The Incredible Predictability of Moisture Problems

David Odom-photoFor this week’s Guest Post Friday here at Construction Law Musings, we welcome Author J. David Odom. David is a Vice President and Senior Building Forensics Consultant with Liberty Building Forensics Group. He has managed some of the largest and most complex mold and moisture problems in the country, including the $60M construction defect claim at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu and the $20M claim at the Martin County courthouse. He has also managed over 500 projects for the Walt Disney Corporation dating back to 1982 that have included technical issues related to corrosion, moisture, and design & construction defect-related problems. He has published numerous manuals and technical articles, including a monograph on moisture and mold for the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). For more information, contact J. David Odom at d.odom@libertybuilding.com.

Suppose there was a tool that could predict, before a single penny was spent on construction, the likelihood of whether your building would fail. Not only that, but this tool could also provide you with enough information to make significant design changes that would dramatically decrease any risk factors. Would you be interested? Of course you would.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex process that contains multiple variables, I believe we have created such a tool. The following moisture prediction charts have been adapted from a mold and moisture manual Liberty Building Forensics Group developed for Disney Corporation in the early 1990s. Over the past two decades, they have been beta-tested on literally thousands of hotels, and have proven time and time again to be as true today as they were 20 years ago.

Although the charts were created with hotel guest rooms and wall cavities in mind, the general principles demonstrated would hold true for most buildings. Hotels just happen to be the simplest commercial building structure, so they were the easiest to beta test.

moisture_prediction_chart1

Figure 1 – Continuous Toilet Exhaust

moisture_prediction_chart2

Figure 2 – Non-Continuous Toilet Exhaust

We took as many variables out of the charts as possible to simplify the choices. However, we must add several notes for clarification:

  1. This prediction chart assumes no rainwater leaks are present and that all moisture problems are the result of condensation.
  2. This prediction chart assumes that the hotel is located in a climate where the summertime conditions are hot and humid.
  3. This prediction chart should be used as a general guideline and not as a specific design tool since there are various other factors that can dramatically influence whether moisture problems will occur in the guest rooms or inside the wall cavities other than those items that have been identified.
  4. This chart assumes that local codes will allow the MUA to be supplied via the corridor and door undercuts.

Chart abbreviations and terms are explained as follows:

  1. PTAC Unit – Package Terminal Air Conditioning (standard wall units)
  2. FCU – Fan Coil Unit (typically used in upscale hotels)
  3. MUA – Make-Up Air
  4. Continuous Toilet Exhaust – typically used in high-rise or five-star hotels

A Brief History of Hotel Construction Cycles

Like many other aspects of the construction industry, hotel construction is very cyclical in nature. It tends to follow a decade-long pattern of “boom or bust”: contractors build rapidly to the point that overbuilding occurs, leading to an inevitable crash.

The charts above reflect institutional knowledge gleaned after the building boom cycle of the mid 1980s, when industry experts began to investigate a prolific number of hotel failures. Building owners, designers, and contractors were bewildered: thousands upon thousands of “quality” hotels had been constructed, but many of them were quickly failing – often catastrophically. On the surface, it looked like the cause was nothing more than sheer luck or happenstance. While many theories abounded, the number of variables made it difficult to get to the very root of the issue. Failures were often attributed to the wrong party, such as blaming the contractor rather than the designer.

Ultimately, designers and contractors figured out that if they took certain steps, their building would almost certainly be a success. Other decisions seemed to lead unequivocally to failure. But though they knew that one step typically led to another, they weren’t sure why. In the absence of any building science knowledge, they could only follow observable patterns.

The fundamental problem rested in the fact that building scientists (who understand moisture migration) and building owners, architects, and product manufacturers (who care mostly about outward appearance) didn’t collaborate throughout the construction process. Building scientists ask questions like “What is the likelihood of failure if these design plans are implemented as is?” Design and construction teams, on the other hand, think primarily about motif, cost, speed, and accreditation.

Once the two camps got together and compared notes, cause and effect began to make more sense. The predictability in moisture is staggering.

Looking at a Building’s Genetic Profile

To the discerning eye, there are remarkable similarities between the biomed and construction fields. The medical community consistently looks for biomarkers in human DNA structure. This helps them to connect the dots between cause and effect. Even as early as the womb, they are able to know what to expect once that baby comes into the world.

Similarly, a building scientist is able to determine from the outset if a building design has the genetic predisposition for high risk simply by asking a few questions. He sees a binary decision tree. At the fork in the road, if Choice A is selected, this will be the outcome. If Choice B is taken instead, a very different result will ensue. By understanding, interpreting, and applying fundamental scientific laws, he can explain to a building owner or designer why the only way to decrease a particular risk is by modifying an earlier design factor.

Interestingly, studies have shown that high-risk buildings typically cost more than low-risk ones (usually due to their heightened complexity). So ironically, owners end up paying more money only to increase their risk of building failure. We’ve seen this to be true in the hotel industry: more five-star hotels have moisture problems than do three-star hotels.

If a building is going to fail, it usually does so within the first two years – often before it officially launches, and usually in a massive, catastrophic manner. We have seen numerous instances of buildings running into multi-million problems before they are even occupied. To use the biological analogy we referenced above, this would be similar to a miscarriage, stillbirth, or even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The “newborn” building is suddenly transferred from the nursery to the ICU.

In the medical field (as in construction) there is often a sea of mediocrity populated by islands of expertise. A true medical expert realizes that by conducting amniotic fluid genetic testing while the baby is still in the womb, problems can be predicted and in many cases, fixed before they even happen. This leads to a dramatic change in the outcome.

In the same way, a knowledgeable building scientist can detect what others have overlooked by analyzing a building’s genetic composition prior to its “birth”. An architect should not emulate a master chef, trying a pinch of this and a dash of that, operating under intuition rather than science. The construction industry needs a cookbook, not kitchen tradition or experience. Contractors need to know that this particular recipe calls for 1/2 tsp. of salt and 2 cups of flour. That way, if the recipe goes bad, they can determine what the bad ingredient or measurement was, or trace which two ingredients clashed.

The truth of the matter is that neither designers, building owners, nor product manufacturers can make accurate decisions in the dark. They must be educated about how one predictive factor will lead to an almost certain outcome. Architects must be enlightened that if they go back to the drawing board and alter one choice early on, everything else will be much more forgiving down the road. On the other hand, if they choose a continuous toilet exhaust system vs. a non-continuous toilet exhaust system, for example, every other choice along the way has to be perfect. There is no room for forgiveness built in. While one bad decision may lead to a moisture problem, two or three bad decisions can end up being catastrophic. In essence, the charts above are an architect’s or building owner’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

As always, David and I welcome your comments below. Please subscribe to keep up with this and other Guest Post Fridays at Construction Law Musings.

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One Response to The Incredible Predictability of Moisture Problems
  1. Mark Rentfrow
    January 17, 2017 | 7:46 PM

    I have been a mechanical contractor at Disney for years, I am actually renovating a 10 story hotel in Kissimmee, 192 & poinciana, it had to be gutted completely, they had Ptac’s only in the rooms and corridors, it was full of mold, the building has been gutted inside and out and working on relays on the bathroom exhaust and make up air in addition to the Ptac, google red lion and Carter hospitality

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About Musings

I am a construction lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, a LEED AP, and have been nominated by my peers to Virginia's Legal Elite in Construction Law on multiple occasions. I provide advice and assistance with mechanic's liens, contract review and consulting, occupational safety issues (VOSH and OSHA), and risk management for construction professionals.

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