Why Are New Buildings Still Failing and How Can We Stop It?

Expert Contributors:

This article is an adaptation of an original work written in the early 1990s by J. David Odom, included in a manual he and George DuBose prepared for the Walt Disney World company. The manual was about building failures that were occurring at that time in Florida. Thirty years later, you would be correct to assume that the design and construction (D&C) industry should have addressed what was causing new buildings to fail and fixed the problem. However, an alarming number of new buildings are still failing and suffering from building-wide moisture and mold problems.

The risk of failure is high in—but not limited to—warm-humid, and hot-humid climates. The debate on why some buildings fail and others do not, as well as who is responsible for these failures and how to fix them, rages on. Instead of being aired in architecture and construction schools, this debate on the cause of failure goes on in courtrooms and mediation hearings, among highly paid expert witnesses and lawyers—those who are most rewarded by building failure occurrences. While these people do bring awareness to the problem, they do not stop the failures from occurring.

Why Do New Buildings Continue to Fail?

Over the last 30 years, there has been a significant increase in the understanding of what makes a good building envelope, both in the design and construction community. Advances such as better technology, increased training, and more sophisticated building systems leave many to wonder why the rate of building failures is not declining. The primary reason we are not coming to grips with this problem is simple: the design professionals and contractors entrusted with building performance are not receiving adequate feedback on the performance of their previous buildings.

Without that feedback, we do not know why some buildings work well and others do not, despite being apparently designed the same way. Metrics may say that the industry did a good job, yet clients keep complaining about building failures and the construction litigation business keeps growing. Until architects, engineers, and contractors receive better performance feedback, they will have neither the ability nor the incentive to change.

In fact, there is only one feedback system in the D&C industry that delves deep into why something failed, namely, the D&C litigation process. To rely on this process is flawed, as it takes too long and rarely educates those actually designing and constructing the buildings.

How Can We Stop New Buildings From Failing?

Buildings fail because of misinformation about failure. We tend to believe that if our clients do not complain, there is no problem. The reality is that some buildings are at risk without our knowledge of it. Moreover, many within the industry do not know what puts those buildings at risk, nor how to minimize that risk inexpensively and effectively. Fortunately, building success does not depend on spending more money on D&C. Instead, we need to spend differently to achieve consistently better results.

The solution is engaging in experts in the areas most susceptible to fail. One of those areas is the risk of building mold and moisture problems. These experts instantly provide institutional knowledge to the D&C team about the critical components necessary for good building performance. This knowledge is especially valuable during the design phase and increases in value with increased complexity of a building.

complex resort façade peer review services for mold and moisture issues
This resort’s façade had an increased level of complexity because of the number of penetrations, changes in direction, and the use of different materials. Peer review services that included both building envelope and HVAC are critical in a façade like this if the correct building pressurization is going to be achieved.

Success using this strategy depends on three elements:

  • Establish Project Guidelines: Specific written D&C guidelines at the project’s inception and distribution to all relevant parties is important. These design requirements must go beyond the traditional vague performance language (which has proven ineffective) and extend into a series of “do this'' and “don’t do that” recommendations. To avoid building-wide mold problems, these guidelines must provide specific direction for the specific project that goes beyond the more general guidance found in industry society publications. In particular, these guidelines should provide specific crossover instruction on how to bridge the gap that often exists between the architectural and mechanical design disciplines (or the envelope subs and the HVAC contractor.)
  • Utilize Peer Reviews: Use periodic peer reviews throughout D&C to compare results against the original D&C guidelines. Providing peer reviews at critical junctures of a project can assure that the right people are getting the right information, at the right time. It is best to provide peer reviews at each major design milestone and not wait until the final construction document phase because it is easier to influence good design early in the design process. Liberty’s eBook, The Single Most Important Factor in Reducing the Risk of a Mold and Moisture Problem in Your Next Project, has more information on the importance of a peer review.
  • Implement Proper Commissioning Techniques: The D&C industry has made great strides in developing what is believed by many as adequate commissioning techniques. The D&C industry realizes that this involves not only the design phase but also the construction and operation phase of the project. However, most of the tasks in even a comprehensive commissioning plan are executed in a vacuum of each other. We have continued the mistaken philosophy of discipline silos in the execution of our commissioning plans. The building envelope is commissioned by those that focus only on the building envelope and the HVAC system is commissioned by those that focus only on those tasks related to the HVAC system.
coastal resort hotel peer review for building performance
Peer reviews are not just for new construction. A resort like this on the coast that undergoes a significant renovation to both the HVAC and building envelope requires a peer review to assure that proper building performance is achieved.

Even air leakage testing of a building primarily focuses on the building envelope and is absent in the evaluation of HVAC system’s ability to meet the design objective of maintaining correct building pressures. A proper commissioning approach must not only evaluate the air leakage characteristics of the building envelope but also the ability of the HVAC system to provide proper building pressurization. Commissioning should continue into at least the first year of building operation to assure that the building will continue to operate according to design through different seasons and weather conditions.

In closing, intelligent decisions must be made at each stage (design, construction, and operation) of a project’s life if problems are to be avoided and costs controlled. Utilizing a peer review is also an important factor. If this is done properly, redundant components or procedures will be eliminated, decreasing the incidence of problems without affecting the construction cost and schedule.