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How to Get Good Building Advice!

Recently a friend needed to get some advice regarding a water leak in a renovated house in Melbourne. There was a problem with the tiled balcony which sits over the top of two bedrooms. The house was extensively renovated a few years before and all appeared OK – no leaks and no cracks. Now however, there were cracks appearing in the internal plaster walls and water was leaking from the tiled balcony into the bedroom ceilings. Water flowed through the light fittings every time it rained and one of the bedroom ceilings was in danger of collapse.

This was distressing to say the least – and that was only the start! The owner called in several people over a period of several months who said that they could fix the problem. Several plumbers, a builder or two, a tile expert who dealt in leaking tiled areas, and a couple of home handymen.

Solutions ranged from the application of silicon to the tiled surface, to the installation of an expensive epoxy grout to try and stop water from seeping below. The plaster ceiling was repainted and repaired several times after a few expensive but ineffective solutions were carried out. Meantime the leaks continued and the owners were trying to control the problem by sweeping water off the balcony every time it rained.

The point of this story is to give an example of how difficult it is to get good advice about building problems. Every day in our maintenance business we are confronted by building issues that have been going on for years. Water leaks that have been active for decades with no effective resolution. Owners who are living in fear that the minor crack in the wall means their house is about to fall down. And as always the concern that the already stretched budget will have to accommodate expensive emergency repairs. Given a severe lack of knowledge about buildings and fear of what is happening to their home, it is easy to fall prey to poor advice and be misled by those who are seeking to take advantage of this situation with expensive but ineffective “solutions”.

So, where do you turn to get un-biased advice and a clear and logical analysis of the problem? Followed of course by a few options for repairs, cost estimates, and the likely success of the various options. This is tricky!!! To help in deciding who to turn to the following comments are worthwhile.

Plumbers – If a building leaks then the obvious person to call is your local plumber. For a simple leak from a roof or plumbing fitting then you cannot go too far wrong and mostly plumbers will fix the problem. If the problem is water leaking through walls, windows, doors, or tiles for example then plumbers are not usually able to help. The problem is outside of their area of expertise. They will generally not be prepared to spend time to try and sort out difficult problems given they have far more urgent work to complete on any given day.

Engineers – To deal with a serious building problem it is essential to engage a registered structural engineer to look at building failures, water leaks, public safety, and a wide range of building problems. Engineers can analyse issues, look for causes, suggest possible solutions and generally communicate effectively with written reports. Any building matters involving litigation, arbitration and disputation must be carried out by a professionally qualified person.

While engineers can capably analyse building problems they are not always effective at producing a detailed scope of works that can be carried out by tradespeople on site to remedy the problem. Supervision of such works is generally not carried out by an engineer.

Tradies – plumbers, carpenters, tilers, etc. These are the guys who are usually installing and constructing buildings and it would be great if they could assist with problems that occur after the building is completed. While some wise insights can be gleaned from tradespeople, they are not usually the best place to turn for complete advice re fixing building problems. A specialist trade person can have a very narrow focus on their own area of expertise. They do not generally have a wide enough area of knowledge to address challenging building problems. Written communication is often problematic as well. It takes a real commitment of time and energy to come up with building solutions – for a busy trades person who is running from job to job they do not generally have the focus or commitment needed to assist.

Builders – these are the people who sometimes have the required experience to come to grips with building problems. Because they deal with all aspects of buildings on a daily basis then they can be very useful. As a group however they are so focused on keeping their construction business up and running they are generally not interested in dealing with ongoing maintenance issues in buildings. Even where the problem is in one of their own buildings they are often unable to fix the problem. It is true to say that “the person who built the problem is frequently not able to fix the problem”. With many of the problems we deal with, the communication between builder and client has broken down completely and the owners are desperate for a solution from anywhere.

So, where to turn for help??

Maybe the best answer to this question is to give a list of important attributes that are needed to successfully work in this area:

  • Show a commitment to maintenance and repair work on buildings. This gives the required depth of experience combined with a focus for dealing with ongoing building issues that should give a good outcome

  • Written and verbal communication – a high standard of communication is essential to convey information to the various parties involved.

  • A focus on finding cost effective solutions to building problems.

  • An understanding that not all problems are fully “fixable”. Mostly a range of solutions are available with different costs and levels of effectiveness.

  • A proven track record.

  • A sound understanding of basic principles – the most obvious being that “water flows downhill”!

  • A high level of care about the outcomes of clients’ building problems.

But back to the story about the leaking balcony. Once the building had been assessed and levels determined, the following facts became apparent.

The building had subsided to such a degree that the balcony which originally drained in one direction, was now tilted in the other direction and water was flowing toward the building. Rainwater was pooling for long periods after rainfall and eventually found its way downstairs, through the plaster ceiling and flowed out through the light fittings.

After some discussion it was agreed to install a carefully fitted drain and rain-head outside the balcony. This was carried out and the low area of the tiled balcony fitted with a waterproof membrane to prevent water seeping under the tiles. Once this was carried out the leakage into the building stopped completely and the water no longer pooled on the balcony. The repair work to the tiles was happily located outside the entry door and a carefully constructed small removable deck was installed. This covered all evidence of the work and it could be lifted by one person to check on the drainage from time to time.

The building subsidence had stopped and the owners elected to repair the cracks and not do any further work on the building. In this case we managed to come up with a cost effective and practical solution after the key issues had been identified.

All the best, Martin


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