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Updated: 12 hours 18 min ago

Keep Absent Owners Part of the Community

Thu, 03/19/2020 - 11:25
Welcome Home!

Maine is often called Vacationland due to the population explosion in the summer months. This traditional influx of people not only affects coastal tourist towns and inland lake villages but also condo communities. Whether your condo is self- or professionally managed, establishing policies and planning for returning snowbirds is critical to the successful transition of these return bi-latitude owners.

Mobile association members present both a challenge and an opportunity for the property manager and the board. Effectively run condominium organizations have long recognized the need for good communications and relationships. Communities with long-term absentee owners need to pay particular attention to this fundamental principle and be sure they are sending the right “message” throughout the year.

“Wish you were here!”

Absentee owners want to feel that they and their interests are being included in association life just the same as when they are present. While they may be too busy with their life away to “write you back,” they will certainly appreciate being kept in the information loop, so be sure to keep your mailing and emailing lists updated with summer and winter addresses.

Good communications build good relationships. When a board makes a decision it can not only have a significant impact on the owners’ financial well being but also their quality of life. Each owner may be affected differently. For a bard to be effective it must have the owners’ trust. This is especially true with owners “from away.”

This trust comes into play when owners’ votes must be cast long-distance. Though many Maine condominiums host their annual meetings in August to net the largest attendance possible, various types of owners’ participation may be required in other parts of the year. Confidence in the board is essential to make this work. The most certain way to communicate the board’s effectiveness is by clearly demonstrating the use of proven management controls and tools.

“We’re holding down the fort!”

One of the most effective tools in managing an association’s assets is a reserve study. A reserve study provides a clear plan on how the condominium’s common elements will be managed into the future, how much that will cost, when the funds will be needed, and how those funds will be raised. When reserve studies are followed and are kept up-to-date, an absent owner will feel that his or her interests are being looked after. The owner will know that deferred maintenance will not be piling up, that the good reputation of the condominium is being maintained in the real estate market, and thus, the owner’s investment is being protected.

To make the most of such a tool, it is important to make its value visible to the owners. Some associations produce a large copy of the reserve study’s listing of future repair projects. This poster-sized timeline projection is then posted in a highly trafficked location such as the clubhouse or laundry room and the status of each project is noted with color markers. This presents a very visible reminder that the board is doing its job.

“Welcome back!”

If yours is a community with unit owners living elsewhere for part of the year, many may own a condo in another part of the country. These owners have experiences with how other condo associations handle issues, which can be invaluable to you. To not take advantage of this resource, or not use this networking possibility with other boards, could be costly in lessons missed.

One idea is a “Welcome Back” social/business meeting for hearing the experiences of your returning unit owners with their other condo associations. The positive stories can provide you with best practices input. The negative anecdotes can serve to increase owners’ appreciation for how well you are managing their Maine association—and perhaps provide reinforcement of why it is important to “stay the course” in areas where necessary decisions may be unpopular.

Committee participation is another way to draw owners into the workings of the association. Though short-stay owners may not want to get too involved, subcommittees can be developed to allow them to handle seasonal issues such as outdoor activities, summer ground maintenance, etc.

When some owners complain that they want to know more of what is going on, invite them to the next board meeting or, better yet, ask them to recommend a communication method that would work for them. Turn the problem into the solution. The goal is to let the owners get as involved as they wish—or feel comfortable enough to just kick off their sandals and enjoy a Downeast summer.

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media March 2020 edition
Download a PDF Version of this Condo Media Article

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Categories: Criterium Engineers

Association Liabilities — Ignorance is not Bliss

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 15:20

So what keeps you up at night? If you are a condo board member or a property manager, it might be that dreaded phone call reporting calamity at the condominium. Whether it is the report of a fire; or a frozen sprinkler leak; or an injury due to a common element failure, the association’s actions in the past, in the present, or in the future will determine the ultimate outcome of association liabilities.

Condominium associations can assume a wide range of liabilities in this litigious environment we live and this article will not address most of these occurrences such as employee or third party lawsuits; violations of board fiscal responsibilities; and failure to follow administrative directives found in the condo declaration documents, to name just a few. Instead, this article will focus solely on Breach of Duty issues associated with common or limited common elements that could have been foreseen or avoided with proper attention by the community leaders.

Water Infiltration

One of the most common problems facing any building complex is water. Moisture infiltration through the building envelope can develop in virtually any type of structure. Keep in mind the building envelope includes not just the roof surface and exterior wall siding but also windows and doors as well as the foundation itself. Water infiltration takes as many forms as there are states of water, that is, moisture damage can be caused by free running water, ice, steam, and vapor. One of the most important issues to remember is water in any form requires time to cause damage. A short duration wetting rarely caused serious or extensive damage.

A vigilant condo board will have in place protocols and procedures to discover the first signs of water problems through the use of routine building inspection of the common areas and a population of unit owners informed on how to advise the board on water problems in their units. The condo’s building maintenance plan will require a visual inspection of all roof surfaces after any wind event over 50 miles per hour or hail or ice storms. Common area basements and crawlspaces should be viewed after extended rain events. All unit owners should be warned about freezing pipes and sprinkler systems. This is especially true for communities with a large proportion of snow birds taking extended vacations during the winter months. Requirements for low temperature alarms; minimum year-round thermostat settings; and hot water overflow pans should be well understood by all owners.

There should be a guideline in place for what actions are needed when a building envelope water infiltration problem is reported. The action needs to be timely and documented with the issue directed to a pre-determined individual who has the knowledge to understand the seriousness of the problem and the authority to act.

Perils of Poor Maintenance

An example of what can go wrong can be illustrated by the recent case of a relatively new four-story condominium building with a flat rubber membrane roof in Portland, Maine. The top floor unit owner observed some signs of interior wall water stains on the north side of the building. The problem was reported to the property manager who advised the board to hire a roofer to inspect the roof. As the water infiltration appeared to come and go with the way the wind blew, the board felt the problem could be put off as there were more pressing projects. Time passes before the unit owner hires his own building inspector who discovers a tear in a roof membrane seam was allowing water to enter the exterior wall cavity. Further invasive inspection of the exterior wall revealed that not only was the wall oriented strand board (OSB) siding beginning to rot but most of that side of the building’s fiberglass insulation was water saturated and the sheetrock walls had significant mold contamination requiring the unit owner’s family to move out of the unit during the mitigation and costly repair project. All would agree this was an avoidable liability for the condo, if prompt action had been taken.

Similarly, if a unit owner reports recent sheetrock cracks or door molding seams opening and doors not closing properly, the board should not assume it is a unit owner’s responsibility to repair. The interior walls may not be a common element, but the causes of the reported problems may relate directly to a common element such as the foundation or building framing. Taking all such reports seriously will show the owners their concerns are being listened to and potentially head off a widespread global problem throughout the entire complex.

Trip and fall hazards should also be taken seriously to avoid Duty of Care liability. Whether it is missing tiles on the swimming pool deck; damaged carpet in the halls or stairways; or the depressed asphalt pavement that ponds and freezes every winter, these problems are usually well known before the accident happens. You do not want to be the board member in front of the judge when he asks you how easy would it have been to repair the tripping hazard. And don’t forget the hidden fire hazards such as uncleaned common dryer vent ducts or lapsed inspections of the sprinkler system. Don’t depend on hindsight when it comes to risk management.

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media February 2020 edition
Download a PDF Version of this Condo Media Article

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Categories: Criterium Engineers

How to Hire a Condo Engineer: 4 Steps

Mon, 01/06/2020 - 16:41
Make sure you actually need one, too

They don’t teach you how to hire an engineer in school. Indeed most folks have never had the occasion to hire an engineer or an architect in their whole life. This is also true for most condominium or HOA board members. So how does a condo board go about successfully hiring the right engineering firm for their upcoming project?

1. Evaluate the Need

Perhaps the first question to be asked is ‘do we even need an engineer?’ Not all projects do. Some repair projects are so straight forward and obvious the board can hire a contractor with the proper skills and run the project by a committee chair or a property manager who has expressed confidence she’s managed many similar repair projects. Some projects requiring some engineering expertise, such as replacing the common HVAC equipment or upgrading the common electrical systems, do not need an engineer to manage it but rather the right choice by the board would be to seek an HVAC or electrical contractor capable of providing ‘design/ build’ services for both a timely and economically satisfactory project.

The complexity of the project and criteria needed to be complied will determine whether an engineer is needed. Typical projects in this category will include designing a new storm water drainage system for the entire HOA; performing a reserve fund study; or evaluating and design of a new foundation for one or more buildings in the condo complex. It should be noted, the term ‘engineer’ in this article refers to a professional engineer (P.E.) licensed in the state of Maine. Though other unlicensed engineers can work on the project, only a licensed engineer can stamp (preliminary and final) construction documents for town planning board review; building permits; and other municipal requirements.

2. Selecting the Engineer

Once the need is determined, selecting an engineer is the next major step. The process starts with defining the project with a clear and complete description of the scope of work. Many property managers have the resources to provide considerable assistance to the board in developing this scope of work. While the scope of work is being prepared, a list of two or three engineering firm should be created. Clearly this list should be made up of engineering firms providing the services needed for the subject project. Here again the condo’s property manager can be a good source of finding the right firms. Similarly, engineers listed in the Condo Media’s directory can make this task relatively easy because the engineers listed will be firms with experience in not only the technical issues involved but also are familiar with the world of condominiums and their special needs.

3. Preparing the RFP

Once the potential list of firms is developed, a Request for Proposal (RFP) can be prepared. This document will utilized the defined scope of work to ensure all interested parties are preparing their responses with a similar understanding of the board’s objectives. Typical RFP’s have four major elements:

1) General Information for the Engineer
2) Technical Requirements
3) Criteria for Selection
4) Scope of Work Statement

On some projects it may necessary to invite the potential firms to visit the site for a tour to outline the issues or special conditions impossible to clearly delineate in the RFP. Following the distribution of the RFP to the listed firms, the board will screen the proposal responses; select firms it wishes to interview; and schedule the interviews (45 minutes to 1 hour) to allow both the engineering firm and the board to clarify any questions or concerns arising during the proposal preparation process.

4. The Interview and Contract Process

This interviewing process is most important. Typically, the principal or senior member of the engineering firm attends the interview giving the board a first-hand impression of the firm’s approach to this project; a clear commitment to the technical resources available for this project; and past relevant experience predicting a likely successful outcome. The interview also allows the engineering firm a better understanding of how the board will be making decisions and committing adequate representation to ensure proper administration of the project.

Following this interview the board should select it first choice for the project’s engineer. At that time the contract is negotiated. Often the contract is a direct reflection of the requirements of the RFP and the conditions and fee found in the engineering firm’s proposal. These negotiations on occasion will result in changes to the scope of work and the fee. If agreement cannot be reached on issues acceptable to the board, the board can begin discussions with their second engineering firm choice in order to feel comfortable with their selection. It is critical the board feels they have selected a firm they can work with and have confidence future communications and project outcome will meet their community’s needs.

Awarding the contract to the successful engineering firm is only the beginning. A kick-off meeting to introduce all of the project team members on both sides; a review of everyone’s obligations; and establish a clear line of authority and communications. In starting any major project, the board should always remember that just like dealing with a lawyer or a doctor, the engineer’s job is to provide competent technical information and solutions but it is the board’s responsibility to make the business’ decisions. History has shown a well- defined scope of work coupled with a board making timely decisions is a recipe for a successful project.

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media January 2020 edition
Download a PDF Version of this Condo Media Article

The post How to Hire a Condo Engineer: 4 Steps appeared first on Criterium Engineers.

Categories: Criterium Engineers

Is Your Condo Breathing? Why Building Ventilation is Critical

Fri, 12/06/2019 - 12:17

If your condo board is planning for a re-roofing project, remind the board the project will not be a success without an in-depth consideration being given to the condition of the building ventilation under the roof. Inadequate attic venting will cause ice dams; energy loss; and moisture damage to the roof structure. Too often roof re-surface projects only repeat the mistakes of the past.

A proper roof project includes a review of the capacity of the soffit and ridge vents based on the new codes; reducing penetrations through the internal vapor barrier; and increasing the attic floor insulation to meet today’s energy standards. This review may best be done by an engineer familiar with the appropriate building science and not by the low roofing bidder.

Seasonal Considerations

We all need to vent. No, I am not talking about Monday morning venting about the bum calls the referee made during the big game. I am talking about venting the attic space in your condominium. I know, most folks think venting is a summer issue, so why talk about it when the snow is on the ground? It is true that an attic only needs one tenth the ventilation in the winter than in the summer to control moisture buildup and temperature, but the winter time also has some unique issues.

First of all, if you or the condominium building committee wants to inspect attics, it is a lot easier on all concerned to be inspecting a cold attic than being in an attic on an August afternoon. Secondly, if repairs are needed, it is better to plan in the winter so that your bid documents are ready for the spring and summer construction season scheduling flurry. Finally, cold weather brings ice dams and heat loss due to poor insulation which are both directly related to ventilation problems.

Building Ventilation Best Practices

There are a lot of myths about what makes good ventilation in an attic. It is not true that rising hot air venting through ridge or gable vents is the best natural ventilation. This is sometimes called gravity ventilation. Tests have shown this chimney effect is negligible when compared to wind movement which has a much higher efficiency and allows for considerably smaller net venting area to be successful.

The difficulty with relying on wind movement is that areas of high and low pressure will change with wind direction thus existing buildings are dependent on the design of the building and its orientation for determining the type and location of vents. The best designs have the outlet as high as possible, such as a ridge vent, and the inlet as low as possible such as the soffit area. To improve this air flow, air chutes are often installed during initial construction or later retrofitted. These chutes are formed plastic channels that are attached to the roof joists and are butted up to the soffit vents to act as a pathway conduit for air coming through the soffit vents. They also serve as a barrier to prevent the attic insulation from clogging the soffit vents.

Soffit vents are probably the most important of all vents as they can act as both an inlet and outlet for air flow. That is why it is imperative they be kept free of debris or other material that could clog the vents. Without soffit venting the ridge or high gable vents would draw make-up air through the ceiling instead of from outside. For this reason the soffit vent should have at least 50 percent of the vent free area (NFA). This NFA rating is stamped on vent products. A rule of thumb is that the summer ventilation requirement can be estimated by determining the volume of attic space and dividing by 2 which will produce the needed cubic feet per minute (cfm) of ventilation.

When selecting replacement vents always seek vents that will have low air flow resistance. They come in either perforated or slotted. The slotted has a reputation of resist clogging by airborne debris. Some ridge vents come with baffles which are designed to draw air out due to the suction developed.

As we discussed, venting needs in the winter are often different for the summer. Winter ventilation is needed to remove attic moisture arising from the living space. It has been found that a great deal of moisture from as low as wet basements and crawlspaces can travel through the house’s floor penetrations serving plumbing and electrical piping. This moist air can then cool its water vapor and condense onto roof sheathing. A well ventilated attic will produce a more uniform temperature across the roof sheathing and thus minimizes warm spots near the eaves that create ice dams from cyclical refreezing of snow or rain on the roof.

In summer, of course, the main problem from poor attic ventilation is heat. Ninety degree weather can create temperature of over 150 degrees in an attic. Heat kills. It can kill your air conditioning budget and reduce the lifespan of an asphalt shingle roof by one half its rated life. So if you start having cabin fever, make sure you vent.

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media December 2019 edition
Download a PDF Version of this Condo Media Article

The post Is Your Condo Breathing? Why Building Ventilation is Critical appeared first on Criterium Engineers.

Categories: Criterium Engineers

Cam Grant Achieves Reserve Specialist Credential

Thu, 11/21/2019 - 16:19

V. Campbell “Cam” Grant, P.E, at Criterium Engineers is a familiar face for many of our clients, especially those who represent Homeowner Associations. We’re pleased to announce that Cam recently achieved the Community Association Institute’s (CAI) Reserve Specialist (RS®) designation.

The CAI website notes that this designation is awarded to qualified reserve specialists who, through years of specialized experience, can help ensure that community associations prepare their reserve budgets as accurately as possible. Community associations rely on qualified reserve specialists to assist them in extensive reserve planning to keep their communities running smoothly. Reserve Specialists must adhere to CAI’s strict code of ethics.

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Black or White? Weighing New Roofing Decisions

Wed, 10/09/2019 - 16:10

Some board members may think deciding about a new roof surface is over their heads (forgive the pun). Condominium board members and property managers of urban mid and high-rise buildings often face flat roof maintenance issues and now a new wrinkle in the roofing decision process has arisen: black or white.

In the recent past most flat roofs were made with a rubber-like elastomeric membrane called EPDM. Though black EPDM still accounts for the majority of flat membrane roofs for condo, commercial, and industrial buildings in the northern states, you will see things are changing just by looking out an airplane window as you approach a major airport to see the roof landscape below turning white.

“Cool” Roofs?
Cool roofs are designed to reduce energy consumption and reduce what is commonly called the urban heat island effect. Cool roofs are categorized into three basis types: white, reflective coated, or green (vegetated) roofs. White roofs are the most common with TPO (thermoplastic polyolefin) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) being the typical choices. Though PVC and TPO roofs have the same wear and cost factors, PVC materials have some negative characteristics, such as high toxicity and un-recyclability, so for ease of comparing black to white we will only consider EPDM vs. TPO in our comparison discussions.

Comparing Options
To start with TPO roof membranes are recognized to have longer lives lasting on average 25 years compared to EPDM lasting 20 years. This is in some part due to TPO’s resistance to UV and thermal expansion damage. Some TPO products developed bad reputations in the past due to their inability to handle severe cold which in some cases caused the membrane to shatter. These problems are reported to have been eliminated with today’s TPO roofing materials.

Secondly, the initial cost favors EPDM roofs.  However, when life cycle and energy cost issues are considered the black and white roofs become competitive. Installation methods differ in that EPDM seams are taped or adhesively sealed while TPO seams are welded by a thermal process.

There are strong forces pushing the general acceptance of white roofs in the future.  States such as California have passed laws in 2005 requiring the use of reflective roofing materials as well as individual cities such as Chicago establishing building codes to favor its use. There is a body of evidence developing showing the heat island effect of black surfaces, which include not just roofs but also parking lots, paved roads, and building facades, can have an impact on local weather characteristics.

The nation’s largest green building advocates are influencing architects and building owners by favorably rating buildings with cool roofs. Under the joint program of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE) for a roofing product to receive an Energy Star label under its Roof Product Program it must have a solar reflectivity of at least 0.65 and weathered reflectance of at least 0.50 in accordance with EPA testing procedures.

Going Green
The Cool Roof Rating Council (CRRC) has created a rating system for measuring and reporting the solar reflectance and thermal emittance of 850 roofing products and provides this to energy service providers, building code bodies, architects and specifiers, property owners, and community planners. The Green Building Initiative has instituted its Green Globe system in the US and Canada to develop benchmark criteria for a building’s likely energy consumption as a result of roofing material’s solar reflectance and thermal emittance.

The US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system is now widely used for most publicly funded building projects and many high profile non-government buildings as a result of legislation, executive orders, resolutions, ordinances, policies and tax incentives. Architects seeking a LEED certification for their project will receive credit for white, cool roofing meeting LEED solar reflective index guidelines.

Winter Penalty?
So with all of this horse power pushing for cool roofs, it seems like an easy black or white decision for the condo board facing a roof replacement project. Maybe not. For northern condos the problem is a little complicated. CRRC admits to a “winter penalty” when cool roofs are installed in northern climates. DOE building modeling data reveal that in the north heating is a much more significant factor in energy use than cooling. In fact, heating accounts for 29% of energy used compared to only 6% for cooling.

It turns out that insulation is a more important element for energy efficiency than cool roofs here in New England.  It has to do with the amount of Heating Degree Days (HDD) and Cooling Degree Days (CDD). As an example, Boston has 5,841 HDD and 646 CDD as compared to Albuquerque’s 4,361 HDD and 1,211 CDD.  Therefore using DOE’s cool roof calculator, Boston’s high number of HDD’s and positive winter heat gain results in lower energy usage and fewer carbon emissions with an EPDM roof. So talk with your roof consultant and remain cool.

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media October 2019 edition

Download a PDF Version of this Condo Media Article

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Categories: Criterium Engineers

Vinyl Siding – or Not

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 15:39

Perhaps you are on the Building Committee which has been charged by your Homeowners Association Board to recommend a replacement siding material for your 35 year old condo. Perhaps you are a property manager whose in-basket is filled with unit owner complaints about vinyl clapboard siding problems in the new condo complex. Whatever the vinyl façade issue is, the future solutions may surprise you.

Vinyl siding materials are everywhere. It is probably the most common façade material in all its forms used on condominiums across the nation, and for good reason. It is quick to install; it is relatively inexpensive; and has an estimated useful life of over 40 years. Most of its negatives are well understood: it can crack or break from hail or your grandkids hockey pucks; it can make noise when it’s windy or too hot; colors fade or become chalky over time; and frequent cleaning is required. However, these may not be the issues you may face with vinyl siding.

Solar Attack

This problem can fall in the unintended consequences category. With the issuance of the new building energy codes and the drive to reduce our heating costs and carbon footprint, we are melting our vinyl siding. This is happening due to the installation of the new low-E, highly insulated glass windows being installed in both new buildings and replacement windows.

The thermal layers and reflective properties of these high-tech windows cause sun rays to bounce off and reflect onto adjacent vinyl siding clad buildings causing the siding to buckle; warp; or melt. These new window surfaces act like magnifying glasses concentrating the solar energy on a vinyl surface that cannot tolerate heat over 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This condition can occur when a window on the south elevation of the building is near a right angle corner wall covered in vinyl siding. It can even occur when a new commercial building is built across the street and its new glass wall façade faces the sun and reflects across the street to your vinyl sided property.

So what are you to do? This problem was rare in the past but now solar damage is occurring with increasing frequency due to the drive to install low-E windows. The Vinyl Siding Institute suggests placing awning or shades over the windows and even changing the landscaping to create shade trees to block the light. Some vinyl siding manufacturers are addressing this type of solar damage by adding a ‘thermal diffusion agent’ to the vinyl mix at the factory to help reflect and resist the heat build-up.

Manufacturers are also responding to the problem with vinyl siding by excluding solar refection or melt damage from their warranties. Their warranties always excluded damage from heat sources such as gas grills placed too close to the exterior wall, but now damage from reflective windows is recognized so it would be wise to read the fine print before selecting a siding brand.

Color Fading

This increasing problem is a sub-set of the solar melting problem. Whether it be due to window reflective energy; climate change; or changes in manufacturing, color fading complaints are becoming more prevalent. In the past, color fade was protected with a lifetime warranty by the manufacturer.

In the past, this warranty issue would be handled by a siding replacement policy. Now, some manufacturers are offering a ‘restore’ process instead of replacement. The ‘restore’ process would allow the manufacturer to paint the siding with an acrylic paint often applied by specialist painting contractors. This restore process comes with a 10-year warranty, down from the prior ‘limited-lifetime’ color warranty. Here again, read the fine print before signing the contract.


Vinyl siding may be quick to install, but it is not easy, if it is done right. Vinyl siding has an integral vinyl tab at the top in which an oval hole is punched at set intervals along its length to allow a nail to be driven through this hole and into the sheathing. Sounds simple, but it is not. The manufacturer specification requires the installer to drive the nail head within 1/32th of the vapor barrier/ sheathing surface so as not to bind the thermal movement of the siding.

Keep in mind the fasteners are being driven by an adjustable nail gun requiring a level of skill to properly set the nails in each slot hole without touching the vinyl. This accuracy requirement, coupled with today’s reduced numbers of skilled construction personnel, makes this a quality control challenge. If fastener binding does occur, the siding will not properly move with thermal expansion and buckling will soon appear on the surface.

So the answer to today’s vinyl siding problems: do your research. Read the manufacturer’s specifications and warranties; ensure your contractor is committed to good supervision of the installation of this important building envelope element; and finally, follow up with your own quality verification program, either through your building committee or project engineer. The siding is only as good as it is installed.


Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media September 2019 edition

Download a PDF Version of this Condo Media Article

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Categories: Criterium Engineers

Find Us at the Maine Condo Expo – September 21

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 14:31

As one of our valued homeowner association clients here in Maine, we want to let you know that the annual Maine Condo Expo and Forum is taking place on Saturday, September 21 from 8:00 – 2:30 pm.

The New England Chapter of the Community Associations Institute is presenting the event, one of several state-based events happening across New England. Criterium Engineers is one of the Portland event’s tabletop sponsors and we hope that we see you there.

Our own Jack Carr, P.E., senior vice president of engineering, is one of the featured speakers. Cole Smith, our vice president of business development, will also be on hand at our exhibit, to answer your questions about our homeowner association services such as reserve studies, transition studies, construction monitoring and other services.

The Maine Condo Expo and Forum  is for condominium board members and professional managers based in Maine. Please forward this message to others on your board or to a community manager who may be interested in attending. Registration is online.

Expo topics include:

  • Legal panel Q&A
    Condominium attorneys will address issues ranging from reasonable accommodations and rules
    enforcement to owner/resident challenges and board authority. Find out what gets boards in legal
    trouble and how you can avoid it.
  • Identify, Prioritize & Fund Association Projects
    Discover how to prioritize and fund capital improvement projects. Review strategies to address
    deferred maintenance and understand the legal risks in avoiding necessary maintenance.
  • Roundtable Discussions with Industry Professionals – A Program for Board Members
    Professionals will answer questions and address issues specific to Maine communities and their
    boards in this popular roundtable format.
  • Managers’ Forum – A Program for Association Managers
    This facilitated exchange of best practices will foster new ideas and creative approaches to the
    everyday challenges confronting managers.

The post Find Us at the Maine Condo Expo – September 21 appeared first on Criterium Engineers.

Categories: Criterium Engineers

Foundation Forensics

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 14:27

Cracks in foundations are by far the most common structural complaint raised in either reserve fund studies or transition studies.  They can occur in the youngest or newest condo building.  As condo documents usually assign the maintenance responsibility of their repair to the association, board members and property managers take them very seriously.  Maine condo buildings have many types of foundations including concrete block; brick; and mortared stone with the most common being poured concrete.

Most basements and garages have 4 to 6 inch concrete slabs and unless this is a slab-on-grade foundation, the slabs were poured independently of the foundation walls.  They are said to be ‘floating’.  Often the construction joint between the slab and wall can easily be seen.  The common slab crack complaint is hairline cracks appearing in spider web-like patterns.  These cracks can show up shortly after construction and are normally caused by shrinkage during the curing process.  The key point here is this type of slab cracking is rarely a structural problem, for after all, the slab could be completely removed leaving a dirt floor while the foundation walls and columns with footings will easily maintain a stable building.

Therefore, slab cracking is often more of a cosmetic problem.  Cracks are often repaired with a variety of grout, caulk, or epoxy products primarily to prevent groundwater penetration, insect entry, or radon gas infiltration.  Cracks showing differential movement on opposing surfaces can be a tripping hazard but more importantly an indication of serious sub-surface conditions needing further investigation.

Regarding foundation walls, the most typical problem with concrete walls are vertical hairline cracks, often starting at the top of the wall and traveling down to the floor slab.  A sub-set of these types of cracks are those that propagate often in a diagonal direction from stress concentration points such as the bottom corners of basement window openings.  The key point to remember is these types of cracks, even when they penetrate the entire thickness of the wall, normally do not constitute a structural problem as the loads from above pass unobstructed on both sides of the crack to the footings below.

However, when the wall surfaces on both sides of the crack are moving out of plane or the structure above shows stress in the form of movement or cracking sheetrock walls and ceilings above, further structural evaluation is warranted.  Foundation cracks should be sealed if periodic water infiltration occurs.  Repairing cracks from the outside if often the best method, but due to the excavation costs involved, repairing the crack from the interior by injecting a crack filling material has become a routine solution.

When horizontal wall cracks; multiple closely spaced vertical cracks; or large diagonal cracks in basement corners are observed, these conditions may indicate more serious problems related to settlement or other structural problems.  Similarly, a single vertical crack that is much wider at the top of the wall may indicated foundation settlement problems stemming from poor soil conditions; hydrostatic groundwater pressures; or frost heaving.  These problems should be directed to a knowledgeable consultant.

Regarding concrete block foundation walls, most of the guidance above can be used with some exceptions.  By their nature concrete block walls are often not well reinforced and are subject to inward movement from various soil pressures causing these types of walls can bulge inward.  Ice lens forming about 3 feet below the ground surface can expand and push concrete block walls inward.  This can even occur from a vehicle’s weight being too close to the foundation, such as oil delivery truck.  When horizontal cracking is observed in block walls, steps should be taken quickly to prevent further movement.  These types of walls are also very susceptible to water penetration even when foundation drains are present often requiring serious water proofing repairs.

The key to maintaining a sound brick or concrete block foundation is periodic vigilance to ensure loose or dislocated masonry elements are not ignored.  If you observe a ‘stair step’ patten crack in the mortar joints of a masonry foundation wall, it typically means settlement has occurred under the ‘step’ section of the wall. .  Any observed bulges or horizontal movement, as well as new cracks, should be quickly addressed.

Many Maine condominiums have been converted from old multi-family apartment buildings with mortared or un-mortared stone foundations, some with brick foundation walls above the ground surface.  These foundations have stood the test of time and are more than 100 years old and if well maintained can last another 100 years.  They are more likely to allow the entrance of ground water due to their porous nature and the necessary steps should be taken to protect the structural elements and indoor air quality of the building if high moisture is a problem.  Old foundations are like people.  As they age, they need some extra care but they have already met the test of time.

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Solar Panels — Right For Your HOA?

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 16:00

Solar panels may be an option for your community. Legislative incentives are available in states around the country. 

There is a growing consensus that climate change is real and its consequences will have significant impact on our quality of life and regional economic future. While the cause of climate change may be debated, its potential impact on future generations should not be. So the real question should be, what are we going to do about it?

If part of the solution to climate change is living more sustainably with a goal of zero-carbon power production, condominiums can take a key role in this effort. By the very nature of community living, condominiums reduce our carbon footprint through more efficient use of the land and reduction of construction materials with multi-family building designs. Many urban condos are developed by recycling old buildings that are re-purposed thus avoiding the wrecking ball and waste generation.

Condominiums can take a leadership position to promote more environmental friendly municipal projects ranging from efficient public transportation; avoidance of the consumption of fossil fuels in favor of sustainable electric generation for heat pumps or electric powered vehicles; and waste recycling.

While there may be some hard choices in our future, some recent events in Maine give hope we have turned the corner and will now address climate change head-on. The prior state administration’s opposition to developing sustainable energy sources including wind and solar power has been replaced after the gubernatorial election with an informed environmental agenda.

The most recent illustration of this is Governor Mills’ passage of a bill in April to reverse prior state regulations suppressing photo-voltaic (PV) solar panel use. The new regulation has reinstated the net metering rules allowing users of PV panels to receive tax credits for sending excess power into the electric grid. This not only makes the investment in solar panels more financially feasible but also promote stability in the PV market allowing solar panel suppliers to plan for the future, as is the case in most other states.

Not only has the price for these PV solar panels been dropping rapidly over the past few years, the methods of maximizing their usefulness in a community environment is becoming more viable with the newest technology allowing both direct and scattered sunlight to create electricity and by use of power inverters so electric power can be directed into batteries or the utility grid to sell back excess electricity. These PV panels can be grouped into arrays called micro-grids that can collect electricity and distribute to not just one user but a community of users.

These micro-grids can be located in a wide range of locations. They do not have to be on top of roofs which are objectionable to many. Instead, they can be located in empty areas around the condo complex. As an example, one of these ‘solar farms’ can feed two buildings with four units in each. Buildings such as these are fueled today by shared propane tanks in the backyard, why not solar arrays?

These types of PV solar arrays can provide electricity to fuel common elements such as the club house; street lights; and hallways light fixtures. Unit owners could opted into becoming a member of a solar farm and own a portion of the panel array (called a share) or they could opt out. Those owners who become members of the array can then improve their current old heating system by converting to an electric, ductless mini-split system producing both heating and cooling which they never had before and adding value to their unit. With inexpensive electrical power available condominiums can consider adding fueling stations for battery driven automobiles further reducing fossil based fuel consumption and fostering cleaner air.

Though the April bill on approving net metering is good news, much more legislative action is needed. Currently, there is a state imposed cap on the number of users that can participate in a community solar array. This cap of nine (9) participants needs to increase to make community solar farms viable for most condominiums. There are plans in the works in Augusta to increase the level of participants in a solar array project to 50 or even 200.

Those condo communities with an interest in using solar power in the future should be following these legislative events.  It is not too early to form an exploratory committee to review all of the special issues condos will face to implement solar power, as compared to an individual home owner. This research should reach out to other states who are ahead of Maine’s solar curve.  One good source is A Solar Guide for Condominiums Owners and Associations in Massachusetts easily found on Google. With the governor’s recent establishment of the Office of Innovation and the Future and other local municipal resources readily available, a well-conceived bright solar future is ahead of us.


Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media July 2019 edition

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Categories: Criterium Engineers

Burning Questions & Fire Safety Checklist

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 12:02

⇒Go to checklist

The words ‘safety or security’ mean different things to members of a condominium or HOA community.  While the board or property manager may be focusing on the common element safety dangers such as the pool or the walkways/ paved surfaces, unit owners’ biggest concern is unit security and household accidents.  In reality, condo communities are like families and therefore all safety issues are of concern to all members.

Having a board appointed safety committee would be a step in the right direction.  This committee should recommend units have hard wired smoke detectors in every bedroom of both ionization and photoelectric types.  Carbon monoxide detectors should be located on every level while condo buildings with hallways should investigate the need for self-closing and fire rated doors where required.  Hall doors should have proper weather stripping and sweeps to prevent gaps allowing both smoke migration and fresh air from fueling a fire.  Sprinkler systems should be inspected quarterly.

Many communities would benefit from an informal training program for the unit owners to remind them where the fire alarms are located and how to use them.  Fire emergency egress pathways should be well understood and posted. In some communities it may be useful to arrange an outside location where everyone gathers following an emergency clearing of the building to ensure all are accounted.

Here again, demographics drive safety concerns as much as anything.  With the boomers aging and moving out of the big family homes to downsize into the condo world, over 55-type condo communities are growing rapidly and with that the need for protecting our aging population becomes paramount.  Many communities are requiring ‘Knox box’ type of devices to provide access keys to first responders when the need arises.  These boxes allow a non-destructive means of emergency access to residential units as well as controls for gates; fire protection systems; elevators; and other critical equipment.

A typical fire safety checklist:

    Are all combustibles more than 36 inches away from a wood or coal stove?
√    Do you have hard-wired smoke alarms near all sleeping areas?
√    Do you have a carbon monoxide detector near all sleeping areas?
√    Do you have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and garage/ workshop area?
√    Are the attached garages separated from living areas by fire-resistant materials?
√    Are all flammable materials stored outside or in well-ventilated areas?
    Are gas water heaters in the garage up at least 18 inches off the floor?
    Have all bottled and natural gas fittings been inspected in last 12 months?

Fire safety checklist for egress issues:

√    Do all interior and exterior stairs have a railing on at least one side?
    Do all stairs wider than 36 inches have railings on both sides?
    Do all porches, balconies, and decks have railings around the perimeter?
    Are the railings secure, i.e. could they withstand a horizontal force of 200 pounds?
    Are all balusters or grillage spaces less than 4 inches wide?
    Do any railings have integrated benches?  This encourages sitting on the top rail.
    Are any porch, balcony, or deck railings less than 42 inches high?

Fire safety is no accident.  Safety does start at home.  To protect our families we all must turn a critical eye on all elements in the community and how they would function in an emergency.  There is no better time to do so.


Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers

Published in Condo Media June 2019 edition

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How to Sell the Results of a Reserve Study Without a Revolt

Mon, 06/03/2019 - 11:31

While the importance of associations building a strong reserve fund is no mystery to you, raising fees or assessments is often a sensitive subject with homeowners. Every association needs a long-term planning goal, and a reserve study creates an accurate timetable for all major improvements. Learn how to address those sensitivities and sell the results of a reserve study with a revolt.


One of the primary business duties of community associations is maintaining and preserving property values of the associations’ common property. To do this properly, associations must develop funding plans for future repair or replacement of major common-area components.

A reserve study is a budget-planning tool that identifies the current status of the reserve fund and establishes a stable and equitable funding plan to offset the anticipated future major common-area expenditures. Being prepared for non-annual expenses allows your association to change the unexpected to the expected. Reserve studies are one of the best strategies for financial and physical health at the association’s disposal. In order to keep the replacement costs current, the reserve study should be updated (with a site visit) every three to four years.


It is our belief that fundamental to the accomplishment of any of these objectives is two basic premises: communication and relationships. Communication is multi-faceted – between the board and the owners, between the board (and/or subcommittee) and the consultant, and between the consultant and the owners. To ignore these opportunities for effective communication will result in diluting the effectiveness and ultimate success of the implementation of any reserve study on the books for your association.

Relationship nurtures trust and confidence. Through effective communication, greater trust and confidence can be developed between the various parties involved. As a result, it is more likely (although certainly not guaranteed) that the recommendations of a reserve fund study can be effectively implemented.


It is imperative that the scope of a reserve study be clearly defined before even seeking proposals from consultants. The following are a variety of options to be included in the scope of any Request for Proposals:

  • Define the project – From the table above, define exactly what is expected of the consultant. This should be as a result of discussion by the board and/or building subcommittee to determine what is needed. It is particularly important to decide whether the reserve study is to be based on simply replacing existing components or if upgrades and improvements should be considered.
  • Interview the consultant – The RFP should include a paragraph such as follows below. Getting to know the consultant, the people involved on your project and their approach to the project is imperative to a successful relationship.
    The board will select two to three consultants it believes to be qualified for the work and then conduct interviews. The objective of the interview is to meet the people who will be specifically working on our project, discuss a variety of questions, and generally understand the procedures the consultant intends to use for the project. A final choice will be made within one week following the interviews.
    A reserve provider’s objectives are threefold: to provide a broader perspective on reserve studies; to assist property managers with a successful presentation of reserve fund studies; and to create opportunities for more meaningful reserve studies and effective implementation of recommendations.
  • Pre-project meeting – The board (or building subcommittee) should meet with the consultant before actual work starts. The objective is to refine and finalize the scope of the project. This is also an opportunity to determine what will be expected of the association (or management company) and what will be expected of the consultant throughout the project. Suggested language for the RFP is as follows:
    The first step after selection is a meeting with the board (building subcommittee) to review, refine, and finalize the scope of this project. At that time, the items to be covered, the procedures involved, the on-site protocol to be used by the consultant, and any special concerns of the board (building subcommittee) will be discussed.
  • Conduct an owner survey – The intent is to give all of the owners the opportunity to express any particular concerns they might have about the project. While this may seem risky, it has been our experience that it is actually quite effective. Such a survey would be accompanied by a letter from the association providing all of the owners with the scope and limitations of the reserve study to be conducted and encouraging them to respond to the survey. It has been our experience that there is a very high percentage of response. Often the response to these surveys will reveal patterns that relate to association responsibilities as well as giving owners the opportunity to note areas of concern. The following is text for the RFP relative to this point:
    The consultant is expected to participate in at least one meeting with the board (building subcommittee) prior to commencement of the project.
    The consultant is expected to distribute a survey for use by all unit owners and compile the results of that survey as a part of the reserve fund study.
    The content of the survey should be reviewed and modified for each specific project. Also, a letter should be distributed to the unit owners, along with the survey, explaining the purpose and logistics of the reserve study and the survey. That letter should be on the association stationery. The survey would be on the consultant’s stationery.
    The final report would include a summary of the survey findings as well as any specific recommendations or observations related to the survey.
  • Follow-up meetings – It is important that the consultant be willing to discuss the findings of the study with the directors, building subcommittee, and unit owners. This is especially important if the study includes an evaluation of upgrades and improvements. Ideally, there will have been ongoing communication with the directors (building subcommittee) throughout the study process. A meeting with the unit owners will be a logical extension of that process. The following is language to be used in an RFP for that purpose:
    The consultant is expected to attend at least one meeting to which all of the unit owners are invited. This will occur after submittal and acceptance of the final report. The consultant will be expected to provide an overview of their findings and to respond to questions from the unit owners.
  • Report format – Effective communication means effective distribution of information. In larger associations (more than thirty to fifty unit owners), distributing the complete report is impractical, cumbersome, and usually unnecessary. However, a condensed “owners’ report” is a valuable tool to distribute information. Typically, the owners’ report would include an executive summary and the financial projections that are part of the master report. To achieve this purpose, the following language is suggested for the RFP:
    The consultant will provide (enough for the board or building subcommittee) copies of the complete final report. This will include photographs highlighting areas of concern and/or special interest. In addition, the consultant will provide a single reproducible copy of an owners’ report which will include a brief (two to three pages) overview of the findings of the study and the reserve fund projections.
  • Review draft report – For the association, directors, and building subcommittee to be comfortable with the work of the consultant, it is important that there be interaction throughout the process. Generally, we recommend that the consultants meet with the directors/building subcommittee regularly throughout the process of developing the study and submit a draft report for review and comment by the directors/building subcommittee. Recommended RFP language is as follows:
    The consultant will provide a draft report for review by the board (building subcommittee). The board (building subcommittee) will provide comments within two weeks of receipt of the draft report. Following that, the consultant will provide its final report.
Now That You Have the Results, Where Do You Go From Here?

In the first half of this article, we discussed reserve studies and selling the results of the report to your association (without a revolt!). Now that you have the association on board with the report, how do you go about implementing the actual findings?

Click here to download the full article and a complete look at next steps…

* * * * *

This article was written by H. Alan Mooney, P.E., R.S., Criterium Engineers

To download a PDF version, click here.

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Categories: Criterium Engineers

Hurricane Season is Here—Are You Ready?

Fri, 05/31/2019 - 14:56

The engineers at Criterium encourage residents, homeowners, condo/apartment owners, and commercial property owners to prepare for the hurricane season which begins each year on the first of June.

This year’s seasonal forecast was recently announced by NOAA’s Climate Prediction. They predict a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season this year with a range of 9 to 15 named storms. Dr. Gerry Bell, Lead Seasonal Hurricane Forecaster at NOAA, provides this season’s outlook.

Now is a good time to prepare your home or business for such an event. FEMA provides a wide array of hurricane tips—including what to do before, during and after a hurricane at

It’s also a good time to take photos of your residence or commercial property in its current state. That way, if your property is involved in a hurricane—you have photos to use as a basis of comparison. When it comes to insurance companies and FEMA, more is better for documenting any hurricane damage. That way you will have “before” and “after” photos to document your property’s situation.

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How Safe Is Your Deck?

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 08:46

May is National Deck Safety Month® and your spring maintenance checklist should include a thorough inspection of your deck and railings. It’s important to ensure their safety before the outdoor entertainment season begins with family gatherings and neighborhood barbecues taking place on your deck.

Here are a few items to consider as you check your deck:
  • Check Connections: make sure all railing connections are secure. Anchorage points for wood railings often rot and may fail. Perform a stress test by cautiously pushing on the railing to make sure it doesn’t give at any point.
  • Stair Railings: stairs with two or more stair risers should have a railing.
  • Guardrails (railings): are required on “open-sided walking surfaces” higher than 30 inches from the ground, including decks. On single family homes, guardrails must be 36 inches high for decks (measured from the deck surface to the top of the rail) and 34 inches for stairs, measured vertically from the tread nosing.
  • Strength & Spacing: both guardrails and handrails must be able to withstand at least 200 pounds of force applied at any point and in any direction. The balusters should withstand 50 pounds of pressure exerted over a one-square-foot area. Spaces between balusters cannot exceed 4 inches to prevent children from getting their heads stuck in the openings or falling through them.
  • Benches: a bench installed around the perimeter does not serve also as a guardrail. The bench may be the required distance from the ground (36 inches), but without a guardrail behind it, which both the building code and common sense require, there is nothing to prevent someone from toppling backwards off the deck.
  • Touchup with Paint: repaint or stain the wood, if necessary (the experts suggest at least every five years). Consider using paint with slip-resistant additives for the deck and stairway riser surfaces.

With regular inspections of handrails and guardrails, you can identify and correct problems before they become an accident you could have prevented. Ensuring that your deck, handrails and guardrails are safe will help to ensure the safety of all who use them from toddlers to seniors.

Related Resources:
  • Your Home – a Criterium Engineers publication “Stairways and Decks Aren’t Safe Unless their Railings are Secure.” This document outlines building code requirements for guardrails and handrails, as well as design elements that may cause problems such as rail height and benches along the perimeter.
  • The State of California has a new extensive law that went into effect January 1, 2019, requiring the inspection of Exterior Elevated Elements (Decks and Balconies) and waterproofing elements for buildings with 3 or more multifamily dwelling units. Information on this bill and its history may be found on
  • The North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA) provides tools for consumers to Check Your Deck® for the upcoming season.

Note: these resources are provided for consumer guidance only. To have a licensed, Professional Engineer inspect your deck, contact Criterium Engineers.

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Categories: Criterium Engineers

Water, Water, Everywhere

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 10:31

Typically when I am discussing water problems with the condo’s property manager or the board, the focus is on leaking roofs, foundations, windows, or other building envelope points of water infiltration.  Instead, this article’s focus will be on water damage problems from inside sources and their prevention.

It is hard to talk about inside water damage without also considering a lengthy discussion of insurance matters, but I’ll try.  The short answer is both the board and the unit owner should confirm the correct policies are in place.  The association’s master insurance policy review should determine if the policy covers both as-built and upgrades (i.e. betterments and improvement clause) or just the walls, floors, and ceiling.  The unit owners should consider sewer/ drain back-up coverage, if the policy does not.  Keep in mind, insurance adjusters are looking for ways to avoid claim payouts.  They will look for the source of the water and whether it was caused by accidental reasons or old age wear and tear; lack of maintenance; or your negligence.

So why is internal water damage such a big deal?  It is because it is the number ONE insurance claim in the nation beating out other high profile claims including tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires.  And it is growing.  1 in 50 homes experienced an internal water claim in the five year period of 2013 to 2017 per Verish Analytics ISO who provides insurance industry statistical data.  This 5-year claim rate of 2.05% per dwelling is up from the prior 5-year statistical period rate of 1.44%.  This equates to an average $10,000 per claim and $13 billion in total claims for 2017.  It’s a big deal.

So why is this happening?  The short answer is the trends in condo and HOA development and the aging of residential building inventory across the country.  The burst in condo development in the 1980’s and 2000’s have resulted in many more water sourced appliances in risky locations.  Many homes built in the last 20 to 30 years have laundries on the second floor instead of the more traditional basement location where a leaking hose could be dealt with a mop and bucket.

Some homes can have more than 40 water connections including washing machines; water sourced heat pumps; ice makers; wet bars; filtration systems; extra bathrooms; dishwashers; garbage disposals; indirect hydronic floor heat; and the list goes on.  This partially explains why fire damage claims in the US have declined while water claims have increased, not only in numbers but in amount.  High-end properties are the worst for this increase in water claims.  For homes valued greater than $500,000 the claim sizes have doubled since 2015 while homes valued greater than $1 million have tripled in size according to the Wall Street Journal.

So what’s a property manager, board, or unit owner to do?  Protect the home.  Needless to say, each condo or HOA complex has its own factors of importance.  These factors must be considered and a plan should be established to minimize the potential problems each type of complex should address.  One place to start is the creation of a central maintenance log to record all reported internal water events to determine if there is a trend or pattern.  An aging condo may have experienced a rash of washing machine hose leaks.  This may prompt the property manage to notify unit owners to inspect their own hoses for wear or even hire a plumber to inspect all of the units’ water sourced appliances.  Another HOA may have a population of ‘snow birds’ who should be cautioned to maintain their unit thermostats at a certain level to avoid pipe freeze up while they are vacationing in warmer climates.  Sometimes a global reminder to all unit owners of the location of their central water shut off valve for future water emergencies is a good ounce of prevention.

Needless to say, no matter how much a property manager or board thinks about internal water damage, it often comes down to the individual unit owner being responsible to maintain the unit.  Investing in water sensors at some risky or perennial problem locations may be money well spent.  Educating the unit owners through the association’s newsletter or web site is also a step in the right direction.  Reminders of the importance of maintaining caulk in the tubs and showers; hose connections for all appliances; and periodic observations around the home looking for developing rust; drywall damage; and pooling water can go a long way in preventing a trickle becoming a sea of trouble.


Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers

Published in Condo Media May 2019 edition

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Categories: Criterium Engineers

Still Hot – Condo Market Forecast

Wed, 03/27/2019 - 14:19

This time of year I like to share my observations of the Maine real estate market and forecast things to come (spoiler alert) the news is still good. Describing Maine’s real estate market is like describing its weather. First there is a discussion about the southern part of the state and later the northern part of the state, as it is often different.

The Real Estate Forecast Conference sponsored by the Maine Real Estate & Development Association (MEREDA) was held in Portland in January where the leaders of the industry revealed a flood of positive statistics and a bright forecast of things to come. As with population and average income levels, real estate in the greater Portland area and Cumberland County set the tone for the rest of the state.

Statewide 2018 median prices for homes rose 7.5% compared to 5.3% in 2017, however, Portland’s average condo unit median prices rose 12%. Perhaps even more telling than price increase is the shrinkage of the average days on the market for a home. While statewide the average days on the market was 28 days in 2018, in the greater Portland area the average days on market was 7 days. Real estate agents joke they tell their clients to pack their bags when the unit is listed.

Towns such as Cumberland / North Yarmouth; Scarborough; Yarmouth; South Portland; Cape Elizabeth; and Falmouth represent some of the hottest real estate markets in Maine. Even areas such as Biddeford/ Saco and Lewiston/ Auburn are seeing increased activity. While the single family market has been relatively flat since 2010, the new market is being driven by existing inventories as new single family construction continues to stall. Interesting enough, this is not true for condo sales where new construction is leading the market. If you have not visited Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood in the last few years, you would not recognize it. Low-rise condominium buildings have sprouted like mushrooms.

Boomers have become empty nesters who do not want to deal with the four bedroom suburban house. They are migrating to the new high-end condominiums in the urban areas such as Portland to enjoy the fine restaurants and cultural attractions the city has to offer. Changing demographics in the urban areas see condos being purchased for vacation homes; investments; and a search by many for a new living style. Condo sales are becoming more than a third of the real estate market.

Many factors are creating this condo market environment. Millennials are looking for their first home (45% of buyers). They do not own cars and use uber or public transportation in the city. With the economy improving, the inventory of apartments in the cities is shrinking. Multi-family buildings spend less than 30 days in the real estate market in Portland due to a favorable cap rate for quality properties. Even historically left-behind multi-family markets such as Lewiston and Biddeford witnessed in 2018 its inventory shrinking and cap rates of less than 10%. Surprisingly, the boom in hotel building in the greater Portland market is having an effect, as hotel owners frantic to find affordable housing for their hospitality staff needs, are turning to buying apartment buildings for their employee use.

Meanwhile, new buildings are becoming more expensive to build, with cost increases perhaps as high as 20% over last year’s averages. These cost increases are due to labor shortages (Maine’s aging population); material transportation cost increases; local/ state regulatory delays/ costs; and lack of competition in Maine’s market.

So what does all of this mean for the future condo market? My 2019 Forecast is this:

  • Interest rates will climb throughout the year and dampen the market
  • Prices will continue to rise for the first half of the year and then level off
  • The Sellers’ market will end and more normal transactions will ensue
  • Inventory of units will satisfy demand

And one final forecast issue. For those not paying attention, with Millennials in the market big time, the iBuyer real estate buy/sell model will be a major force to change the way real estate is transacted.  With companies such as Opendoor; Knock; OfferPad; and Redfin either starting or testing ibuyer services to reduce the cost of transactions as well as speed up the process, predicting future real estate markets will be like predicting weather.   To paraphrase an old Maine adage, “If you don’t like the real estate market, wait a minute.”

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Building Envelope Woes

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 11:53

So what to do in a Maine winter? Certainly snow sports, a good book, or dreams of spring golf are excellent pursuits but for the chairperson of the condo maintenance committee, winter is a good time to be planning building envelope repairs. The building envelope comprises the roof, siding, and foundation with all of the windows, doors, other penetrations that go with the envelope.

As the building envelope is probably one of the most important, if not the most costly common condominium asset, it bears careful monitoring. This article will attempt to provide a guide of the typical problems and issues encountered in most condominium buildings with most of these associated with water infiltration.

Starting from the top, most condos use asphalt shingles for sloped roofs and EPDM membranes for flat roofs. Both last a long time with asphalt shingles having lives of 25 to 30 years while EPDM membranes start to fail after 20 years. Most roofs start to show their age with leaks of which the great majority are concentrated in areas where dissimilar material or horizontal and vertical surfaces meet. Defective or poorly installed flashing is usually the culprit.

Caulking or roof tar is often used for repairs but these tend to be only temporary fixes. Watch for curling or lifting shingles as these are good signs of an aging roof. Roof can also fail prematurely from overheated and poorly vented attics. And speaking of attics, the irony is that ice dam leaks are caused by heat rather than ice. Ice dams are formed at the edges of roofs due to heat escaping into the attic from poorly sealed exterior walls or inadequate insulation and melting roof snow setting up a freeze/thaw cycle that eventually works under the shingles. Those issues should be addressed first before bothering with external electrical heat tape or similar measures.

Many of New England’s condominiums are sided with wood, vinyl, or cement composite clapboard siding. For the most part these materials do their job to keep most of the moisture out of the building but they are not the only barrier. In fact, one of the most important components of exterior walls is the building wrap beneath the siding. This material’s purpose, going by such names a Tyvek or Typar, is often misunderstood, even by contractors.

When it was first introduced it was called a vapor barrier and is still thought as such by many. In fact, building wrap should be renamed and called building flashing as that is its true purpose. Water gets behind all siding whether it is clapboards, brick, or stucco. The trick in good building envelope design is to insure this water infiltration is stopped by a drainage plain which for most residential structures is building wrap. This is why most exterior wall leaks can be traced back to missing or poorly installed building wrap.

If building wrap were only used for a vapor barrier function, then not taping the seams of the wrap would not be a big deal. But as a building flashing, it is critical that seams (particularly vertical ones) are taped, holes are patched, and the wrap is properly integrated with the flashings around doors and windows. When a unit owner reports a water infiltration problem through the walls it is a good idea to focus on problems with the wrap rather than the siding. To make matters worse, if the wrap is failing it is very possible water damage may also be occurring to the sheathing and insulation behind the wrap.

This brings us to windows. The problem with windows is they belong to the unit owner and are not a common element under most condominium rules. However, the building committee is not off the hook with window leaks as these same condo rules that assign the windows to the unit owners also assign the window frames to the association’s responsibility. In most cases it is not the window that is leaking but the frame’s flashing (or lack of flashing) causing the problem.

Poorly installed windows that did not follow the manufacture’s instructions, that no one read on the job site, are one of the biggest sources of homeowners’ complaints. Often the only solution is to remove the siding around the window, inspect the flashing, and re-flash. Many such problems can be minimized by preventive inspections using either visual methods or instruments such as moisture meters to focus on the specific moisture path to diagnose the issue.

Water infiltration problems are like odd noises in your car. They do not go away they only get worse. By addressing these problems now your dreams of early spring golf may yet be realized.

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Hidden Dangers of Dryer Vents

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 17:04

Who would think venting a unit’s clothes dryer was so complicated?  When was the last time the cleanliness of dryer vents was on your Board’s meeting agenda?  Yet, clothes dryers may be one of the most dangerous appliances in the home.  The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports there are more than 15,000 home fires each year directly related to dryer maintenance and overheating with blocked exhaust venting contributing to half of those fires.  Dryer venting falls in the category of what you can’t see, can hurt you.

Just as condo units and their buildings come in many shapes and sizes, so does dryer vent systems.  It is not unusual for new Boards not only not understand the exact nature of their condo’s in-unit dryer vent system but they also are not certain who is responsible for its maintenance.  Most dryer vent ducts pass through common space, except for HOA unit owners who are responsible for their own building envelope and everything within.  Some condo dryer vent ducts are dedicated to a given unit while others are shared with other units.  Many dryers vent pass through an exterior wall while mid-rise and high-rise condo buildings share a vertical rooftop vent system.

With these different types of systems and variances often found in the governing condo documents, it is not always well understood by the Board members who is responsible for maintenance and repair of dryer duct systems.  This includes basic routine cleaning even if it is clear maintaining the in-unit dryer is part of the unit owner’s responsibility.  This is an important issue to resolve with the assistance of your legal counsel, as it is the first step in meeting the Board’s responsibility to oversee the safety of the units’ venting system and its occupants.

Once dryer vent system maintenance responsibilities are understood, a policy should be put in place.  This policy should provide authority for unit access and performing maintenance and repairs when owners fail to comply with the dryer policy including assessing charges to the unit owner incurred by the association in providing the required dryer maintenance.  The policy should specify the required maintenance including cleaning of the dryer vents and ducts on a scheduled basis, typically every two years.  Often communities will engage a dryer maintenance contractor at a bulk rate to provide a cost effective and consistent maintenance program.  Should a unit owner opt out of this service they would be required to provide proof of compliance of the required maintenance being conducted by others.

Before the dryer maintenance program can be implemented, the Board must understand their system.  This may require the assistance of a maintenance repair contractor or the association’s building engineer who will need to inspect the present system.  This inspection may reveal common and shared duct systems; long duct runs with booster in-line fans; improper duct materials.  As an example, any vent duct found to be vinyl, PVC, or flexible is a problem.  Most of these types of vent ducts are violations of the local and national building codes, as their interior surfaces collect lint creating a build up of highly flammable material as well as a medium to collect water whose weight can bend duct pipe and create an environment susceptible to mildew and mold.  Improper duct should be removed and replaced with smooth-walled metal ductwork.  If flexible duct is found forming an elbow at the rear of the dryer, it should be replaced with non-flexible metal elbow duct so as not to be crushed when the dryer is pushed against the wall.

The policy may set specifications on the type of dryers to be allowed in units.  Not all dryers are the same.  Beyond the differences between electric and gas-fired dryers, some dryers have significantly different exhaust characteristics.  Building codes recognizes this by allowing the manufacturer to specify the maximum length of straight vent duct to be used.  This typically can range from 15 to 90 feet.  This duct length is further defined by reducing the allowable length by 5 feet for every 90 degree bend and 2 ½ feet for every 45 degree bend in the duct.  For this reason, the policy should provide specific direction to unit owners of the minimum type of dryer performance allowed as well as advising the unit owner of the length of duct the dryer will be connected.  Some associations even place a placard at the duct wall connection with this information for future dryer installations.

In hiring the dryer maintenance contractor the Board should take the normal insurance precautions as when hiring any contractor, including coverage for general liability; automobile liability; workers compensation and umbrella liability coverage with key required endorsements.  These are needed to protect the association from both having to defend itself as well as pay damages as a result  of the contractor’s activities while also including additional insured endorsements; waiver of subrogation endorsement; and primary/non-contributory wording.

The contract with the maintenance contractor should specify the method of cleaning the dryer duct.  Typically the cleaning is a combination of extendable brushes and vacuum cleaning.  The scope of work should include specific clarification of disposal of duct debris both inside and outside the building.  Safety issues should be addressed, particularly regarding movement of gas-fired dryers.

The dryer maintenance policy can include some preventative maintenance guidance to unit owners.  Unit owners should be advised to report unusual dryer performance including longer than normal drying times or the dryer surface or clothes feeling hotter than normal.  The owners should also report their observations of the outside dryer louver vents not opening as much as before.  Excessive humid or burnt smells in the laundry area are all signs of blocked exhaust vent duct.  The recognition of dryer malfunctions and a good preventive maintenance policy will ensure the common safety for all.


Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers

Published in Condo Media, February, 2019

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The Association Landscaper

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 17:01

Sure, it’s cold out there.  It’s Maine and we have long winters but if the condo board is to find a good landscaper for spring projects now’s the time to start looking.  Landscaping contractors are overhauling their equipment; looking for experienced crews; and scheduling their current customers, so if you wait till the frost is out of the ground, the good ones will not be available. Finding a good landscaper is not easy.  Not that there isn’t many competent landscapers in Maine, it is just they all might not be a good fit for your community.  Some landscapers focus on commercial customers with very specific annual needs not needing a lot of handholding.  Some landscapers prefer high-end residential clients with deep pockets and fancy estates following the design magazine trends.  Other landscapers are accustomed to maintaining apartment complexes and only have to deal with experienced landlords.

Condos are different.  Condos are a hybrid so be cautious with an unwary new landscaper not familiar with dealing with both a property manager and a board not to mention the very opinionated unit owners.  Trying to keep everyone happy is not for all landscapers.  The selection process should focus on this very real issue as well as cost and competency otherwise your engagement may be short lived with your burnt out landscaper disappearing in his red pickup.

Good landscaping is an investment.  Most people in the real estate industry will acknowledge quality landscaping creates real and measureable value, perhaps as much as 16% in condo unit sales value when compared to a communities with poor curb appeal.  This equates in return on investment in excess of 200% of the installation cost of plants and landscape amenities.  In addition to units’ maintaining or increasing their sales value, the value of community pride and quality of life can be profound.  Therefore searching for the right landscaper is worth the effort.  This search should start with the board agreeing on goals clearly related to prospective landscape contractors.  Certainly budgetary matters can be discussed at this time but until the landscape priorities are established no progress can be made.

Develop a list of three or four landscapers to be considered.  This list is best developed from referrals from your property manager; members of other local condo communities; or other condo service providers.  This will help to shorten the list to contractors who will have some understanding of working for a community.  Next set up an interview schedule after the board has had a chance to review and approve the written goals and a written set of specific questions to be addressed to each candidate.

Following introduction between the board and landscaper, the contractor should be given an opportunity to discuss his company and its history and experience.  Each interview should follow an outline agenda with the next step being the board presenting the community’s goals.  The landscaper should be allowed to consider these goals and discuss concerns or offer suggested improvements.  A consensus does not have to be established at this point but the goals of the association must be expressed early in the process.

With the general scope of work stated, more specific information regarding the contractor’s ability to properly crew and supervise the job can be discussed.  An understanding of how many crews are supervised by one individual and over what territory or number of other communities is important to forecast future service.  This would be a good time to discuss possible schedules including completion time frames; communication on site to address service requests; and monthly accomplishment reports.

It should be kept in mind your community is in competition for crew time.  Most communities prefer on-site service on Thursday or Friday and not over the weekend.  Allowing the landscaper’s crew to work on Tuesday or Wednesday may provide negotiation chips for a better deal.  Price is always an issue but don’t make the mistake of forcing a low price only to get unsatisfactory performance.  The board’s goals should include wanting to re-hire the selected landscaper in the future.

As with hiring any service provider, references must be checked and insurance coverage confirmed.  The conclusion of the final selection process should include the contractor providing information regarding his chain of command and how future communication concerning billing; re-scheduling; and expected work environment including times/ location of crew breaks and mobilization; start/ finish times; noise issues and speed of equipment.  The board should suggest the landscaper attend periodic board or landscaping meetings.

After the contract award, the contractor will provide a site map highlighting key issues agreed upon.  An initial meeting with the board representative and key crew members can be very helpful. It should always be kept in mind the community is forming a partnership with the landscaper to create attractive grounds for all to be proud.


Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers

Published in Condo Media, February, 2019

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Transitions in Condominiums

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 16:56

All things are in transition.  Nature, the Patriots, and condo communities go through transitions.  In the world of condos many of these transition milestones are well understood, many are not.  Most know condos go through a transition management period from the developer to unit owner, but there is much more.  Condo transition has two primary elements:  Transition of Control and Transition of Responsibility.

Transition of Control refers to the new Board being primarily managed by the unit owners.  It is often useful for the developer to have some representation on this new board.  Prior to this new Board forming all available condo documents and records should be gathered and reviewed.  At this point the new Board may want to engage an attorney to assist in this process of collecting  the executed bylaws; filed articles; public offering statement;  financial records; meeting minutes; construction plans; maintenance records; insurance policies; warranties; service contracts; and unit files.

Care should be taken in engaging their attorney as not all attorneys have experience in representing transitioning associations.  This attorney should be well versed in collections and reviewing policy resolutions as well as initial contracts.  Similarly, experience in dealing with construction quality claims and defect resolution is very important.  The new Board will also be relying on this attorney to review financial issues as they present themselves.

The Board should also consider implementing a Transition Study.  This study often includes hiring an engineering firm to compare the condo project drawings and specifications to actual common element conditions to render an opinion on whether the Board should accept the facilities as is or conditionally until deficiencies are corrected.  These deficiencies arise from the discovery of violation of industry standards or building codes; failure to follow plans and specifications; design deficiencies; and product failure.

Some of the most useful project documents, if they are available, include ‘as-built’ construction drawings; approved site drawings and land surveys; landscaping plants showing all plantings and planned grounds amenities; list of contractors and service providers and their contact information; and an inventory of all major building elements and their manufacturers.

In parallel with the engineering effort, the Board may also hire a forensic accountant to review the developer’s use of unit owners’ funds to operate the facilities until the transition is completed.

The Transition of Responsibility refers to the moment in time the developer (declarant) transfers one or more common elements to the unit owner Board.  In large condo complexes, Certificates of Substantial Completion are issued as major common elements such as clubhouses; pools; or building phases are put into service.  These certificates are often controlled by professional engineers engaged by the developer or new Board.

Transition issues not only rest with the condo association but also the local community will take a part in the process.  Cope enforcement officers will be inspecting the property throughout the project life to insure the buildings meet current building and energy codes.  Local Fire Marshals and planning boards will be reviewing project documents to ensure both life safety and compliance with local standards.  Some of the common elements such as landscaping and storm water infrastructure may also have performance bonds in place to guarantee the site plans are completed as approved.

Though the new Board may not be aware of it, the local planning board and as well as the building inspection department of the municipality vetted this project whether it was a newly constructed facility or a conversion of a former multi-family building or other commercial structure.  Many Maine cities and towns have enacted condo conversion ordinances based on the Portland and South Portland model ordinances.  These ordinances’ purpose is to ensure the new condominium will meet the minimum standards set by the community for structural stability; mechanical / electrical requirements; and life safety features.    What this means for the new Board is there may be resources and history available at the local level to assist in the transition process.

Transition continues for the life of a condo community.  A good transition process will provide the basis for the understanding of standards of common element condition including building envelope; mechanical systems; life safety; and grounds.  These standards will contribute to reserve fund estimates of estimated useful lives and form a good foundation to develop both operating and capital repair budgets.  With these budgets the cash flow analysis can be performed resulting in a rational projection of future assessments to meet future spending needs.  With this road map future boards and their new members will be able to easily transition to their new roles as future leaders of a successful condo community.


Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers

Published in Condo Media, January, 2019

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