Last week I wrote about untreated concrete block that lets water seep in, damaging walls, ceilings, floors and rugs. A group of aldermen is working with the masonry industry and the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago on an ordinance that would require that split-faced concrete block be treated with water repellant while setting masonry standards for its installation.
Use of this block is widespread, as are the problems associated with it.
Ald. Vi Daley (43rd) and home inspectors contacted for this story said the problem seems to be biggest in small condo buildings built on single lots in trendy North Side neighborhoods. Such buildings typically have three units and use split block on the sides and rear of the structures.
Steve Hier, a private home inspector with Miller Hier Enterprises Inc., said 25 percent of the buildings he inspects in Chicago have seepage problems. Rich Handschuh, another home inspector, said 25 to 30 percent have the problems.
But, the inspectors said, workmanship as well as repellant treatment is at the root of the problem. They said not only is waterproofing needed, but so are flashing, weep holes or weep screens, which let water escape from walls, and good tuckpointing.
Many newly constructed buildings in Chicago don't get all these things. A visit to four buildings under construction or recently built in Bucktown found numerous masonry flaws, as pointed out by home inspectors Hier and Handschuh. They included:
Seepage problems are unusual in suburban construction but in the city they're common in buildings constructed by small-time builders who use the non-union masons, Hier and Handschuh said.
"A large part of [the problem] is a function of workmanship and who's doing the work," agreed Scott Conwell, an architect and area marketing director for the International Masonry Institute, based in Chicago. "Union masons tend to do a better job," he said. But with a building boom in progress and with endemic shortages of skilled craftsmen, anybody with a pickup truck can call himself a mason and get hired, he said.
"The kind of problems you're referring to give the material [block] a bad name. What's the answer? Union contractors," he said.
Where do city inspectors fit into all of this?
"I don't think there are enough inspectors." Ald. Daley said. "We have so many homes, you don't have enough time to look at every development."
City inspectors, however, will be sure to come out and look at a building if someone calls in with a specific complaint, she said.
Kristen Lobbins-Cabanban, spokeswomen for the city's Department of Building, disagreed about lack of inspectors. "We beg to differ. We've hired 25 new inspectors in last two years," she said. The city's 232 building inspectors will respond quiclky to individual complaints about buildings and may visit a problem building 20 times, she said.
Hier said one of the buildings we saw with the home inspectors had been visited by a city inspector who ordered that things be remedied.
City inspectors primarily are on the lookout for health and safety issues, as well as major structural defects, he said. They would cite a builder for failure to have flashing and weeps, but might not get into the quality of the pointing, she said.
In any case, the pace of building if frantic and inspectors can see a foundation one day and completed block walls the next, she said. "People are throwing up buildings all over the place. They fly up overnight." she said.
Because of that, inspectors might not be able to see every aspect of a structure with a street-level inspection. Lack of weeps at a second or third floor might escape notice, she said.
Another question: How does an owner or potential owner know if the block is sealed? They can ask to see a reciept from the contractor showing the type of block used, or demand via the purchase contract that sealed block be used. Existing structures can be tested with a special device.
My advice is to make sure to hire your own home inspector, a darn good one, and make sure he visits the building at various stages of construction.
Write to Bill Rumbler at 401 N. Wabash Ave., Chicago, 60611. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.