Stucco Blues: How One Condominium Deals With A Construction Emergency, Part 1

Some of you may remember months ago that I wrote a series of articles about how the board of directors of my condominium handled a black water (ie, sewage) leak that destroyed 2 units in our building and required a complex and expensive emergency response effort.  Today I’m going to begin a series of articles dealing with another type of emergency–a construction defect that has threatened the safety of our residents and has required the board to take a host of unpopular steps to protect our residents, including the temporary closure of our pool and pool deck.  I hope that this story helps if you or the board members of your community ever find yourselves in a similar situation because, well, stuff happens, and this is part of the job of being a board member.

Like many new properties, our building is currently embroiled in a lawsuit against our developer, the general contractor and certain subcontractors concerning various construction defects on the property.  Most of these defects are long term issues that will require remediation, but have not yet required emergency action.

That changed a few months ago, when a large piece of stucco fell off of the side of the building and landed on the pool deck.  At least one piece of stucco landed directly in the pool, and the rest scattered onto various areas of the deck.

Now, if you’re like me, your first thought upon hearing that a piece of stucco fell from the building is to assume that we’re talking about a paper-thin coating of cosmetic material, one that would be unlikely to harm a resident or affect the safety of owners.  But stucco is essentially cement and sand, and it can be quite thick and heavy–the pieces that fell were several inches thick and could be measured in pounds, not ounces.  A piece of stucco that big could clearly hurt or even kill someone if it fell from a great enough height–and in our case the building is nearly 40 stories tall.

The first line of response to the situation was the management office.  After notifying the board, the manager, consulting with our insurance agent, determined that the best course of action would be to temporarily close the pool and the deck while we determined the various courses of action available to the board.  The insurance company then sent out risk management experts who confirmed that the only prudent course of action would be to close the area until an examination of the stucco on the building could be conducted.

Even at this very early stage, a number of residents were apoplectic at the thought of the pool being closed.  And I can certainly sympathize–we are a resort-type property, and our pool and beach are certainly essential elements of the property.  This anger was compounded with the general lack of understanding of the nature of the danger posed by falling stucco.  The board was quickly accused of being overly cautious.

This is always the first hurdle when a board of directors has to make decisions that are not popular with residents.  It’s hard to stand in front of your neighbors and explain why you are taking away one of their key amenities.  But luckily our entire board recognized that our duty, as directors, is to protect the common elements of the property and the life and safety of residents, even when doing so requires unpopular action.

Still, we as a board also knew that this was an emergency situation, both because of the possibility of damage to the building (water intrusion, more falling stucco) as well as the affect on our owner’s ability to use the premises.  So we immediately brought in an engineering firm to examine the stucco on the building, knowing that it would cost us several thousand dollars to test and sound even a portion of the property.  We chose to test the area of the building that directly faces the pool, as that would be our first target of repair should there prove to be a larger construction issue.

The news given to us by our engineers was not promising.  In their opinion, the stucco was improperly mixed, applied and bonded.  They removed a number of areas of stucco from the facade that were hanging on by a thread (literally, there were large chunks of concrete held to the side of the building by caulk), and found other areas that sounded hollow, and in their opinion could delaminate at any time.  Their recommendation was our worst-case scenario–remove the stucco from the building and re-do the job.  We knew this would be a large, expensive and time consuming process, and that nothing we could do as a board would assuage the concerns of owners who were quickly loosing their summer usage of the pool.

In my next article, we’ll discuss the search for a contractor, as well as discuss how to pay for such a large emergency remediation project.

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