A Tight Budget Produces a Water-Tight Solution

By Kieran Fitzgibbon

When you’re in the business of maintaining and restoring condominiums, what you see is not always what you get. A condominium, even if it was built 50 years ago, may look fine on the outside. But, as with people, beauty often is only skin deep. Behind the façade, the cavity wall may not be functioning properly. Brick may need to be repointed. Doors and windows may be leaking.

In the case of 16 Addington Road in Brookline, Mass., a 23-unit condominium built in 1969, moisture had been penetrating the building’s roof and façade for decades. Residents on the lower floors learned that “trickle down” applies not only to wealth, but to water, as leaks on the fifth floor reached the first floor, as well as all areas in-between.

“The balconies, the windows, the sliders, the parapet walls, everything on the fifth floor was capturing the rain and even units on the first floor were getting leaks,” said Annie Stefanelli, president of The Stefanelli Company, Inc. in West Roxbury, Mass. “Water was leaching into the units.”

Stefanelli began managing the property two-and-a-half years ago, when the Board of Trustees determined that the building needed help. Larry Ouellette of Moisture Protection Consultants, LLC in Weare, N.H., was also retained. Both had previously worked with Statewide RM, Inc., of Boston, which specializes in maintaining and restoring condominiums, so we were called in as well. Initially, we worked together and tried stopping the leaks with inexpensive methods, such as flashing the window headers and sills, and tuck pointing.

These stopgap measures worked in some cases, but success was limited. We soon found out why. In addition to budgeting $60,000 toward our initial efforts, the board granted permission to remove a small area of the brick façade to look behind it. Looking in, we saw that the block backup wall had no waterproofing. In addition, the cavity wall was not functioning, as there was no cavity between the outer wythe of brick and the block backup wall.

Reviewing the Alternatives

Recognizing the need for an architect to design a solution, Gienapp Architects, LLC in Danvers, Mass., was retained. And Gienapp’s Michael Nee, RA began the design process in spring of 2019.

“We went through several scenarios to address the building’s problems,” Nee said.

Based on the options presented by Nee, the board recognized that the best approach was to replace the entire skin of the building. However, at a cost of $5 million, that option proved to be unaffordable.

The board asked Statewide RM to come back with a more economical way to fix the leaks by focusing only on the fifth floor, which was a major source of the leaks. Working with the design team, Statewide came up with a plan to fix the leaks, replace the sunrooms, bring the building up to code, improve energy efficiency and make the envelope more aesthetically pleasing — all for $1.5 million.

Statewide served as general contractor and, working with eight subcontractors, we were able to complete the project on schedule and on budget, even with ever present pandemic-related delays.

The project had a happy ending for everyone involved, but it provided important lessons that may be useful to any condominium board or property manager.

Maintenance is cost effective. Condominium trustees are understandably budget conscious and often overlook routine maintenance. When repairs are needed, they are often handled on an ad hoc basis.

Ongoing maintenance costs significantly less and takes less time than repairing extensive damage. It also can keep a building looking its best and ensure that it is structurally sound. In addition, maintenance projects typically require little regulatory approval. A building permit will still be needed, but time-consuming hearings can be avoided.

Start with a plan. It’s important to have specific goals in mind and to detail the scope of the project as thoroughly as possible, based on those goals. Of course you’ll need to determine what you can realistically accomplish with the amount of money allocated for the project.

Some projects can be divided into two or more phases, which helps stretch the cost over a longer period. Doing so can help managers live within an annual maintenance budget, but there may be a trade-off, as delay may cause property damage and ordering materials piecemeal can cost more than ordering everything at the same time.

Projects may be adjusted to fit the budget. Originally, Nee’s recommendation to replace the entire skin of the building called for a floor-to-ceiling restoration, with a new brick façade, and replacement of all doors and windows, which would have made the building water-tight.

Because of the cost, we worked on a new plan, focusing on the fifth floor, which was the source of most of the leaks.

“It was a long-shot,” Stefanelli said. “Kieran had the most aggressive bid on the first go-round. Kieran’s resolve for solving building problems sets him apart. His bid had the most teeth in it and he earned the board’s trust.”

The $1,497,000 bid covered the replacement of all five sun rooms; all windows, replacement of sliding doors and access doors for the fifth-floor balcony; new metal siding on the fifth floor; a new roof; replacement of all parapets and railings on the fifth floor, and weather-proofing throughout.

“There was old corrugated metal siding that was damaged,” Nee said. “The walking surface of the balconies was a bare, stained membrane roof that looked dirty and, because of leaking situations, there were also messy layers of old sealant on most of the surfaces. It all had to be addressed.”

“Aesthetics were not the primary driving factor,” he added, “but as part of the project we unified the colors. Premium-grade rubber paver was put over the roof surface and existing windows on the fifth floor were replaced with energy-efficient fiberglass frame windows.”

Be prepared for the worst. It is often impossible to know what’s behind the exterior wall until you begin to demolish it.

“There had been decades of water infiltration and no one could see it,” Stefanelli said. “When you open a window, you don’t see that you have to rebuild a new frame to install a new window.”

“The most challenging conditions were uncovered during demolition,” Nee added. “There was a lot of poor craftsmanship on modifications that have taken place since the late ‘60s. Doors and windows were not installed properly, causing water infiltration into wall cavities and damage to units on the floors below. Water had worked its way into the insulation and wood framing, so there was a significant amount of wood rot.”

The project included a $100,000 contingency fund. Statewide used $73,000 of it, but could have easily spent twice that amount given the amount of damage found, according to Stefanelli.

Get owner buy-in. Residents had to put up with many inconveniences until the project was completed. At times, some were without electricity or cable television, which was especially difficult for them to deal with during the pandemic. They even had to give up use of the parking lot.

In addition to staging around the entire building, Porta-Potties, worker vehicles and equipment, and a COVID-19 station for regular hand washing and sanitation, a crane was brought in to remove the existing sun rooms on the fifth floor and replace them with new ones. The crane took up much of the parking lot.

Stefanelli obtained parking permits from the town of Brookline, but residents had to park on the street for four months and walk typically a quarter of a mile to their homes.

Fortunately, she said, the residents make 16 Addington Road “one of the best buildings I ever had the honor of managing. They are a phenomenal group of people.”

Regulatory requirements change over time. Code compliance was a challenge, according to Stefanelli, because safety requirements are stricter today than they were in the 1960s, when the building was constructed.

“You have a unit looking out at the skyline of Boston and the contractor is obligated to replace your 36-inch railing with a 42-inch railing,” Stefanelli said. “Where does your skyline go? The residents were very upset and challenged it. There was a lot of discussion about what you have to do and what you don’t have to do.”

In the end, the owners accepted that rules are rules and taller, safer railings had to be installed.

Do it right. Poor design and shoddy workmanship contributed to the problems at 16 Addington Road. A rubber membrane was installed over the parapet to keep moisture out, but it didn’t fully cover the exposed area. Some joints were not chalked. Old sealant was not removed before new sealant was applied. Windows were not fitted properly.

All of these issues, and others, ensured that the leaks in the building would continue and would cause further damage that would be expensive to repair.

Sometimes boards try to ignore leaks, because of the expense of repairing them properly. And, after all, buildings only leak when it’s raining. But leaks can only be ignored for so long and, in the interim, they can cause a great deal of damage. It costs much less to do the job right.

Schedule realistically. The goal was to complete the project before the end of 2020. Construction was scheduled to begin in April 2020, but the pandemic delayed the start until mid-May. We weren’t sure we’d be able to complete the entire project that quickly, so we tentatively planned to delay work on the southern elevation.

“The pandemic was a challenge,” Stefanelli said. “Navigating around the ownership and keeping everyone safe was difficult. Statewide was held back by late delivery of materials and there were eight subcontractors standing on the streets saying, ‘Let’s roll.’ ”

Eventually, though, materials were delivered and the subcontractors came through. The entire project, including the southern elevation, was completed on time. The staging came down in mid-December.

Hire experienced, reputable contractors. Some contractors in the building industry like to cut corners. They may not bring your building up to the current code standards. They may use inferior materials or otherwise make compromises to save money.

Typically, cutting corners to save money today costs more tomorrow. And the building likely will not look or function at its best.

While the approach we initially favored was unaffordable, we were still able to restore 16 Addington Road, bringing it up to code, improving its appearance and, most important, making it water tight. There have been several major storms since the project was completed. No leaks were reported.

Kieran Fitzgibbon is co-owner of Statewide RM of Brighton, Mass., which specializes in masonry restoration for condominiums. He can be reached at [email protected].