Sleek, modern architecture not only hip, it can help home inspectors at work

Tom Corbett

New Construction Corner

Home inspectors devote much of their time to divining what lies beneath a building’s surfaces, looking for clues that water is leaking or a foundation is shaky, for example. The more ornament a building has – moldings, flooring or dropped ceilings – the harder it is to spot defects.

That’s why minimalist, modern architecture can have an advantage for home inspectors – and, by extension, consumers intent on figuring out a new home’s potential problems. Exposing a building’s functional parts is usually an aesthetic choice, but it can be a practical one as well.

The ultimate example might be the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the museum and library famous for its tangle of exposed ductwork. Pipes are color-coded: red for heating, yellow for electricity, blue for air and green for water. That’s what you might call a home inspector’s dream.

Europeans seem to like revealing a building’s guts; the trend is prevalent overseas. Chicago’s paean to minimalism, the high-rise 600 North Fairbanks, under construction in Streeterville, is designed by the “starchitect” Helmut Jahn, who has built a series of notable projects in his native Germany. But there are other local examples.

I recently inspected 156 West Superior, a nine-story tower in River North from Ranquist Development and Studio Dwell Architects.

In that project, the concrete floors weren’t covered by hardwood or carpeting (the only decoration came from a colorant mixed with the concrete, which created a striking effect). I could also see how the floor was held in place, with “c”-shaped steel channels around the perimeter. This minimalist aesthetic choice made it easy for me to check for structural problems.

Ranquist did a nice job on those floors. If the developer hadn’t, I would have easily noticed any irregularities in the pour of the concrete. Concrete poured improperly can create a condition called “spalling,” which is a kind of acne on the surface that results when concrete is loose and starts to come apart. And if a home has a concrete floor and a concrete patio, they should be poured at the same time. If they’re not, gaps and inconsistencies in the concrete appear and tend to let water into the unit.

Other problems ornament can hide:

  • Water marks or rust on a floor or ceiling can usually be covered with a good quality primer, which can completely hide the stains resulting from roof leaks. Rust can also lurk around windows and doors. And since exterior masonry walls have steel in them, both in the reinforcing bars and in the wire mesh fabric that holds the wall together, they can also get rusty, which can be a sign of a serious structural problem in the building.
  • Heavily ornamented windows can obscure important construction details, especially in brick buildings. Since masonry is a porous surface that allows water in, it should also let water out. Any relatively new masonry building should have tiny gutters called “weep holes” below windows for this purpose. It should also have heavy metal or plastic sheeting called “flashing” above and below windows to keep water from damaging window frames.
  • Electrical panel boxes mounted on the surfaces of walls are easier to inspect than those recessed inside walls. This allows inspectors to see the conduit, which holds the wires, to make sure it’s properly connected and fastened. They should also check to see that the conduit isn’t too hot – a fire hazard.
  • Exposed supply piping (which carries water, heat, etc. in and out of the unit) is another boon to home inspectors. If pipes are hidden inside dropped ceilings, inspectors can’t examine the joints to be sure they aren’t leaking hot and cool air from the furnace. Nor can they check for water leaks, which can be concealed from homeowners for years –until, say, the basin some one put underneath the leaky spot finally overflows.
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