Weather Impacts Sites

April 12, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Exteriors of old buildings in the Midwest are particularly prone to weather-related damage.

Usually shod with stone, concrete or terra cotta, these beautiful behemoths are sitting ducks for the ravages of the freeze-thaw cycle that is part and parcel of Midwestern winters, said Ross Smith, a project engineer and façade inspector for NTH Consultants, a regional engineering firm with an office in Grand Rapids.

“The Midwest is especially susceptible to these types of weathering events because we have periods of freezing and thawing,” said Smith. “If you’re up in Alaska, where it stays below 32 degrees for months at a time, despite the harshness to the winter weather, it’s not cycling — freezing and thawing. In Chicago, Grand Rapids and Detroit, the cycling of freezing and thawing is detrimental to building facades and building materials in general.

“Water gets down in there and freezes. Water as a solid is larger than water as a liquid, so that freezing process expands and breaks off pieces. So the Midwest — anyone in a periodically freezing and thawing environment — is going to have more material failures in buildings and roads.”

The winter of 2007-08 has been particularly tough on the Olds Manor, a former hotel and nursing home at the northwest corner of Monroe Avenue and Michigan Street in downtown Grand Rapids. Pieces of the ornate 1923 façade started falling to the ground in early March, and the surrounding sidewalks were cordoned off. RDV Corp., which owns the building, hired local restoration contractor D.C. Byers Co./Grand Rapids Inc. to inspect the façade and remove or repair any loose material, said RDV’s public relations representative, Ginny Seyferth.

Earlier this month, a wall tumbled off a vacant, four-story brick building circa 1874 near Detroit’s Greektown. Its demise was blamed on weather damage.

Sam Cummings, president of Second Story Properties, has refurbished many old buildings in Grand Rapids. He said maintenance is crucial.

“Everything eventually needs maintenance, I don’t care if it’s buildings or cars or people. As things age, they need maintenance,” Cummings said. “I think it’s a testimony to the materials that were used in a lot of historic buildings that they last so long and that they go so long before requiring specific maintenance.”

One of Cummings’ projects is converting the former YMCA on Library Street into a condominium development called The Fitzgerald. Restoration work there includes fixing metal fasteners that keep terra cotta pieces and cornice work attached.

Even some façade materials made today and marketed as “weatherproof” can’t stand up forever.

“In the grand scheme of things, Mother Nature eventually wins,” Cummings said.

As a façade inspector in Chicago, where an ordinance governs upkeep, Smith said he has dangled 30 stories high and pounded on architectural pieces with a hammer to test their worthiness. He once removed an unstable 40-pound piece that otherwise might have wreaked havoc as it fell.

“Terra cotta is a masonry material. Its individual units make up a larger system,” Smith explained. “It’s a clay material that can be shaped into any configuration. It often has a hollow section inside of it. You fire it in a kiln and put a glaze on that. That glaze is the water barrier — as long as the glaze is intact.”

Concrete is a composite of cement, stones, sand and water, and it also can have decorative uses, Smith added.

Cummings said downtown Grand Rapids has many buildings of Chicago common brick, which is a soft brick. Some of today’s brick exteriors were never meant to be exposed to the elements, but originally were used inside to divide buildings. But if the symbiotic building was torn down, the soft interior brick suffered in the Midwestern winter.

“As with any building system — sidewalks, roofs, interiors, anything like that — the exterior of a building is an item that needs to be maintained,” Smith added. “In my opinion, it should be inspected periodically. At some point, it’s in the best interest have someone take a look at it up close, make sure things are working the way they’re supposed to work and deal with issues before they become a safety hazard.”

Newer buildings with sheaths of glass and metal don’t escape weather-related damage, he added. “What if a glass or metal panel were to come loose? That would be just as detrimental,” Smith said.

Cities such as Chicago and New York have ordinances dealing with façade inspection and repair, he added.

In Grand Rapids, older buildings that have been maintained well over their decades are likely in good shape, Smith said. And those that have been part of the urban revitalization over the past 15 years are probably well taken care of, too, he added.

“My best advice is to treat your façade like any other building element,” Smith said. “Know the systems in place, know how long they’ve been there, and make sure someone is looking at it.”

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