Transition is often confusing for condominium associations run by Boards populated with unit owners who are not attorneys and who have no prior experience going through the process. Upon transition of control of the condominium association’s board of directors from the sponsor-developer to the unit owners, a key responsibility of the Board is to engage the services of an engineer or architect to conduct an inspection of the common elements to determine if there are any deficiencies. One of the most important considerations for the Board in transition is spending the Association’s money wisely when it comes to engineering investigations.

This blog is part of a series of articles designed to help condominium associations focus their efforts to investigate the condition of the common elements in a cost effective manner. This article focuses on investigations of buildings clad with fiber cement claddings.

Many condominium buildings are clad with fiber cement claddings that look like overlapping horizontal boards. Some fiber cement claddings are prefabricated panels. Fiber cement is a composite material made of sand, cement and cellulose fibers. It is important to understand how the designers of the buildings intended the fiber cement claddings to be installed. Fiber cement claddings are proprietary products produced by well established manufacturers whose installation instructions are readily available. Fiber cement clapboard siding is intended to be installed over weather resistant barrier (e.g, 15lb felt or Tyvek) and are designed to allow incidental moisture that gets behind the horizontal overlapping panels to drain out of the system. Fiber cement panelized claddings, by contrast, are sometimes installed as a face sealed barrier to water infiltration (whether they were designed this way or not). Like barrier EIFS, these face sealed systems depend entirely upon the face of the panels, flashings and caulk to resist water infiltration. Relying upon perfection of contractors in installing such barrier systems is, in our experience, an invitation to water infiltration problems a few years down the road.

An experienced engineer or architect can look at a building and see deficiencies in the installation of fiber cement overlapping horizontal boards and panels. They normally look for missing or improper flashings, deteriorated or missing sealants and visible evidence of water infiltration inside buildings clad with these systems. Upon completion of visual inspections, experienced engineers typically use pin-type moisture meters (see for example) to probe the moisture content of the sheathing and framing under the fiber cement claddings. If the probes are inserted into wood and the reading is more than 20%, that typically is viewed as an indication that damage is beginning. If the reading exceeds 30%, that means the sheathing and framing are damaged and must be replaced. If the sheathing and framing are gypsum or oriented strand board (“OSB”), the acceptable level of moisture content in the wood is even lower than it is for plywood.

What the Board needs to understand is that it should focus its investigative efforts and resources on documenting the extent to which water is infiltrating inside the building and damaging sheathing and framing. As fiduciaries and as a matter of good common sense, the Board should be doing this. However, there is a practical reason why this needs to be the focus of the Board’s engineering investigations. The sponsor-developer is almost certainly an LLC or corporation with no assets once the last unit is sold. The subcontractors who constructed the common elements are also very likely to be small companies with no assets of any significant value. Therefore, the only way the Association is getting paid for the deficiencies you find in the construction of the common elements is through insurance policies insuring those responsible for the deficient construction. Analysis of those policies is beyond the scope of this article. For purposes of this discussion, what the Board needs to understand is that the insurance will often not cover your claim unless your engineers/architects can show proof of damage to sheathing and framing. You need to understand this and direct your engineers/architects to focus their investigations on finding this damage.

Elevated levels of moisture in the sheathing and framing under the fiber cement claddings can be caused by many conditions. Missing or improper flashings and open sealant joints are among the common and visibly obvious causes of water infiltration. Others that are not visible without invasive inspection are weather-resistant barrier that is lapped backwards (ie, instead of being installed from the bottom up, it is installed from the top down so the water runs behind the paper), failure to properly incorporate the weather resistant barrier into the flashings, and sealing up the bottom of a drainable system so water cannot escape. Instead, it works its way inside the walls. Determination of the causes of the damage should be done by an experienced engineer or architect who carefully documents the test methodology and results with photographs and video. Samples of particularly nasty-looking damaged wood products should be bagged and marked by date, location and the name of the person who took the sample. This is necessary to enable counsel to use this evidence at trial if that becomes necessary.

In hiring experts to do this investigation, we recommend to our clients that they use engineers and architects who have substantial experience testifying at deposition and at trial. Being a litigation expert is very difficult, high pressure work. Errors made by the expert in conducting or documenting the field investigation can be damaging, sometimes fatal, to your case. Why should you pay your hard earned money to train an inexperienced expert how to follow the rigorous procedures needed to document and prove your claims when there are plenty of experts out there who have done this for many years and are already very familiar with what is expected of them by counsel and the courts?