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Condensation

Condensation on a windowThe RMA Surveyors Ltd guide to condensation within buildings.

One of the most widely misinterpreted and misunderstood building defects is condensation. It can often be confused with service leaks and external water penetration. The key to understanding how and why condensation occurs is surface temperature.

Condensation occurs because water vapour in the air can no longer be held by the air. The water vapour condenses and becomes liquid water.

The warmer the air, the more water vapour it can carry. When warm air comes into contact with a cold surface, air temperature is reduced and the volume of water vapour must also be reduced.

When condensation occurs it will manifest on surfaces colder than the surrounding air temperature. We are all familiar with condensation on windows. In most circumstances windows are usually the coldest surface on an external wall. When condensation occurs on other surfaces in a room it is usually a good indication that that surface is colder than other surrounding surfaces that are unaffected.

Mould and mildew associated with condensation is not always going to appear. The mould occurs only because the conditions for it to exist are present, namely a food source and moisture source. Moisture is provided courtesy of the condensation process. Food can be any organic material, including cellulose in emulsion paints and oil on fingers transferring to a wall or ceiling surface.

Often people attempt to clear away mould with a cloth end up with worse mould staining as organic material from the cloth creates a further food source for the mould to establish. There are a multitude of mould and mildew removal products on the market. In cases of condensation it is better to resolve the cause rather than just treat the symptoms.

Surface temperature alone is an oversimplification of the problem. The warmer the air the greater the capacity of water vapour. However, the quantity of water in the air is not always at full capacity all of the time. If that were the case almost every window would have condensation. Therefore the volume of moisture in the air, or relative humidity, is critical to each situation where condensation may arise. Understanding the relationship between the air’s relative humidity and the temperature at which air can no longer carry that volume of water vapour (otherwise known as the dew point), is critical to determining how to resolve a condensation problem.

To deal with condensation a number of options are available. All of the options simply require a difference in the parameters that allow condensation to occur.

Firstly, you can increase the surface temperature above the dew point. This could mean increasing insulation levels, providing secondary glazing or double glazing or providing a source of heat such as trace heating, like that on our car heated rear windows.

Increasing room temperatures also allows the air to carry a greater volume of water vapour, which, providing the relative humidity does not also increase, can alter the dew point and prevent condensation forming. This can be a rather arbitrary approach and is unlikely to be economical in terms of heating bills.

Altering insulation levels of external walls and roof structures can create condensation problems. There are many examples where blocks of flats and houses have had cavity wall insulation fitted and condensation problems have begun to manifest elsewhere. Localised spotting condensation can also occur in such cases. Where insulation has been unevenly distributed and the resulting gaps in insulation cause differential surface temperatures internally. Interstitial condensation can also occur. This happens when the dew point occurs within the wall or ceiling structure. Interstitial condensation can be a real problem as it can saturate the internal structure of a building elemnet for a long period before a defect begins to manifest itself. This is a particular problem in timber framed housing, when the internal vapour barrier within the wall structure has been damaged or poorly installed.

Secondly, you can reduce the amount of humidity in the air. This means isolating water sources. This is easier said than done. The fact that a property is inhabited by eating, breathing mammals who evaporate, perspire and respire their way throughout the day makes it difficult to reduce the amount of water vapour in a property. People tend to want to eat, boil kettles, wash and dry clothes, stay clean, use the toilet, keep pets and generally undertake activities that require the use of water, a proportion of which ends up as vapour carried within the air.

Reducing our use of water may not always be practical. Managing the way we use water can be. For example opening trickle vents on windows or keeping high humidity environments such as bathrooms and kitchens well ventilated with regular air changes from external air will help reduce relative humidity. Keeping toilet seat lids in the closed position will also contribute to reducing humidity.

Thirdly, good ventilation is also key to reducing the liklihood of condensation occurring. Where air is kept moving there is less likelihood of water vapour within the air condensing on cold surfaces. This is why opening a window, even only partially, can radically reduce instances of condensation as the water is yurned back to vapour and is carried off by unsaturated air.

Leaving condensation to establish long term can cause a multitude of problems both to the building and the individual. Mould spores can not only look unsightly but can affect human health. Associated respiratory illness is well documented with mildew moulds.

Condensation in buildings can result in longer term damp problems allowing dry and wet rots to develop and damage timber elements. As well as this surface decorations can be damaged and goods and furnishings can also be affected. Often clothing and stored goods in humid properties can be ruined, as condensation forms in wardrobes and moulds establish. Very humid properties are particularly prone as humid high pressure air forces its way into less humid cooler areas. Often such losses are not covered by standard insurance policies.

If you want to read more about condensation the RICS have produced this guidance note. Further information is also provided by the ISVA which is available here.

If you have a condensation problem and would like some further investigation and advice from RMA Surveyors Ltd please contact us and we will be happy to assist.

UK Surveying Directory

RMA Surveyors Ltd are now registered with UK Surveying Companies. The UK Surveying Company is a directory of UK based surveyors offering quantity, building, property & land surveying services.

New JCT Contracts now available

JCT Minor works building contract front pageThe Joint Contracts Tribunal published a new 2011 suite of contracts and sub-contracts which are designed to comply with the provisions of Part 8 of the new Construction Act which came into force as of 1st October 2011.

The JCT Contracts 2011 edition reflects new legislation in regard to payment and makes other changes which include:
•    A revised definition of insolvency
•    Integration of the revisions appended to the 2005 form of contract
•    The provision for appointment of the principal contractor under CDM Regulations is extended to cover that function under the Site Waste Management Plans Regulations 2008
•    Reference to the Bribery Act 2010
•    Entries in relation to PI insurance and asbestos and fungal mould are omitted
•    Revised retention provisions in the sub-contracts

RMA Surveyors Ltd will be using the new form of JCT contracts where appropriate.

Independent Advice for Building Insurance Claims

Cracked wall caused by impact damageIf you have suffered an insurable loss to your building, did you know you are entilitled to appoint your own independent building surveyor?

RMA Surveyors Ltd are experienced experts who understand how the insurance reinstatement process works at all levels. Richard Mountain MRICS gives an insiders view to the corporate loss adjusters reinstatement operates.

Previously I worked for a major UK insurance loss adjuster, within their building surveying and project management department. I oversaw reinstatement of flood damage, fire damage, impact damage and malicious damage to residential property and commercial property insurance claims.

I project managed in excess of 25 insurance reinstatement projects at any one time (many project managers had as many as 50 ‘live’ projects), all at various stages of the reinstatement process. I covered a 2,500 mile2 geographical area. The volume of work was phenomenal. The role required assessment and reporting of the initial damage compilation of specifications and tender documentation, tender issuing and tender analysis and monitoring the execution of the building contract to completion. Inevitably, delivering the volume of projects in the required time meant that the role was highly pressurised and very time consuming.

I learnt a great deal in my time dealing strictly with insurance reinstatements. Principally, like any business, the primary goal is to generate profit. Secondly, large loss adjusting companies are set up to generate as much profit from insurance claims as possible. They do so through structuring a claims process in such a way that policy holders are steered in a direction towards services or subsidiaries of that company.

Typically a loss adjuster visits a claim. He makes an assessment of the claim and whether or not it is straightforward (e.g. a collapsed ceiling) or more complicated (e.g. a flood damaged block of flats). In the latter case he will refer the work to an in-house surveying department. A surveyor will be appointed to act on behalf of a policy holder. S/he will assess, specify and tender works to a list of ‘approved’ contractors. The succesful ‘approved contractor’ will then complete the works.

In such cases a loss adjuster’s fees are typically capped at a low figure, and treated as ‘loss leaders’. This is done in the same way supermarkets expect to lose money on basics such as bread and milk, in the hope that you will be tempted by other goodies on the way round the store. Larger fees are accrued when the surveyor gets involved.

As with any surveyor dealing with this type of work, in-house firms of surveyors and project managers will receive fees typically in the region of 10% of the net contract sum. Coupled with this ‘approved contractors’ pay a percentage back to a central contractor administration unit (also owned by the loss adjusting company) for each project they successfully tender. Ultimately the loss adjusting company can generate in the region of 18% of a net contract sum from each project, making the ‘loss leader’ adjuster’s fee a worthwhile endeavour.

What does this mean to a policy holder? Well, on the face of it not a great deal. The structure behind the system is rarely explained in any great detail to the policy holder and rarely do they want, or need to know. Only when the level of service begins to be affected does it become a problem. My experience is when problems occur it is usually the policy holder who loses out.

By way of example, a recent claim I took over as an independent surveyor had a contractor making many unfair and unsatisfactory expectations of my client, the policy holder. I was provided with a two page specification, compiled by the contractor, and a four page letter of caveats and impositions expected of the policy holder by the contractor that formed the basis of the building contract. The whole project was strongly weighted in favour of the contractor. I had no choice but to compile a proper specification and tender the project to competent contractors, effectively taking the policy holder back to square one. It had taken him six months to get as far as he had. The process took a further four months for me to complete. But we managed to do so using a good contractor, under an industry recognised form of building contract for a competitive and realistic contract sum.

For contractors to become ‘approved’ by the loss adjuster’s central administration body they need to meet a lot of separate criteria. They need to have a workforce, who are adaptable and can react quickly. They need to be geared up to visit a property with a leaking pipe within an hour of a phone call. Coupled with this, most of the insurance claims work they deal with is typically low-value, small-scale and does not require a project manager or building contract in place.

Good building contractors are rarely suited to this type of business model tending to deal predominantly with larger contracts. Therefore, it is very difficult to secure ‘approved contractors’ who can meet the needs of a larger building contract. I once went to five of my project sites in a single day and not one of them had any personnel on site. This was in spite of the fact that I had specifically cited this as a clause in the specification. I found that contracts were poorly managed on site and beset with problems in terms of quality and understanding of material performance. When employed by the loss adjusters I was not allowed to use any other than the list of ‘approved contractors’. This was a major frustration for me.

At the outset, it is down to loss adjusters to explain that policy holders are able to use their own independent surveyors. I often found that policy holders did not understand, as it was not explained, the difference between the surveyor and the loss adjuster. Policy holders often seemed compelled to remain with whoever was assigned to deal with their case.
The insurance reinstatement claims I have dealt with as an independent surveyor are wholly different. All of them have been far easier to execute without the constraints of a corporate enterprise behind me. I am not overworked and would not take on a project unless I knew I had the resources to deal with it.  In every project I have had the fortune to appoint good local independent building contractors, who have performed admirably to ultimately benefit the client.

I would recommend to anyone who has the misfortune to suffer an insurance claim that they appoint an independent chartered building surveyor to oversee the reinstatement works. The cost will be covered by your insurance policy. We will bring peace of mind, as you can be sure that you are using a qualified construction professional, who understands the construction industry and has you and your building’s best interests as their primary concern.

If you have problems with getting your property adequately reinstated please contact us RMA Surveyors Ltd will be pleased to look at your case and provide initial free consultation.

Richard Mountain MRICS

Party Wall Pitfalls

Increasingly I find that neighbouring owners attempt to use The Party Wall etc Act 1996 to try and prevent works from going ahead. In actual fact the Act gives homeowners the right to complete work where a party wall or party structure is likely to be affected. It is not an injunction or method of prevention.

On several occasions I have attended a site to meet with a neighbour who does not want works to begin and is intent on pulling out all the stops to prevent works going ahead. In my experience the neighbour has usually had no notification that works are going ahead. The first they knew about it was when a spade struck the ground and lifted them from their slumber, or a planning notice letter fluttered onto their doormat. This is the crux of many party wall issues and I will come back to it later. In some cases the neighbour will, by any means necessary, try to prevent works. Inevitably they turn to the Party Wall Act in the hope that this legislation will curtail works.

In fact the opposite is true. To add to their frustration a surveyor appointed to act in regard to their interests is actually acting in the interests of the wall. They must act impartially in agreeing an award. Any surveyor who claims you are their ‘client’ and are acting in your interests in regard to a party wall award is misinformed. It is worth reiterating that the person undertaking works is known as the Building Owner and the neighbour is known as the Adjoining Owner. A Party Wall Surveyor acting on behalf these parties is either the Building Owners Surveyor or the Adjoining Owners Surveyor. Once appointed the surveyor cannot be disinstructed to act on behalf of an owner, and the terms of an award can only be contested in the county court.

A Party Wall Award will determine the right to execute works and govern the conditions by which work is completed, specifically in relation to works affecting a party structure. I recently completed an award where around 1% of the contract related to works affecting a party structure. The adjoining owner was reasonably disgruntled that the remaining works proceeded without the requirement for consultation.

At worst issuing party wall notices and agreeing an award is an inconvenience and extra expense for a building owner. Unless the award is particularly protracted or complicated, a surveyor will limit their fees by minimising time spent as much as possible. Were a party wall award not in place and an adjoining owner’s building was damaged, party wall surveyor fees compared to potential costs and legal fees are a drop in the ocean.

As previously stated many party wall instructions arise as the works are already being disputed because no negotiation with the neighbour has taken place prior to a planning application or a spade in the ground. In my experience the quickest route to preventing a protracted and bitter dispute with the neighbours is to go round and talk to them in the first instance. Tell them what you plan to do, why you plan to do it. Make them feel involved, it costs nothing and could save you a lot in the long run. Explain that you will be issuing a party wall notice and do so in plenty of time. Always suggest a schedule of condition is undertaken, even if works are not being disputed and no award is required. Remember, when the builders dust settles and the professionals have all been paid, your neighbour will still be there to glare or smile at you over the fence.

If you have a party wall issue or require some advice please contact us. RMA Surveyors Ltd will be happy to give an initial free consulation to ascertain your requirements.

Richard Mountain MRICS