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M|O Perspectives

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Winter is Coming

Oct 21, 2020

The winter months are especially hard on the built environment. Once minimal concerns over rain and drainage can manifest as troublesome, costly repairs as freeze-thaw cycles work their magic on debris-filled roof drains, clogged gutters and drainage inlets, open sealant joints and cracks in masonry. So, the time to prepare is now. Here’s how.

Clear leaves & debris: Begin work this fall by removing leaves from roofs, gutters and downspouts. Discard debris at grade from around the perimeter of the building, where it may be covering masonry drainage plains or weep holes, and from around area drains or roadway drainage inlets. One goal is to remove materials that could lead to insects and rodents gaining access into the structure. Likewise, you’re removing impediments to storm wastewater flow since ice and snow buildup can cause water infiltration into the building or ice to form on sidewalks or roadways.

Seal eaves & roofs: Check that all openings in roof eaves are sealed to prevent birds, bats, mice and other nocturnal creatures from accessing the attic. When they don’t drain properly, roofs are the most vulnerable to damage and can result in costly repairs for a building owner from late fall through the winter months. We at Marx|Okubo recommend a proactive roof management and maintenance program all year long, and a seasonal check at the bare minimum.

Repair cracks pre-freeze: When water freezes and expands it occupies approximately 10% more volume. Frozen water inside even superficial cracks in concrete will lead to unsightly springtime spalls that will require repair. This can also impact stucco, which is a porous material when not adequately protected by its painted finish. Check protective coatings at traffic areas, balcony decks and pedestrian walkways; reapply as necessary. This is especially important in areas where snow-melt materials are used. Also, clean trench drains associated with parking garages and review cast iron-storm wastewater piping for areas of excessive corrosion or material failure.

Shore up joints: Water can penetrate failed sealant joints around windows, doors and louver vents; joints between dissimilar materials; air intakes/exhausts; and on perimeter-walls. When water sits in a wall cavity it will eventually damage the finishes or structure. Failing mortar joints in masonry can also be problematic as the porosity of the mortar will retain more water as it weathers. This condition can be exacerbated by windows that may remain closed for weeks or days at a time, reducing air exchanges within a building.

Review water based systems: Buildings with commercial HVAC systems need to also be reviewed to avoid freezing water in chilled and hot water systems. If the building or portions of the building are unoccupied, check that water is flowing within the piping systems. Similarly, to ensure “tempered” air is flowing throughout, set heating for mechanical systems no lower than 60°F. For larger buildings with an automation system, ensure that “morning warm-up” is early enough to ensure a comfortable environment when occupants arrive. (In buildings with RTUs, the thermostat can be programmed for this operation.)

Maintain fire systems: Don’t forget to keep an eye on fire protection systems, especially if all or portions of the system are a glycol-based antifreeze system. Also verify that space heaters are operational, as wet systems are susceptible to freezing.

If left unchecked, all of the above can lead to potentially expensive repairs. Now is the best time to better understand the condition of your property, dedicate experienced personnel to oversee checks and hopefully avoid the pitfalls of unplanned capital expenditures. Need help? Marx|Okubo provides comprehensive services to help ensure you have a smoother, more manageable new year. Contact Rand Silverman at

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Marx|Okubo is a national architecture/engineering/construction consulting firm that works with real estate owners, investors and lenders—at every point of the property lifecycle—to evaluate their building projects, solve complex challenges and implement tailored solutions. We help clients understand their projects’ complexities, so they can make more informed decisions and, ultimately, mitigate their risk.