Masonry Risk Management

Article written by Marty Smith

Having attended RHA’s Spring Workshop, I heard a lot of good information with regards to Risk Management as a building owner. The subjects were mostly about tenant or potential tenant management. There were some words about maintenance that were spot on as well. It was a very interesting mini seminar, and I don’t even make my money from property ownership or management. What I didn’t hear about was actual physical Risk Management of the properties themselves.

I cannot tell you how many times I have either seen, or been contracted to fix, a very dangerous situation when it comes to masonry on the outside on an old building. Most of the time the manager or owner is not aware of how dangerous a situation is, they just know it doesn’t look right. These situations with old buildings can be common and a responsible owner will fix it as soon as they become aware of a problem. 

The Catch-22 of the situation comes when an owner or manager calls a masonry contractor out to look at a situation – which turns out to be dangerous – and they don’t have the resources to fix it. Some will choose to ignore it until resources become available. An owner is liable for a lot with their building and is generally well-insured to take care of any event that has to do with the building. If I see an obvious fault that is dangerous to tenants or the public, and I make the owner aware of the problem through a bid or direct communication, it becomes imperative that the owner or manager takes immediate action to protect everyone. If a brick falls and hurts somebody, and the owner was aware of the fault in the masonry, they could find themselves with legal problems.

In my experience with RHA, I have never met an owner or manager that would allow a dangerous situation to continue. Yes, there have been times when planning was necessary and the contractor could not mobilize immediately. However, the area in question was isolated and people were protected until the work could be done. For the most part, private owners are very conscientious.

I walked into a very large, old and poor church some years ago. I was asked to look at the parapet around the bell tower. The bell tower stood over the sidewalk and a side entrance that serviced a local food bank. What I saw scared me. Bricks were loose all through the top of the wall. The Nisqually Quake had actually moved the bell tower off center. Given the circumstance, there was potential for collapse. I made the church representatives aware of the situation and gave them a very open ballpark number to fix it. The church never even requested a proposal (which would have involved engineering) and actually asked that no communication be sent with regards to the fault in the building. In my travels I sometimes pass this church. A quick glance tells me that nothing has ever been done. It must be a miracle that has kept this wall from collapsing and the whole situation gives me shivers.

Most of you have a maintenance person in your contacts. Many of you have preferred contractors when it comes to bigger projects. If you own an old masonry building, you might have a working relationship with a masonry contractor. It is always a good idea to allow your masonry contractor to review all the masonry on your properties every few years. Stay ahead of it before it becomes a problem, or worse, a danger.

VanWell Masonry’s Restoration division has over 100 years’ cumulative experience in Western Washington, restoring Seattle’s culturally significant and historic buildings. For inquiries, please email: or call: 360-568-6400.

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