Lakefront buildings may be popular, but they take a beating from climate

New Construction Corner
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The lake is Chicago’s hottest amenity – homes with waterfront access or views are invariably among the city’s priciest. But living near a force of nature can have its downside too, especially when it comes to the impact on structures. Water, wind and weather can – and often do – wreak havoc on buildings on or near the shore. If you’re buying a home near the lake, make sure it can withstand the punishing climate.

Chicago is named the “Windy City” because of its politicians, not its weather, but gales howling over Lake Michigan are an undeniable fact of life here. The wind picks up speed over miles of open water, ricocheting between buildings when it reaches the city. At one Gold Coast townhouse I inspected, wind shooting down from the roof of the neighboring high-rise kept blowing the pilot lights out in the furnace and water heater.

Even without strong wind, the meeting of land and water creates constant air currents. The water holds heat and cold longer than the earth, and cold air chases hot air, and voila – you have swirling currents that can damage a building. The continual temperature changes can cause masonry, terra cotta, steel, glass, concrete and other materials to expand, contract, twist or break. Here are some potential trouble spots:

Windows. It is vital for a lakefront building to have sturdy, well-made windows. One basic test: if you can, visit the building on a cold, windy day. Stand right next to a closed window, light a match and then blow it out. If the smoke moves, the windows probably don’t meet standards for energy efficiency. It’s a tough test, but your new home should pass it.

Window glass should be extra-thick, with a protective film to keep UVA and UVB rays from ruining your upholstery. That’s a concern because lakefront buildings get direct morning sunlight. Window frames should be large and solidly built. If they’re made from vinyl, the corners should be reinforced with steel.

And windows should be put into place professionally with caulk (silicone latex is the industry standard) and a “backer rod,” a rubber coil that adds rigidity. Otherwise cold or rain can penetrate the caulk, eventually leading to rot or mildew.

Gas. Even if your windows are perfect, the wind can still cause serious trouble. If the water heater doesn’t use a fan to expel its exhaust, air currents can push fumes back into the building. If the furnace is nearby, it can suck in those fumes and distribute them to apartments through supply ducts. That’s not air you want to breathe. When you’re checking out the water heater, see if the areas near the flame or draft hood are scorched or blackened. That may be a sign of trapped gas.

Roofs. Many builders cover rooftops with gravel to protect them from sun exposure. The wind can blow these stones into a corner, leaving the roof exposed and prone to leaks and wear.

The wind also can dislodge the roof membrane, a protective layer typically made of rubber or bitumen, from the roof structure. I’ve seen roof membranes flapping in the breeze like sheets of paper. Make sure the roof is firmly fastened or covered with heavy stones.

Masonry. Weather damage to masonry buildings along the lakefront can be severe. When water seeps into the concrete joints between blocks or bricks and freezes, it causes the concrete to expand. Eventually, pieces of concrete begin to break off, and wind and rain wash them away. If this goes on too long without maintenance, the wall gets gradually weaker.

Look through binoculars at the side of the building. Do the mortar joints look as if they’re three-quarters of an inch deep? If so, that means they’re badly deteriorated and need immediate tuckpointing.

You can spot some of these problems yourself or with the help of a home inspector. I also urge all prospective buyers to get their hands on the condo board minutes whenever possible. Many building problems are laid out there in black and white.

Tom Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc., www.Tomacor.com, a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work. E-mail your construction questions to Tom at Inspection@Tomacor.com.

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