by Don Friedman on May 26, 2011

Not us, buildings.

It is amazing how fast buildings can age when they are not used, maintained, or mothballed. A few years ago, we were involved with a mid-1800s loft building that had been converted to apartments around 1970. Foundation damage from construction next door meant that the building had to be vacated and we inspected it several times over the course of 18 months during the subsequent repair work. During this period, there was no maintenance of any kind and the building went through two winters without heat.

During our first walkthrough, the building looked normal enough, if a bit run down. On each walkthrough after, more (non-structural) damage appeared: paint began to peel from the plaster walls and tin ceiling, the plaster itself began to detach from the lath, and floor boards buckled. By the end of our involvement it was clear that a substantial amount of finish repair work would be required before the building could be reoccupied.

How did this happen so quickly? The short answer is that a building in an effectively abandoned state suffers from accelerated aging: extremes of heat in the summer and cold in the winter created expansion and contraction in the non-structural finish materials that exceeded those materials’ limited strength. Any place water was present, there were freeze-thaw cycles, which are not ordinarily interior phenomena. Another way of looking at the situation is that this 150-year-old building, like all buildings, exists in a rough equilibrium with the environment around and within it. The sudden change in conditions disturbed that equilibrium and we witnessed the resulting reactive changes in condition.

In our work, we look for similar signs of accelerated or advanced aging in structural and facade materials and systems. Sometimes a building that seems to be mostly okay is on the verge of dramatic deterioration (for example, if there is a new roof or window leak). Sometimes conditions that look awful have existed in a stable form for decades (for example, old foundation settlement) and are more unsightly than dangerous.

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