In the construction of buildings and infrastructure, there are many challenges that can lead to costly insurance claims and litigation, including design ambiguities, schedule delays, owner/general contractor conflicts, trade labor disputes and construction defects. Of these, construction defects can be the most difficult to resolve due to the sheer variety of contributing factors. There are, however,
three basic root causes that increase the likelihood of poor-quality work and lead to blatant construction defects: 1) deviations from approved architectural plans, 2) deviations from approved manufacturer-recommended materials, and 3) deviations from standard field quality practices. Each of these factors can lead to major project deficiencies, which can vary in severity across the different U.S. housing markets, building types and building assemblies.
The following “seven deadly sins” are examples of construction problems that often lead to claims and litigation, yet can be easily addressed in the field. Whether occurring in the design, construction or maintenance phase of the project, each requires supervision, oversight and continual observation to detect and a timely response by the developer, contractor and end user to resolve.
1. Improperly Constructed Structural Components
Framing members make up the skeleton that supports the entire building. Improperly constructed components in these systems may increase the likelihood and extent of damage as well as possible injury to occupants. Problems can be attributed to material deficiencies, labor issues or both. Fortunately, the majority of multi-family projects are designed by experienced architects and structural engineers that follow professional standards of practice and prescribed local building codes. In turn, general contractors routinely follow the technical specifications outlined in the architectural plans of record and specification manuals. Critical assemblies are then inspected by a combination of local government building officials and third-party quality assurance companies typically required by insurance companies. But quality problems, such as beams installed upside-down or the wrong nails being used, can emerge when framing assemblies are haphazardly constructed by poorly trained piece-rate laborers or tight construction schedules result in shortcuts in the field and lax oversight.
2. Improperly Constructed Roofs
Water leakage from any source can result in drywall damage, interior structural damage and unhealthy living conditions exacerbated by mold and fungus growth. Roofs can become a potential water intrusion liability depending upon the type of roofing assemblies and waterproofing systems designed and installed. Because these defects are not visible, they are not easily discovered and can lead to longer-term deterioration. An even more important consideration is the physics of moisture movement through the roofing assemblies. Thermodynamic forces on a building envelope can generate vapor pressure differentials that lead to excessive condensation and result in problems such as water blisters forming under roofing membranes that cause delamination and rotting of the roofing substrates. It is critical to manage this moisture through properly-designed roofing with integral ventilation systems.
3. Improperly Installed Windows and Doors
Windows and doors are often the first defects noticed, primarily because water intrusion at these locations leaves telltale interior drywall stains. Hidden defects such as improperly installed or damaged flashing around windows, door jambs and sills are more difficult to find. Deeply recessed windows are particularly troublesome if they lack properly sloped sills for effective drainage. Similarly, radius-topped windows require diligence from installers to assure proper lapping of the head flashing strips from bottom to top. To prevent costly claims, certain steps can be taken during construction, including proper training on mock-up window assemblies, water penetration spray testing, responsible field supervision by the general contractor and independent third-party quality assurance oversight.
4. Improperly Installed MEPs, HVAC and Insulation Systems
Mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems are somewhat less prone to deficiencies because they are typically installed by professionals who are trained, tested and licensed. Nevertheless, construction defects do occur and can cause life-safety issues and substantial damage. Defects in electrical wiring and plumbing are often hidden behind walls and ceilings or under floors and are difficult to find and repair.
In California, developers and contractors will be required to meet Quality Insulation Installation standards as part of an impending energy conservation mandate. Until recently, this had not been a high priority for developers and contractors unless they voluntarily pursued green building initiatives or faced a green project requirement by governing agencies. Fortunately, more installing trades are learning about the thermodynamic basics of insulated wall systems and becoming better trained in the installation process. Equally important, the industry is moving toward exterior rigid insulation systems to achieve better overall energy performance.
5. Defective Concrete Foundations
The structural integrity of a building could be compromised from the corrosion of concrete-reinforcing hardware, such as rebar, post-tension cables and connective steel straps, or even improperly mixed concrete that can be more easily weakened by soluble sulfates in native soils. Claims relating to defective concrete foundations have won millions of dollars through jury trials and out-of-court settlements. Fortunately, most builders today are specifying types of concrete (including admixtures) more suitably matched to the soil chemistry so the structural embedments are less susceptible to damage. By studying specific soil test results and following geotechnical report recommendations, project sponsors and building architects can implement higher-performance material specifications.
6. Improperly Constructed Siding
Brick, rock, aluminum, wood, fiber cement, vinyl, stucco and EIFS (exterior insulation finishing systems) are typical exterior-cladding components that protect the building structure and its internal systems while making the project both functional and aesthetically appealing. Failing to pay close attention to material transitions and exterior penetrations during installation can result in significant water-intrusion problems. Addressing failures in the exterior siding is difficult and will likely require removal to identify the root cause. Issues can often be traced to field supervisory failures, use of incompatible materials and products, poor execution of manufacturer requirements during field installation, improper verification of materials submitted, and field substitutions that are not reviewed by a design team member with knowledge of the potential implications of the change.
7. Improperly Designed, Built and Maintained Balconies
Safety is a critical issue in balcony design and construction. Critical design details should include a step-by-step installation sequence for complex flashing assemblies for structural supports and proper integration of deck waterproofing membranes and roof-to-wall and balcony-to-wall intersections. Errors and oversights can result in rotting structural members and catastrophic failures.
During the construction process, peer-review observation, documentation and classification of critical litigation-prone assemblies are required to successfully manage construction defect risk. The key is to discover and proactively correct those flaws as early as possible during construction, before installation of components such as roofing or wall assemblies cover up preceding work. That is why many insurance companies require builders to initiate a quality assurance review before, during and after the construction process. Along with independent third-party peer-review reports, a quality assurance review process can provide deeper insight into contractor risks and allow the contractor to correct an issue before it is too late.
Post-construction risk management activities are also essential to reduce construction defect risks and enhance project durability. These include the preparation of comprehensive maintenance manuals with detailed schedules and annual property inspections to track maintenance vendor performance. These initiatives help building ownership, community managers and homeowners understand their fiduciary responsibilities from day one through the following years of ownership.
An ongoing, methodical quality assurance process that incorporates advanced technology like tracking apps can clearly identify construction and vendor problems across several different projects in different locations. Catching these types of problems can spare insurance companies, builders and contractors from costly repairs or lawsuits, as well as damage to product and company reputations.