Why are so many Vancouver condos prone to leaking?
Well, into the WayBack machine, to see what life was like in Vancouver in the late 80s.
Expo 86 had really moved the city along. The nightlife was bouncy, with live-music venues downtown and in Gastown. New bylaws were made to loosen up the liquor laws — we were a fun town! And the Vancouver Canucks were pinning their hopes on young Jim Benning.
All this activity meant more people were moving to the city, and that put pressure on current housing stock. So in the years 1982 through the early 1990’s, the city encouraged a new-fangled type of housing that Vancouver hadn’t seen before — condos.
Vancouver had apartments since the beginning, but they were usually built specifically for rental. Apartment ownership in a strata corporation was a new thing. At first it meant existing buildings “going condo” – selling their suites to the tenants. In those halcyon days you could purchase a condo for about $40K — a nice one, too. Then zoning changes meant that residential homes in neighbourhoods like Kitsilano and around City Hall could be replaced by condominiums.
So we had a situation where there was a high demand for this housing — plus land to build it on. What could possibly go wrong?
1. The climate — damp – ish
Vancouver gets 1153.1 mm of rain per year, about double that of that notoriously rainy city, London. Nearly twice as much as San Francisco, California. I put this at the top of the list because it’s really something that should determine everything else. But it seems to have been ignored by everyone all through the process of building these leaky condos.
2. Regulations – no good deed goes unpunished
The Canadian Building Code altered their rules to increase the sealing of exterior walls. That meant that in the dry cold of a Saskatchewan winter, the sealed walls would keep the cold out and the warm in. Great in Saskatchewan — but the rule meant that whatever entered the exterior — heat or moisture — would be trapped inside.
The City of Vancouver changed their regulations to include eaves and overhangs in the allowable floor space. There was therefore a penalty to having a wide roof overhang. Much better to build right to the outside of the allowable limit, with no overhang at all! Also the floor space was measured from the outside of the exterior wall — not the inside. So thinner walls were encouraged.
To reiterate: the buildings would have to be air-tight, but not protected from any precipitation.
3. Design — let’s borrow from the neighbours
Vancouver needed a new type of building — a three or four storey apartment building that would incorporate modern building techniques and style. We hadn’t seen this style of building in the area — but California had!
Arched windows! Lots of parapets, changing roof lines, open walkways! Very little roof overhang. And all wrapped up in stucco. It was better than modern — it was Post Modern!
We liked it! We built it! We bought it!
A design that was originally fashioned for a place with half our annual rainfall.
4. Construction — new materials because — progress
Lots of Vancouver buildings are covered in stucco. Good old-fashioned cement stucco. But now there was something new and improved — exterior insulation finishing system (or EIFS). It seals the exterior, just like the Canadian Building Code requires. And you can put it smack against the sheathing, for which they used that new stuff, fibreboard. Putting the EIFS right on the fibreboard reduced the thickness of the walls, which meant that the City of Vancouver measurements from the outside of the exterior walls would not reduce the size of the floor space within the suites.
5. Builders – the more the merrier
The demand for housing was there. The materials were there. The design was there. All you needed was someone to put it together. And companies sprung up like, well, mushrooms. Reputable builders were booked up months or even years in advance. So less-than-reputable builders stepped into the breech. Also, builders and developers would form a new company for each project. When the project was finished, the company would just dissolve. Into thin air. Inspectors were overworked and often not familiar with the new designs and the new building materials.
6. Owners — what’s that smell?
New condominiums sold just as they were supposed to — like deceptively constructed hotcakes. They were lovely to look at. And for some time they were fine. It takes a few years for those interesting roof lines and arched windows to let water through that impervious exterior into the fibreboard that soaks it up. It takes a bit longer for those sodden boards to start moulding and rotting. Then problems apppear.
Then it took a few years for strata boards to realize that the leak in 4A and the saggy balcony on 2C were related. The building was disintegrating from the outside in. And there was only one answer — ripping off the entire exterior and replacing it with rain screening. And that took money. Money from the owners.
The company that had constructed it didn’t exist any more. The New Home Warranty only covered buildings constructed after 1999.
Some strata boards faced the problem head on. Like the board in our old building they rain screened their homes, absorbed the cost, and kept their places from deteriorating. They were the smart ones.
Many of the buildings ones that did not rain screen around 2000 did it in the subsequent years, and they had to pay much higher costs because construction costs have shot up in the past decade.
But there were others….who have not fared so well. And they may be about to bid farewell to their life’s savings.
More on that in Part III