium level may initially appear a minor defect that simply requires tile replacement. However, through diligent investigation, including a review of As-Built drawings, site observations, and opening up works, a more complex issue may be discovered. Lifted tiles may serve as an early warning sign of a more significant problem beneath the surface. In this hypothetical case, an incomplete and poorly installed surface drainage system allowed water to accumulate beneath the tiles over time, causing the lifting and cracking.

Without consultation with experienced professionals, a quick fix of merely replacing the tiles would not address the root cause of the issue. This would inevitably result in a recurrence of the problem, leading to additional costs for proper investigations and repairs that should have been conducted initially. Moreover, the underlying issue could further damage the reinforced slab beneath. Investing in consultations with experienced professionals, such as RLB, provides a significant value-add by correctly identifying the root cause of the defect, developing an appropriate response plan, and ensuring comprehensive and cost-efficient rectification.

Early warnings help us identify building defects, but only expert intervention can address them. Most of the buildings standing today will still be around in three decades. By investing in expert maintenance and interventions now, building owners can ensure their assets are safe, liveable and valuable assets for many years to come.

Nick Constantine
Nick Constantine

Director – Built Asset Consultancy

Rami AbuAmmuna
Rami AbuAmmuna

Senior Building Surveyor