For general information on building configuration, construction style, and overall condition, there is no substitute for an old-fashioned close look at the building. Much can be accomplished in a relatively short period, and some assessments might entail only a brief visual survey per building for a large facility. The more time the design professional has to poke around, though, the more he or she can uncover, so a quick turnaround may mean some conditions go unnoticed, especially in difficult-to-access areas.
The visual investigation typically encompasses:
- roofs—with a walk-through for low-slope assemblies, including parapet walls, copings, flashings, and appurtenances like gutters, snow guards, and rooftop equipment;
- façades, along with sills, lintels, and foundation walls—special attention should be made to unusual intersections or construction styles, and to elements like sealant that tend to degrade quickly;
- windows and doors, as well as curtain walls and storefront-type window walls, including hardware and operable elements;
- terraces, ramps, and exterior stairs—
particularly where they intersect or overlie interior occupied spaces;
- site walls, water features, and plazas, which may or may not be included in the scope of the investigation; and
- any unusual or distinctive features, especially if their condition merits special consideration.
In addition to a basic inventory of wall and roof construction and material types, the process of visual observation can identify areas requiring more detailed investigation. Sites for exploratory probes to uncover concealed conditions may be flagged at this stage, and material samples collected for offsite testing. If information on recent repairs is available, the design professional can use this opportunity to evaluate the performance of rehabilitated materials. Beyond estimating the remaining lifespan of repair areas or replacement components, the architect or engineer can establish a record of their integration into surrounding materials as the building weathers over time.
To evaluate the performance of building envelope elements under different climate conditions, it is beneficial to conduct observational site visits at different times of the year. An investigation in the spring might pick up on cracked foundation walls that would be concealed by snow later in the year, but would miss ice damming or condensation only present during the winter.
For buildings of similar vintage and construction, visual observation may aim to identify any consistencies across structures and to note those areas on individual buildings performing differently from the norm. Cataloging window types and conditions is one example of a building element that can benefit from such an analysis. It is helpful to define categories of deterioration or disrepair, such that components can be comparatively evaluated across buildings. For instance, windows might be classified as follows:
- weathered (exhibiting only normal signs of mild wear);
- deteriorated (with some physical damage requiring restoration or repair);
- severely deteriorated (such that extensive defects prevent or markedly impair normal operation); and
- life-safety risk (requiring immediate attention to address a potential hazard to operators or passersby).
By providing an orderly way to categorize observed conditions, such taxonomies allow for the prioritized scheduling of repairs and maintenance across multiple buildings or even an entire campus. The building assessment report should define the properties of each category of deterioration, ideally with photographs documenting conditions typically observed for each, to facilitate future assessments. Should the scope of the survey permit, field observations may then be transposed onto building plans, using a numbered or color-coded system to identify levels of distress and failure for a given building element (e.g. windows or roof areas), for easy reference when it comes time to schedule repairs. Similar keyed drawings can expedite investigative testing and identify sites for in-depth analysis.