A Condominium Can Last Hundreds of Years, But Not Its Components
This story was updated Sept. 10, 2020 to correct information on the expected useful lifespan of pipes and add further details.
A 40-year-old Honolulu condominium can show its age in many ways: brittle, leaking pipes; cracks in its concrete walls and decks; rusted rebar; and corroded railings and window frames.
Dana Bergeman is the CEO of Bergeman Group, a local construction management company. He says many of Hawai‘i’s condominiums were built in the 1960s and ’70s and are reaching the point where they will need major infrastructure, cosmetic and architectural improvements to keep their value and remain liveable.
“As these buildings become older and older, they’re going to need more and more care,” he says. “Buildings are a lot like people in that sense. As people age, they have greater needs and greater health care needs and need additional attention. Buildings are no different.”
Hawaii Business Magazine spoke with plumbers, exterior renovators, homeowner association managers, real estate experts and reserve planning specialists to learn more about these capital improvement projects. They say that keeping an aging condo functional and safe can cost millions of dollars, take months or even years to complete and requires that condo boards plan well in advance.
What follows is a report on some of the larger capital improvement projects, typical for aging condos, and how much they will cost on a per unit basis.
Kimo Pierce, president of Hawaii Plumbing Group, says condo associations should start looking at replacing their pipes at 40 years and be ready to start the project at 45 years. Once the pipes hit 50 years, he says, a condo is “on borrowed time.”
Cast-iron drain, waste and vent pipes eventually rust from the inside out. That can lead to clogged and cracked pipes and, eventually, water leaks. It’s during the investigation of these leaks that contractors discover if the pipes need to be replaced, he says.
There can be millions of feet of pipes and hundreds of units in a high-rise condo, so the process to repipe involves a lot of coordination. Contractors hold town hall meetings before construction begins to educate owners about the project, its schedule and what’s expected of them. They also do a pre-construction walk-through of each unit to check for any preexisting water damage and to identify which walls will be removed and how they will be replaced.
Construction crews then spend several days in each unit removing finishings, setting up plastic sheeting, opening the walls, removing any asbestos, replacing the pipes, putting everything back and cleaning up. Pierce says the crews move like clockwork; once the prep crew is finished, the hazmat crew moves in and so on.
“The schedule we put out, we stick to like a heartbeat,” he says. “You can’t afford to fall behind. If we do fall behind, it affects every single person.” It can take a crew of 45 to 60 people to complete work on an average building. Hawaii Plumbing Group handles everything except the hazmat.
“(Repiping is) not pleasant but once it’s done, it’s like ‘OK, we got through it and we’re set for the next 40 or 50 years.’ ” —Sue Savio, President, Insurance Associates
The time it takes to repipe a condo varies based on the size of the building and whether it has upgraded finishings. For example, high-end buildings sometimes have custom tile or countertops that need to be replaced once the plumbing work is done, and that can extend the project’s timeline, says Eric Lecky, executive VP and chief marketing officer at SageWater, a repipe specialist with branches around the U.S. Some projects can be completed in a couple of months; others could take a year to a year and a half depending on the circumstances.
The cost to complete this work is generally influenced by the size of the building, how the pipes are laid out, the number of stacks shared between units and other variables, Lecky says. Pierce estimates that a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo can cost $17,000 to $20,000 to repipe. That means a 100-unit building with all one-bed, one-bath units might cost $1.7 million to $2 million to repipe.
Bergeman says, depending on the building’s configuration, he’s seen per-unit prices range from less than $10,000 to over $80,000, but the typical cost is $20,000 to $30,000.
He adds that this work will get a unit owner new cast iron pipes but generally does not cover private elements inside individual units, like faucets, shower heads, toilets, fixtures and finishes. A condo’s bylaws and declarations will determine who pays for what in the unit, he says.
“It is for that reason, when we do these projects, it takes construction managers, lawyers, bankers, insurance agents and engineers and contractors,” he says. “It takes a team of people to do these projects because I need the attorney to tell me, as the building owner’s construction manager, who owns what.”
Old cast-iron pipes are typically replaced with new pipes of the same material. These new pipes tend to have manufacturer warranties of 5 to 10 years, Lecky says, adding that installers also provide a warranty on the installation that can be shorter, the same or longer.
Fannie Mae and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development say the estimated useful life of cast iron drain, waste and vent piping is at least 50 years, he adds. PVC pipes are generally used in single-family homes but not sturdy enough to run up a high-rise condo. Here and here are links to Fannie Mae and HUD documents on the expected lifespan of components in multifamily buildings.
Sue Savio, president of Insurance Associates, which serves over 1,000 condo associations across the state, says she has seen more and more condo complexes replace their pipes over the years: “It’s not pleasant but once it’s done, it’s like ‘OK, we got through it and we’re set for the next 40 or 50 years.’ ”
Spall occurs when water penetrates concrete and causes the rebar inside it to rust and expand. The surrounding concrete then deteriorates and cracks.
Joe Miller, president of Seal Masters of Hawaii, says spall starts when a building is between 15 and 20 years old. At this stage the spall is minor, with little surface cracks in the concrete. Significant spalling is usually seen when a building reaches 30 years of age.
Significant spalling tends to be found on the edges of lānai because of their exposure to the elements and because moisture can cluster in railing systems and travel down the posts to the concrete, he says. In addition, Hawai‘i’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean tends to make spalling more severe than on the Mainland, though spall can be reduced by regular painting and maintenance.
The key, he says, is to fix the spall when it is minor because it can spread from the exterior of a building to the inside, such as under glass doors. Ideally, spall should be identified and fixed when a building is painted every 10 or 15 years.
“It can quietly spread like cancer inside the concrete if you don’t treat it,” Bergeman says. “So it’s far better and far, far less expensive to treat it on a regular cycle in conjunction with painting your building as opposed to putting it off.”
Deferring repair until the spall reaches inside a condo leads to higher costs because now a team will need dust barriers, plastic walls and negative air pressure devices so the work doesn’t contaminate the rest of the building, Miller says. It can mean the difference between $8 a foot for minor cracks that took 10 or 15 years to develop from original construction, to $200 a foot for spall that’s left to grow for an additional 10 or more years.
Spall is typically confirmed by using a hammer or chain to tap or drag along the concrete. Miller says there’s a significantly different sound between concrete with spalling and concrete without; spalled concrete sounds hollow whereas concrete without spalling sounds solid.
Once the spall is confirmed, specialists use a 15-pound jackhammer to remove the concrete and expose the steel rebar. The rust is then removed, and the rebar is treated with a corrosion-inhibiting epoxy. The final steps are to cover the rebar with corrosion-inhibiting concrete and sand it. There should be no evidence that a repair was made when the work is complete, Miller says.
A crew of eight to 10 people can complete spall repairs on a 20- to 30-story high-rise in six months. But spall repairs are often lumped in with other exterior renovations, such as repainting, waterproofing and window sealants, and that type of multifaceted project can take a year to 18 months, depending on the size of the building and severity of the spalling. Residents, he says, generally don’t need to move out while spall repairs are done, but the daily noise can be an inconvenience and they may not be able to use their balconies for a while.
Miller says he’s seen the per unit cost range from $500 to $15,000. That number is partially influenced by the building’s construction, such as whether it has balconies. Units without balconies tend to cost less – somewhere in the $500 to $2,000 range.
He says it’s important that a waterproof coating be applied to condo exteriors, to protect bare concrete from the elements. This coating looks like thick paint. It’s also rubbery and flexible, which allows it to absorb movement in the building and prevent water from getting into cracks. Buildings that did this had little spalling 20 years later, Miller says.
Spall is also the reason why associations need to redo their recreation decks every 30 or 40 years, he adds. These recreation decks are sometimes located above parking garages or on the roof. Movement or shifting in the building over decades can cause cracks in the concrete, and plant roots, if they’re not maintained, can work their way into the waterproof coating that protects the concrete floor. Both situations allow water to work its way into the concrete during heavy rain or when a plant is watered.
“The fix on this type of terrace deck is extremely expensive and very significant because all of those originally installed finishes and foliage, they all have to come up and you’ve got to get down to that waterproof coating,” Miller says. “And generally, it has got to be ripped out and it’s got to be redone and all the finishes go back down again. So we’ve seen these big decks on the big condos in Honolulu, where these projects can be $1.5 million to $4 million to redo.”
Windows and Railing
Hawai‘i’s corrosive environment means that even windows and railings won’t last a lifetime. Both tend to need replacing after 25 to 30 years because water will eventually get inside them and weaken their components, says Miller, who is also president of Elite Railings and Windows.
While some maintenance can help extend a window’s life, such as applying silicone sealant around its perimeter, it’s not a permanent solution. Miller says the damage is already done if water gets into the window system before the sealant is applied.
“There’s many window systems in Honolulu that would not survive a Category 1 or 2 hurricane,” he says. “They would just be blown out. And that’s what I’m fearful of. It’s not necessarily the waterproofing of it but the structural integrity of the window systems that are 40 and 50 years old.”
Railings become a safety issue when water weakens the pickets that connect the bottom and top railing. Miller says they can loosen and fall out, or a person could pull them out.
“Now you have a very dangerous situation where that component, which is a life safety wall, is now no longer life safety,” he says.
He adds that the metal railing at Ala Moana Center that gave way in 2016, killing one man and critically injuring another, is not an example of this. He visited Ala Moana the day after the accident and says it was the concrete around the railing that had failed.
“So that’s something we look at often is we get calls about their railing is loose or feels unsafe, and more cases than not, we actually find that it’s simply spalled concrete that we need to have repaired around the post,” he says.
Like with the other components mentioned in this story, the cost to replace a condo’s windows and railings will vary greatly. If the building has small windows and its exterior walls are mostly concrete, the average window replacement cost per unit could range from $6,000 to $20,000, Miller says. Elite Railings and Windows has also worked on condos with exteriors composed almost entirely of windows; those projects have cost as much as $90,000 per two-bedroom unit.
Replacing the railing on a typical 12-foot-long lānai would generally cost $3,600, he says.
Bergeman adds that Honolulu has not passed any laws or ordinances that are being driven by old buildings, except for a 2019 law that requires certain older Honolulu condos to install fire sprinklers or undergo building and life safety evaluations.
“If you go to the Mainland, many cities have ordinances that require building owners and associations to do regular inspection of certain components and upkeep as a matter of public safety,” he says. “And we don’t have those rules in Hawai‘i. And frankly, I think we should.”
He says one example is a recent California law that requires condo associations to regularly inspect balconies, walkways and certain other above-ground elements, and address any deficiencies. The law was created after a balcony collapsed and killed six people in 2015.
“The older these buildings get and the longer we defer maintenance as a society and as a community, the more at risk we put people,” he says, adding that “we have to invest in our infrastructure if we want to be able to keep up with the modern world, number one, and number two, make sure that we’re providing a safe environment for the public. And we don’t have those laws here yet.”
How One Building Revitalized Itself
Built in 1968, 1350 Ala Moana Boulevard has undergone several age-related capital improvement projects.
Information provided by Board President Yvette Rogers, Treasurer Charlie Knight, Board Member Clifford Mirikitani, GM Ron Komine, Jr., and Property Manager and VP of Touchstone Properties Keven Whalen.
Fire alarms: Work on the new fire alarm system began before 2008. New smoke detectors and annunciators were added to each unit and in the common areas. There are fire sprinklers in the building’s storage and trash areas and the garage; individual units and other common areas do not have sprinklers.
Leaders at 1350 Ala Moana say the building was one of the first to complete a Building Fire and Life Safety Evaluation. A 2019 Honolulu law requires certain Honolulu condos built before 1970 to have fire sprinklers installed or to undergo this evaluation.
“As a result of being proactive in past projects by installing a new fire alarm system, by replacing all unit doors with fire-rated unit doors, and by fire-stopping pipes in the plumbing chase (as part of the plumbing replacement project), the evaluation team found only a few simple items which 1350 needs to improve, and which we have begun,” the leaders write in an email.
“After completing these improvements, 1350 will be in a position to ask the owners to decide if they want to opt-out of sprinklers. If opt-out is decided, 1350 would then receive a passing score on the Building Fire and Life Safety Evaluation.”
Hallway renovation: One early priority of this project was the replacement of unit doors. The old doors needed to be brought up to code because some had hollow cores or vents.
Hallway carpets were also stained and stretched to the point where they became hazardous. They were replaced with more forgiving, safer carpet squares that are easier to replace and maintain.
Re-piping: The building began planning for its repiping in 2010 after experiencing sporadic water leaks in its sink and bathtub drainpipes. SageWater, a repipe specialist, worked on the project for 14 months, finishing by April 2013. A portion of the plumbing that was replaced were common elements and the other portion were specific to the individual units. The project cost about $14 million; $3 million of that amount was charged back to the individual unit owners for the work inside their units. The balance was funded by a loan.
Roof: The roof has been maintained over the years, and in 2014 its surface was coated with Hydrostop, a stretchy, waterproofing, paintlike product. The project cost less than $50,000.
Windows: Elite Railings and Windows is currently replacing 1350 Ala Moana’s windows, which were part of the building’s original construction. Project planning began in 2017, and a pilot project of one floor was completed in 2019. The pandemic has impacted the project’s schedule, but completion is scheduled for early 2021. The project will cost about $5 million and is being financed from reserves.
Concrete spall: A spall repair and painting project began in March 2017 after spall was found on lānai (where the railings were mounted) and on window ledges. Some spalling was also found on the vertical surfaces of the building.
The building fixed the spall and repainted the exterior as one project. Seal Masters of Hawaii was contracted for this work, which began in March 2017 and took 32 months to complete. The cost was about $3.2 million.
Swimming pool: The swimming pool was renovated in 2014 after the third-floor garden lānai leaked water into the garage below. Leaders at 1350 Ala Moana write that it’s likely the pool had its liner replaced in the past, but this $250,000 project was the first that addressed spalling in the pool itself and deck. This work consisted of repairing the concrete, replacing the rebar and treating it with an anti-corrosion coating, and sealing expansion joints. The pool was also waterproofed, retiled and reinforced with fiberglass mesh.
Read the other parts to this story: