How Façade Ordinances Help Protect Aging Building Infrastructure

March 13, 2023

Across North America, cities are adopting and implementing façade ordinances in an effort to maintain public safety and ensure that aging infrastructure is properly maintained. The cities of Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Jersey City, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and St. Louis have established façade ordinances that mandate periodic inspections of existing structures by licensed professional engineers or architects.

The primary purpose of façade ordinance legislation is to encourage property owners and managers to be proactive about façade maintenance. To avoid dangers to the public, it is important to catch deleterious conditions early and prevent catastrophic failure of materials and/or unsafe conditions. Unfortunately, in most cities, the impetus for the legislation was a tragedy or fatality, which likely could have been avoided by routine inspections and proper maintenance. 

For example, new legislation is being considered in the states of Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, and Virginia in response to the Surfside Florida building incident in June 2021. As these events continue to warrant further media coverage, the structural stability and safety of aging infrastructure will remain a key public issue. It is likely that more regions will adopt façade ordinances to monitor the integrity of both residential and commercial structures, particularly those in densely populated areas.

Many of the regions with existing façade ordinances are prone to harsh weather or environmental conditions which accelerate the deterioration of the building’s exterior and structural components. Even seemingly impervious materials such as stone and steel are no match for mother nature over time. The exterior of some buildings, such as high rises, are not easy to be viewed up-close, so the idea of periodic maintenance to decorative terracotta, stone ornamentation, cladding, or cornices may not occur to a property owner. Only when materials fail or when significant leaks are reported do buildings receive more thorough investigations. This is why façade ordinances and their mandated proactive inspections are so important; they help to monitor a building’s exterior conditions which may otherwise go unchecked for years.

Beyond identifying potential problem areas, façade assessments provide other key information to property owners, such as expected material lifespans and construction estimates. This information can assist with capital planning for future maintenance and repair campaigns, help avoid the incurrence of costly fines and penalties from building departments and city code violations, and prevent air, insect, and/or water infiltration and its associated damage.

The downside to mandated façade inspections is that they can be quite costly if not properly planned for and budgeted. Many of the regional ordinances require more than just simple visual observations; they may also mandate close-up inspections be conducted along publicly accessible elevations (i.e. those that are street-facing). To comply, a property owner must retain a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) or Registered Architect (RA) to perform the inspections, as well as a contractor to provide access and operate machinery, if required. These inspections are typically conducted via scaffolding (suspended or supported), aerial lifts/boom trucks, or industrial rope access. Some municipalities are also beginning to experiment with new technology, such as drones and robotics, to perform inspections and document the façade conditions.

In addition to the visual and physical inspections, some ordinances require a thorough evaluation of the structure’s history, including any previous repair campaigns, renovations, or major alterations. Depending on the region and municipality, the façade ordinance may also require that the PE or RA verify that proper design details were utilized during the construction or renovation of a building. 

For instance, some municipalities require that masonry probes be conducted at periodic intervals to confirm that adequate and code-compliant wall ties and anchors are present to secure the façade to the backup structure. Properly secured wall ties and anchors are important to prevent shearing or the potential collapse of a façade onto a public right-of-way. The additional time spent reviewing design documents and past permits, as well as conducting probes, also adds to the overall cost of the inspections.

Although not typically required, infrared thermography and roof scans may also be recommended to detect areas of water infiltration or defects within roof systems and concrete structures. A comprehensive façade assessment will provide an overview of the exterior conditions, as well as any anticipated future issues such as evidence of movement, settlement, voids, deterioration, failure, or water infiltration.

Periodic façade inspections are key tools for identifying common building envelope issues such as sources of air, insect, and water infiltration and significant deterioration due to age and weathering, including freeze/thaw cycles, high winds, and seismic activity. Specific timeframes to complete emergency and/or comprehensive repairs are often mandated in the ordinances as well and are enforced by the respective building departments and officers. Failure to comply with the code requirements can result in the accrual of significant violations, fees, and penalties.

The close, physical inspections of the façades are essential for identifying signs of deterioration or underlying issues, such as cracks, movement, or displacement, that may quickly worsen or pose a threat to the public. By identifying and addressing façade-related problems before they cause significant damage to structural components or affect occupied interior spaces, a property owner may save, or even generate, a great deal of capital by maintaining their properties and investments in a proactive manner. 

Performing regular façade inspections enables property owners to calculate accurate budgeting and capital planning for repairs and helps avoid costly lawsuits, code violations, or lost revenue. Façade inspections are also important tools for helping investors assess the value of a proposed addition to their management portfolio.

As façade ordinances and inspection mandates can vary greatly by building type, size, and region, Rimkus experts can assist clients in determining which jurisdiction a property falls under and providing the necessary services to meet the requirements.

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