Making Tough Decisions

Addressing Building Issues With Caution

Have you ever noticed how fashion and entertainment trends seem to start on the “Left Coast” and work their way across the country before finally arriving in Maine? I call this the “End of Route 95 Syndrome.” Of course, YouTube and other digital social media has sped things up a bit, but the general premise holds true. The same may be true for residential/commercial construction codes and building science. This can make it difficult for condo boards to make an informed choice regarding building maintenance issues, not to mention prospective condo buyers assessing the condition of the unit and the community in general. Who do you call?

Maine Building Code Questions

It often takes a Surfside, FL, disaster for building codes and maintenance practices to change. Elevated deck and balcony structures must now be structurally inspected in California every five years following the horrific collapse of the raised deck on a multi-family building on the UC Berkeley campus in 2015. Exterior building façade failures in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Boston have resulted in those cities enacting mandatory structural evaluations of building exterior façades depending on the inspection cycle dictated in the ordinance and the height of the building.

I am often asked by out-of-state buyers of Maine condo units or condo boards of whether the building meets “code.” After a Maine history of a patchwork of building codes throughout the state, a Maine Unified Building Code and Unified Energy Code was adopted in 2015 following a suite of model international codes. As most buildings in Maine’s real estate inventory were built under a variety of building codes over the years, the question should be: “Does the building meet suitable standards of safety, health, resiliency, and energy efficiency while keeping to a reasonable maintenance schedule.” But who sets those standards, especially for existing buildings?

Licenses and Certifications

Maine does not license or certify its residential or commercial general contractors. Some of the skilled trades are licensed but not the general contractor who is ultimately responsible for the quality and safety of Maine’s homes. Legislative measures to license Maine’s contractors have been successfully defeated by various construction industry lobbying efforts in the recent past. Undoubtedly, someday, this situation will change, but Maine’s self-reliance traditions can be difficult to overcome.

Maine does not license or certify its home inspectors. This fact is often confusing for out-of-state buyers as the inspectors in their state are all licensed by the state. In addition, the home inspection brochures they pick up at a local Maine real estate office or web site have words such as “licensed” or “certified.” Under closer review it will be found the referred licenses are for radon or pest inspections, but not the home inspection itself. Maine does not have the “lemon laws” protecting home buyers in neighboring states, such as Massachusetts, with regard to undisclosed issues affecting the quality of a condominium. Maine’s real estate motto should be Caveat Emptor.

The term “certified” is even more misunderstood. The state certainly does not certify home inspectors, so a good question to ask is, “Certified by whom?” There are many home inspection associations across the country that “certifies” their dues paying members. They are not all equal. The joke in the industry is that in Maine one can be a hairdresser one week and a home inspector the next. The joke, of course, is that a hairdresser needs a license.

So, condo buyers in Maine, as well as condo boards, are typically advised to hire professional engineers (PE) or registered architects (RA or AIA) when they have concerns about structural integrity or other serious building science matters. Similarly, the Community Association Institute (CAI) recognizes the importance of professional competency in preparing reserve studies with the designation of “Reserve Specialist” (RS) for some members.

The greatest advantage of the board having a licensed engineer or architect is the condo board does not have to wait for an ordinance or new code to be approved to make an informed maintenance decisions for its community. A Maine board can utilize their engineer’s or architect’s experience and research done in other parts of the country to make informed maintenance decisions.

Taking Action

If a high-rise condo board thinks it is a good idea for its building façade or elevated balconies to be structurally evaluated every five years, the board does not have to wait for Maine to pass legislation. The board can budget for it in the association’s reserve study as a line item budget where replacement costs are allowed to include related expenses such as structural studies. This is also true for the evaluation of other major systems such as underground infrastructure, plumbing, or other long life common elements. The adage holds true for buildings too in that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media October 2021 edition
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