How Safe Are Building Facades? Inspecting For Unsafe Conditions

May 15, 2006

The late Clayford T. Grimm,
ASTM member and masonry
guru, wrote in the March 2000
issue of The Construction
Specifier that “Masonry falls off
a building façade somewhere in
the United States about every three weeks.
Over the past few years in the United
States, at least 49 such masonry failures
have killed 30 persons and injured 81.”
There are over 15,000 buildings currently
subject to local municipal laws in
various cities throughout the United States
that require periodic inspection of building
façades. These local laws are typically
known as façade ordinances (see sidebar,
this page). Their purpose is to identify
unsafe conditions — loose façade components
or materials — that may fall and
cause damage to property, or injury and
possibly death to pedestrians. These ordinances
have come about because of previous
damage to property, injury to pedestrians,
and loss of life suffered in some of our
cities as noted by Grimm. Some cities have
stringent requirements for personnel
required to do the inspections, while others
do not. Some cities require hands-on inspection
(touching of façade components or
materials) of all façades by licensed architects
or engineers while other cities only
require visual inspection of street-facing
façades by architects, engineers, or contractors.
ASTM Subcommittee E06.55 on
Performance of Exterior Wall Systems has
approved a standard practice that outlines
the requirements and procedures for conducting
façade inspections. The standard
[E2270-05, Standard Practice for Periodic
Inspection of Building Façades for Unsafe
Conditions]1 is intended for adoption by
model building codes, local municipalities,
or private owners of multiple buildings,
such as universities. The availability of this
standard makes it possible for many cities
that do not have a façade ordinance to
adopt one.
A Brief History of Facade Ordinances
The concept of laws protecting the public
from building façades is not new. In fact,
Hammurabi’s Code of Laws (1700 B.C.) had
several provisions related to the safety of
buildings (see sidebar, page 10). However,
the roots of “modern” façade ordinances are
relatively young and date back to only 1976
A.D. when the first façade ordinance in the
United States (outside of seismic zones) was
passed in Chicago, Illinois. Unfortunately,
Chicago’s ordinance was repealed on a
technicality because when the new laws
were published, the section on the façade
ordinance was omitted, according to the
1996 Proceedings of the Chicago Committee
on High Rise Buildings. After a long hiatus,
a new façade ordinance went into effect in
1996 in Chicago. The longest continuous
façade ordinance in effect dates back to
1980 in New York City.
What is most common about the existence
of these ordinances is that, in most
cases, they were developed at the expense of
either serious injury or even death to pedestrians.
Some of the older ordinances have
also been modified over time by high-profile
façade failures. In Columbus, Ohio, City
Councilman Ben Espy lost part of his leg
one day in 1984 when a large section of a
building’s cornice fell to the sidewalk, as
reported in the June 29, 1984, edition of the
Cincinnati Enquirer. Three other pedestrians
were injured. Columbus’s facade ordinance
became known locally as the Espy Law. In
the case of New York City, an 18-year-old
college student perished in 1979 when a
piece of masonry fell from a Manhattan
building and struck her in the head. In
Chicago in 1974, a 48-year-old woman was
killed after masonry fell approximately 16
stories and struck her. More recently,
Chicago lost one of its residents when a
piece of glass struck a mother who was
Reprinted, with permission, from ASTM Standardization News, Vol. 31, No. 8, 2003.
Copyright ASTM International, 100 Barr Harbor Drive, West Conshohocken, PA 19428.
CITIES THAT HAVE FAÇADE
ORDINANCES ON THE BOOKS:
BOSTON
CHICAGO
COLUMBUS
DETROIT
MILWAUKEE
NEW YORK
PITTSBURGH
ST. LOUIS
6 • IN T E R FA C E NO V E M B E R 2006
walking along the street with her 3-year-old
daughter. Despite the lessons learned in
several cities that now have façade ordinances,
many other cities still do not.
Was Chicken Little Right? Is the Sky Falling?
On December 7, 1997, only two months
after the initial task group meeting of
E06.55.05 on Façade Inspections, brick
rained down from the 33rd floor of a 39-
story Manhattan office building located at
540 Madison Avenue, slightly injuring two
passersby and closing Madison Avenue at
the height of the Christmas shopping season.
While New York City had in force the
country’s oldest continuous façade inspection
law, “Local Law 10,” which only
required the visual inspection of street-facing
building façades, the site of this collapse
was not covered because it was a side
façade demarking the property line. The
raining debris penetrated through the roof
of the adjacent five-story building and also
onto the sidewalk and street.
New York City’s Local Law 10 required
only remote visual inspection of certain
façades. Problems with this scope and type
of façade inspection had surfaced years
before when two chunks of granite fell from
the Manhattan Municipal Building. The following
excerpt, contained in an editorial
from the December 9, 1991, issue of ENR,
titled “Chicken Little, the Sky is Falling,”
identified these deficiencies and their possible
cause:
The problem is that the city’s façade
law – written for public safety –
requires only visual inspection from
some distance of buildings taller
than six stories every five years. The
Municipal Building had been
inspected, as required, a year before
the stones were discovered.
A façade law that does not require
physical inspection is seriously
flawed. Instead of protecting the
public, it can actually create danger
by giving even responsible building
owners a false sense of security
about the condition and safety of
their façades. A physical inspection
often is required to pinpoint deterioration,
such as rusted connections
and supports that are hidden from
view.
How did that “visual-only” provision
find its way into the law? Powerful
real estate interests, says one New
York City-based consulting engineer.
The cost of a physical inspection,
which typically requires hanging
scaffolds, can exceed the cost of
visual examination by $5,000 to
$20,000, depending on the age, configuration,
and design of a building,
says the consultant.
Striking a Balance Using Consensus Standards
ASTM International’s new Standard
E 2270, Practice for Periodic Inspection of
Building Façades for Unsafe Conditions, is
the result of six years’ work by industry
stakeholders who, without the pressures of
competing political and owner interests,
created a practical standard following the
rigorous consensus process that is the hallmark
of ASTM. Formation of the Façade
Inspection Task Group was approved during
the spring of 1997, and its first meeting
was held in San Diego, Calif., in October of
that year.
Two opposing concerns were identified
during the first task group meeting: some
were concerned that a standard that was
too demanding of building owners would
NO V E M B E R 2006 I N T E R FA C E • 7
preclude its adoption by municipalities,
rendering it useless, while others wanted a
much higher standard than current façade
ordinances required. Additional concerns
evolved over the qualifications of those performing
façade inspections as well as concern
over the potential disruption to historic
façades. These competing concerns
were addressed through consensus development
of the standard. The standard is
designed for adoption by authorities who
will have to decide which buildings within
their jurisdiction require the inspection.
The standard provides a comprehensive
benchmark based upon review of the existing
façade ordinances and the experience of
members of Subcommittee E06.55 on
Performance of Exterior Wall Systems.
The ASTM members who created this
standard represent leading forensic architectural
and engineering firms practicing in
North America. Additional participants
included industry associations, material
manufacturers, public and private institutional
facility owners, and contractors.
Members who currently perform façade
inspections in the cities with an existing
ordinance brought their experience to the
table to assist in preparation of the document.
Conducting Façade Inspections for Unsafe
Conditions
Façade inspections should be performed
by licensed architects or engineers
who are knowledgeable in the design and
construction of building façades. But more
importantly, the façade inspector should
have experience in the stability and deterioration
mechanisms relating to the specific
materials and assemblies of the façade
being inspected. It is important that the
building owner carefully consider the experience
of the façade inspector (architect or
engineer) because someone’s life or livelihood
may depend upon
it. There is no state-sanctioned
test or licensing of
façade inspectors. None
of the existing façade
ordinances qualifies the
inspector beyond being a
licensed architect or
engineer. When the economy
is slow, some design
architects and engineers
will pursue façade inspection work to help
make ends meet. However, they are sometimes
ill prepared for performing the inspection
and can be remiss in identifying the
type of façade construction as well as the
potential deterioration mechanisms.
Periodic façade inspections are typically
conducted in three steps.
• Step 1 involves reviewing the service
history of the façade as typically
documented in past reports or
repair campaigns and possibly preparing
elevation drawings if none already
exists;
• Step 2 involves performing the
inspection, which includes a visual
survey under proper lighting conditions,
a close-up inspection of select
façade portions where the inspector
can touch the building surface, and
probing select façades to inspect for
hidden deterioration; and
• Step 3 involves analyzing the findings
of the inspection
and
preparing a report
that is submitted
to the
building owner
and local building
authority.
What Do Those
Façade Inspectors
Look For?
Façade ordinances
are typically
thought of
as safety inspections.
In reality,
the façade inspector
cannot
inspect for safety
by looking for
safe conditions.
To inspect for
safety, the façade
inspector
would have to
essentially confirm
the architectural
design
and structural
engineering of
the façade,
which would require
a tremendous
amount of
time and cost to
building owners.
Instead, inspectors
are
Figure 1 – Cracked masonry over a window opening is a typical
condition façade inspectors should identify and classify. Knowledge of
the exterior wall type is required in order to classify the condition.
Figure 2 – Close-up inspection of a building façade using industrial
rope access techniques.
8 • IN T E R FA C E NO V E M B E R 2006
looking for unsafe conditions. These are
typically factors that are not designed into
the façade, such as cracks in materials,
bulging in an otherwise flat wall, leaning of
façade units or assemblies, and other
anomalies that a keen, experienced façade
inspector will notice (Figure 1).
Building owners can greatly assist the
façade inspector by maintaining good documentation
on the service history of the
building façade. Previous periodic inspection
reports should be easily accessible and
contain good quality photographs of conditions
found. The façade inspector will use
the previous report for comparison to current
conditions.
Prior to performing the close-up inspection,
the inspector will perform a general
visual survey of the façade, looking for
anomalies (signs of deterioration). The visual
survey is typically performed with the aid
of binoculars. A telephoto camera is also
used to photograph signs of deterioration,
which can be cracks, water stains, spalls
(sections where materials come apart), or
displacement (typically outward shifting of
a façade unit). The inspector needs to be
knowledgeable of the exterior wall type to
appreciate the potential causes of deterioration.
After performing a visual survey, the
façade inspector will discern where close-up
access is required to perform a detailed
inspection that includes touching the
façade surface and possibly probing the
façade. Access for close-up inspection can
be obtained from several methods, including
an existing, permanent platform such
as balconies or fire escapes; a temporary
platform such as a contractor’s scaffold; or
through the use of mountain-climbing techniques
(also known as industrial rope
access, Figure 2).
If probing of the façade (cutting openings
to look inside the wall) is required, several
methods can be used. Methods for
probing include insertion of a fiber-optic
borescope (similar to medical borescopes),
disassembly of façade components, or
selectively cutting materials. In the case of
historic buildings, extreme caution should
be used in conducting probes to ensure that
minimal to no damage is done to the historic
façade (Figure 3).
After completing the façade inspection,
the inspector prepares a report for the
owner and for submission to the local building
authority. Deteriorated conditions
found by the inspector are classified into
three categories – “unsafe conditions,”
Figure 3 – A fiber optic
borescope is used to view inside
a building façade. Borescopes
require small holes in building
façades in order to peek inside
the wall system.
NO V E M B E R 2006 I N T E R FA C E • 9
“requires repair/stabilization,” and “ordinary
maintenance.” Conditions classified as
unsafe should be brought to the attention of
the owner and local building authorities
immediately, prior to preparing any written
report. The owner will have to take immediate
precautions to protect pedestrians and
property from falling façade debris. Precautions
owners usually take involve the
erection of a protection scaffold, installation
of temporary netting or straps to retain
façade materials or components in place, or
simply removing the unsafe condition.
Owners should understand that façade
inspection reports are simply reports that
classify deteriorated conditions. The façade
inspection rarely includes the use of diagnostic
tests to confirm the underlying cause
of the observed deterioration. The deterioration
may be part of a large systemic failure
or may be independent of other symptoms.
Further inspection, beyond the scope of
inspecting for unsafe conditions, may be
required and may include nondestructive
testing of wall surfaces and laboratory testing
of removed materials, which are typical
techniques used by façade consultants in
diagnosing systemic failures and designing
repairs for building façades.
Only the Beginning
Façade inspection is currently part art
and part science. Society has yet to develop
a reliable test method for detecting unsafe
conditions in building façades. There is
plenty of work to do and, with the help of
ASTM, further development of façade
inspection tests, techniques, or procedures
is promising. In the meantime, it should
never be forgotten that the underlying purpose
of the inspection is to avert needless
injury or loss of life.
References
1 Editor’s note: This article was originally
published in 2003. The then-proposed
standard was later adopted as an active
standard in 2005, superseding the 2003
historical standard of the same name.
Michael Petermann is an architect and consultant at Wiss,
Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., in New York, New York. He
has experience in the investigation and repair of both historic
and contemporary building façades and roofs. In the past 15
years, he has surveyed numerous façades and roofs involving
a wide variety of material and component failures. Along with
Jeffrey Erdly, he has co-chaired the task group E06.55.05 on
Façade Inspections.
Michael Petermann
Jeffrey L. Erdly is the president and co-founder of Masonry
Preservation Services, Inc. (MPS), a specialty building façade
repair contractor located in Berwick, Pennsylvania. A member
of ASTM International since 1990, he is co-chairman of Task
Group E06.55.05 for the Standard Practice for Periodic
Inspection of Building Façades for Unsafe Conditions.
Jeffrey L. Erdly
10 • I N T E R FA C E NO V E M B E R 2006
EXCERPTS FROM HAMMURABI’S CODE OF LAWS:
229 IF A BUILDER BUILD A HOUSE FOR SOMEONE, AND DOES NOT CONSTRUCT IT PROPERLY,
AND THE HOUSE WHICH HE BUILT FALL IN AND KILL ITS OWNER, THEN THAT BUILDER
SHALL BE PUT TO DEATH.
230 IF IT KILL THE SON OF THE OWNER, THE SON OF THAT BUILDER SHALL BE PUT TO DEATH.
231 IF IT KILL A SLAVE OF THE OWNER, THEN HE SHALL PAY SLAVE FOR SLAVE TO THE OWNER
OF THE HOUSE.
232 IF IT RUIN GOODS, HE SHALL MAKE COMPENSATION FOR ALL THAT HAS BEEN RUINED,
AND INASMUCH AS HE DID NOT CONSTRUCT PROPERLY THIS HOUSE WHICH HE BUILT AND
IT FELL, HE SHALL RE-ERECT THE HOUSE FROM HIS OWN MEANS.
233 IF A BUILDER BUILD A HOUSE FOR SOMEONE, EVEN THOUGH HE HAS NOT YET COMPLETED
IT; IF THEN THE WALLS SEEM TOPPLING, THE BUILDER MUST MAKE THE WALLS
SOLID FROM HIS OWN MEANS.
Tecta America recently completed installation of a 10,000-squarefoot
green roof of the Bronx County Building in the Bronx, NY.
According to the borough president, it is the largest green roof in the
Bronx, the first in New York City on a city-owned building, and one of
the largest in the city. The roof was designed by Green Roof Service and
will be maintained by Magco Inc.
The roof was funded by the Bronx Overall Economic Development
Corporation as part of the Bronx Initiative for Energy and the
Environment.
Due to courthouse security measures, the roof will not be open to
the public, but because of its proximity to Yankee Stadium, it is expected
that viewers will glimpse it during television coverage of the games.
BRONX
COURTHOUSE
IS GREEN