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    SuperScript is a quarterly newsletter from SUPERSTRUCTURES. Founded in 1981, we are a firm of architects, structural engineers, and conservators dedicated to the art and science of exterior restoration.


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      August 11, 2022

      Happily Ever After

      In the opening line of his classic novel, Anna Karenina, Tolstoy makes this observation about families. The same could be said of building envelopes. Thus, SUPERSTRUCTURES’ approach to maintaining and restoring them.

      When buildings are “happy” (in good condition), they’re safe, aesthetically appealing, and water tight. But when they fail (unhappily), they fail in myriad ways, with interconnected building systems and assemblies working against one another like a dysfunctional family. Gradually, minor masonry cracks widen, leaks worsen, and sealant failures are neglected until a section of parapet crashes to the street, a sidewalk vault collapses, or a roof leak damages interiors.

      So we advocate for regular, proactive maintenance, even for facades that are not subject to New York City’s Facade Inspection Safety Program (FISP). Many of our clients’ buildings are institutional facilities (some of the most prominent buildings in NYC) that are shorter than seven stories.

      While degradation of individual building components such as corrosion of steel beams, mortar joint erosion, or roof membrane weathering tends to be constant over time, failure of building systems (interrelated building elements) increases more dramatically with age. That increase translates into exponentially rising repair complexity—and costs.

      Consider, for example, the parapet wall of a typical pre-war office or apartment building. Its system typically includes: coping stones, the mortar or sealant between them, the masonry parapet itself, the concrete roof slab, and the steel beams that support it all. When all the elements of this system are new or in good repair, the coping stones and their mortar or sealant protect the underlying components from the elements.

      But time marches on. Small cracks in the coping stones and breaches in their mortar and sealant develop, allowing water to infiltrate the masonry below. The water freezes and expands, acting like a wedge which can force the parapet masonry outward. Breaches continue to grow, allowing more water to intrude. Water migrates down through the concrete roof slab (not inherently waterproof) to the steel framing. The steel beams begin to rust, expanding and pushing the parapet even further outward. Rinse, repeat.

      This process continues to accelerate until one of two things happens: either the deterioration becomes evident enough that the owner takes action, or the system fails and a chunk of the parapet lands on the sidewalk or street. Obviously, the latter threatens both the building and the general public. FISP helps head off such mishaps, but the steep cost curve of deferred maintenance should be another deterrent to neglect. Hence, our “fix, then file” approach.

      Any of these failures can constitute danger and inconvenience to a building’s occupants, hazards to bystanders, and serious liability issues for the building owner or manager. When the deterioration curve is effectively flattened, both occupants and owner are better protected. The conclusion is clear: In the long run, regular maintenance avoids the threat of “unhappy” buildings and their “families” of owners and occupants.

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