During severe storms in March, six buildings in San Francisco’s financial district experienced glass failures, including dozens of cracked windows and several panes that fell into streets below, narrowly missing pedestrians and parked cars. Now, the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection (DBI) has modified its façade ordinance to require owners of buildings with 15 stories or more and built after 1998 to engage a licensed engineer or architect to evaluate the entire building façade for safety and stability.

Previously, the DBI did not require façade inspections until 30 years after the building was constructed. The requirement applied to buildings of five stories or more, with the frequency of inspection dictated by the age of the building. However, these recent glass failures occurred in buildings completed within the last 15 years, such as Salesforce East, constructed in 2015; 50 California Street, constructed in 2016, and Millennium Tower, constructed in 2009.

Why are newer buildings experiencing façade failures, and what does that mean for building owners?

Façade Failures in Newer Buildings

Building façades, especially the glass curtain wall type façades such as those on many high-rise buildings, are complicated structures with many components. Curtain walls are constructed outside the slab structure of each floor; they are structurally independent. Glass panes are built to “rack in place.” Pressure from extreme wind can make the panes move. If the panes come off their setting blocks, or if the setting blocks move, panes can come loose from gaskets. Many variables affect this scenario, including what sealants are used, how the building has been maintained, and how it was constructed.

Climate factors may be contributing to the recent frequency of façade failures. Severe storms and other climate-related events are occurring in regions not previously exposed to them, meaning infrastructure and building standards may not be sufficient to withstand them.

Economics may also play a role: widespread office vacancy means outward signs of damage or stress in window or façade components go unreported. Vacant buildings also may not be maintained to previous standards. Short of a façade inspection, window washers are often the only ones with the vantage point to observe signs of damage or stress in windows.

Finally, the shortage of skilled labor that has plagued the construction industry over the last decade or more may also be partly to blame. While the pressure for fast delivery of new buildings has increased, qualified crews have become harder to find. This combination can result in shortcuts and lower quality construction.

 What Building Owners Need to Know

Many of the largest cities in the United States require periodic façade inspections, including Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Jersey City, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and St. Louis.  That list is likely to grow as façade failures trigger action by additional cities. Outside of regulatory compliance, however, many building owners will only order a façade inspection during acquisition, or in the event of failure.

Just as a Facility Condition Assessment (FCA) is recommended every five to seven years, routine façade assessments should be part of the ongoing management and maintenance of any building, especially high-rise buildings. Adding a façade specialist to your FCA will cost a bit more but ensure that a thorough inspection of the entire façade is completed. The cost of a façade inspection depends on the size of the building, the type of façade, and the number of “drops” required, but is a relatively small expense when compared to the safety hazard and liability associated with façade failure.

Proper maintenance and repair of façades not only protect public safety but extend the lifespan of the building and improve its aesthetic appeal. Routine façade inspections can reduce liability and help to maintain the value of your building over time.