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Planning Maintenance for Your Home
Do you feel overwhelmed when faced with caring for your home? A common reaction is to do what you can to make the place look good and hope for the best. Often the need to get serious about maintenance is recognized only after disaster strikes. Many times I've been called to a home when owners wake up in the morning to find their gutters and cornices lying in a decayed heap on the lawn. Decades of ignored gutter cleaning finally claims their undivided attention. After dealing with the emergency, they realize there is a huge backlog of other maintenance to be done: peeling paint, stuck windows, a broken screen door to fix, and on and on. If this sounds all too familiar, and you wonder if you can give your building the care it deserves with your limited resources, step back and take a deep breath. It is time to do some maintenance programming. A maintenance program enables you to develop a plan that gives you a fresh perspective and the confidence you need not only to put your building back in shape, but to keep it that way.
The gutter and cornice disaster caught the owners completely by surprise. They knew this would require a major project just to recover from the damage. After a little soul-searching, they realized they hadn't even considered cleaning out the gutters and that there could be other hidden problems lurking around the corner. At a loss for where to begin, they called me in for help. I surveyed their property, noting conditions and causes. Then we sat down to review my findings. Besides the obvious damage to the cornice, I found a few other important problems caused by several de-cades of deferred maintenance and a whole laundry list of minor items. The problem areas included decayed and unsafe front porch steps, a broken back screen door, exterior paint that was peeling due to heavy buildup, and windows that in some cases were in sad shape. Over the next few weeks, we planned several corrective maintenance projects to bring these areas back up to a condition that would be easier and less costly to maintain. I showed them how to lay each project out on a maintenance plan that scheduled each project and its cost over the next several years. The cornice project was fit into the overall maintenance plan as well. Referring to the comprehensive survey, we set up a plan that projected maintenance a few years ahead, so the owners could easily see their cornice project in a wider context. It was not the most urgent, nor the most costly, maintenance they had to face. Someone could be seriously injured on the front steps, so that claimed a higher priority.
Dealing with the exterior paint problem would be a far more significant expense since it affected the entire exterior. The laundry list of minor items was taken care of by scheduling preventive maintenance tasks, such as gutter cleaning, spot paint repairs, housekeeping, roof repairs, and minor door and window work. This would keep the rest of the building in good condition. It took some serious thought and financial juggling, but they worked out a maintenance program that was consistent with their family's housing needs and respectful of their financial means. Now the owners perform their own yearly assessment of conditions late in the fall, walking around the building, making a list of conditions that require attention. During the winter, they review the program and adjust the plan to meet changing conditions. Every five years they call me back for an objective review of their plans and to help them investigate trouble spots and develop treatments for specific problems. Each year, they follow through with maintenance work in the spring and early summer. Year by year, project by project and task by task the owners have implemented their plan. These owners like to sit back and enjoy their home during the late summer and autumn, when all of the hands-on maintenance work is done.
They reflect on their hard work to see how they have done. Since the "year of enlightenment," when the cornice fell off, the owners have felt less overwhelmed by their building and more in control. The condition of their home has gradually improved. They are spending less time and money on maintenance. After just a few years of effective maintenance, their house is returning them the favor by providing them with a place they can lead happy and productive lives. Read on to learn how you can regain control of maintenance for your home. Deterioration and Renewal All building materials deteriorate. Some, like exterior paint or wood, can degrade within a few years, and others, like masonry, do so over decades and centuries. As a building's parts wear out, they need to be renewed. It is common knowledge that painted wood exteriors need to be painted again and again. The paint weathers or peels away and must be renewed. This is the cycle of deterioration and renewal that applies to the maintenance of all building materials. There is no such thing as maintenance free. Maintenance is a continuing process, not a one-time task that can be done and forgotten about. When parts are damaged, they can be repaired or replaced. The wood gutter that fell off the house could be fixed and put back up or replaced with an aluminum gutter. Either approach would put the drainage system back in order. One key reason for maintaining parts rather than replacing them is that it saves money, time and effort by limiting the need for expensive repair work in the future.
It is less costly and more efficient to maintain a window than it is to wait for it to become so deteriorated that complete replacement is necessary. Moreover, replacement material is often inferior to the original. For example, modern fast-growth wood is generally inferior to the old slow-growth wood used in older buildings. Maintaining the original wood makes sense because it is less prone to deterioration. Vinyl windows may seem like a good idea because they do not fail with peeling paint or rotting wood, but they do fail by embrittlement, cracking and broken parts. Within five to 10 years, they can require complete replacement. Maintenance Programs A program is a listing of activities. A maintenance program controls how often the maintenance cycle repeats. It defines, prioritizes and schedules all maintenance activities for a building. By specifying in some detail where, when and what maintenance activities will take place, you control and limit deterioration. You may think, "I can't be bothered with something as formal and organized as a maintenance program. After all, the time could be better spent actually working on the building." In fact, every building already has a maintenance program. You just have to come to terms with what kind of program controls the maintenance on your building. Many single-family residences are managed with nominal or unfocused programs. Take a look at these three types to see where yours fits in: Nominal Program Little is done until there is a major change in use, ownership or condition. Someone buys the house, remodels it and sells it. If a section of gutter falls off, all the gutters are removed. If the window shutters need painting, they are simply removed and hauled to the dump. Nature of program: Highly reactive Result:
A property that doesn't really serve the needs of its users very well and is gradually getting used up. Economics: If the value of the property falls below the cost of a new building, economics might dictate tearing down and replacing the building. Unfocused Program Frequently includes very active housekeeping, lawn care and painting. This can be good, but often more serious problems are glossed over. There is enough money, time and motivation to do maintenance, but there is a lack of detailed knowledge about buildings and why they are important. Exactly what maintenance is needed may not be clear. Nature of program: Reactive and corrective Result: A house that looks good but has occasional problems that range from minor to extensive and expensive. When gutters fall off, they're replaced. Most maintenance beyond lawn care and painting is corrective. Economics: More money, time and effort is spent on maintenance than is necessary. If these resources are limited, building condition and value may decline. Efficient Program Someone who knows about buildings is in charge. Maintenance is an ongoing activity. Corrective maintenance projects have improved the building to good condition. Preventive maintenance limits deterioration. Nature of program: Proactive and preventive Result:
A building in good condition that serves the needs of its occupants at a reasonable cost. Economics: Less money and time is spent on maintenance. The value of the building remains steady or rises. Managing Maintenance A comprehensive, systematic approach to managing your building can assure attention to even the smallest detail. That may seem daunting at first, but don't worry. You don't have to think of or do everything at once. In fact, the three main tactics used in a maintenance program are
(1) divide the difficult into smaller, understandable parts, (2) combine or spread out those parts, making them easier to do and (3) take action. Remember, it is possible to develop a program consistent with your building's needs that is respectful of your limited time and money. Having limited funds is no reason not to do maintenance programming, since it saves money in the long run. The main principle behind maintenance programming is to control what happens to your building rather than just reacting to its deterioration.
One technique is to notice the building's subtle conditions and then to take appropriate action. Consider the gutter case mentioned above. Years before the cornice decayed, peeling paint on the gutter indicated there was excessive moisture in the wood. The peeling paint got worse and worse. Finally, it was scraped and painted. Repainting was just a reaction to the symptom. A more appropriate treatment would have dealt with the fundamental cause by cleaning out the gutter and cutting back tree branches above. Of course, it's easy to keep a single gutter in working order. But with the rest of the gutters, dozens of doors and windows, and two acres of lawn mowing, those gutters are easily forgotten. If you deal with maintenance problems as they occur, it is easy to get lost in a maze of disparate activities. Practically all management activities fit neatly into four categories: assessment, planning, maintenance and evaluation. You can ease the job of managing maintenance by combining similar activities into these categories and doing each type of activity all at once. Synchronize these activities into the maintenance cycle to improve your efficiency. For example, assess all conditions late in the fall, plan all work during the winter, maintain the building during the spring and summer, evaluate the results early in the fall. After you go through the cycle a few times, there will be far fewer emergencies to break up this efficient routine. Assessing Conditions and Causes The purpose of assessment is to get an overall and accurate view of the entire property. This will help you set the goals and objectives you need to fulfill your needs. Begin with a complete inspection that will give detailed critical review of all parts of the building and grounds. This must be done by one who has a broad and detailed knowledge of the building trades, both past and present. An understanding of how the building was meant to work when it was built and a knowledge of modern technologies are necessary to accurately determine conditions. You might need an adviser to do this. If you do it yourself, your familiarity with your own home and your feelings toward it will cloud your vision. Following are a few techniques to give you a new perspective to see your building with fresh eyes.
Do the inspection right after you return from a long trip.
Cut a rectangle in a 9-by-12-inch piece of cardboard. Hold it at arm's length and view the building through this frame. This isolates the building or parts you are looking at from their surroundings.
Look at the building through a mirror, over your shoulder.
Take notes and make sketches. Recording conditions forces you to clarify your findings and thoughts. When you find poor conditions, determine the fundamental cause. Ask the five "W" questions (who, what, where, when and why) more than five times. Begin with the obvious, and let the questions lead you to the unknown. Why did the cornice fall off? It was weak and the ice pulled it down. Why was it weak? Excessive moisture and decay caused the weakness. Where was the moisture? It was found in the cornice and the gutter. Why was moisture in the gutter? Debris buildup trapped it there. Where did the debris come from? Trees overhanging the roof. So, debris buildup is the cause. A corrective treatment to rebuild the cornice and a preventive treatment to clean the gutters regularly should take care of it. But those were only five questions. If you ask a few more, you will see you have not found the fundamental cause. What other moisture problems are there? Just inside the cornice, water condensed on the inside of the bathroom walls due to heat loss. Why was there so much ice buildup? The lack of insulation let heat rise to the roof, melting the snow and forming an ice dam. Without these additional facts, the problem would have cropped up again because a fundamental cause, heat loss, was left untreated. A more effective treatment would control the heat loss with insulation and the moisture with vapor retarders and ventilation of the cornice. Be certain you find the most basic fundamental cause for poor conditions, or you will only be treating the symptoms. It is important to separate determining conditions from developing treatments. It is tempting and common to look at an obviously damaged cornice and specify a treatment without determining the cause. The danger is in treating single symptoms, such as a decayed hole in the gutter, rather than an underlying cause, such as an overhanging tree that drops leaves in the gutter or lack of regular cleaning. Standard treatments that come to mind quickly may not be adequate and can even cause harm, such as treating wooden gutters with tar. Treatments and Projects In planning, you determine what needs to be done, when to do it, who will do it and how much it will cost. Planning gives you the time necessary to deal with the unusual situations so often encountered in buildings.
In developing a treatment for a specific condition, be sure to address all of the causes. Then combine treatments in projects. Plans for dealing with the cornice damage include three main steps:
closing the hole, repairing the damage and preventing future damage.
Closing the hole left up on the wall should be done right away to prevent further damage. This is all that has to be done on an emergency basis. Rushing into a complete repair without a chance to plan could result in ineffective work. Repairing damage to the cornice and gutter includes materials and methods that will be long-lasting. Stainless-steel screws resist corrosion, and backpriming the wood helps prevent decay and warping. Insulation and a vapor retarder eliminate one of the contributing causes of the damage. Adding regular gutter cleaning to the preventive maintenance schedule helps assure the damage will not reoccur. Once maintenance is underway, there must be one person responsible for keeping the maintenance cycle rolling and on track. Programs where responsibility is shared never truly pull out of the reactive rut. This includes sharing with someone as close as a spouse or as distant as contractor. In my own family, we struggled for years to improve and maintain our house. We tried to keep things rolling, but for many reasons (some practical and others psychological) we lived with peeling paint outside and loose floor tiles inside for over a decade. Then we decided my wife would be the manager and I would be the worker.
By focusing responsibilities, the situation improved overnight. Many homeowners find it difficult to make the choices that lead to efficient maintenance. The building-products industry stands ready to choose for you. Seasonal advertising campaigns prompt, cajole and sometimes trick homeowners into maintaining their buildings. Base maintenance on the needs of your family and your home. Of course, you may still use those building-product suppliers and installers, but you can use them on your own terms because your maintenance program is telling you what you need. In every case where I have seen gutters falling off buildings, there was either no one assuming responsibility for maintenance or there were too many trying to share responsibility.
Evaluating: Quality and Value The last step in the cycle is to consider the quality, value and success of the maintenance done. The results can be used to improve the program. For example, if you find evidence that a specific paint is peeling after just two years, or galvanized flashing is just as effective as lead-coated copper, it will influence how you do the same work the next time around. This feedback is important because it completes the cycle of maintenance activities, giving the next cycle some solid information and results on which to build. Why would you want to bother with maintenance programming? It saves old buildings, and it saves money. A study of the maintenance plan shows that the cost for this cornice recovery was $6,020. If you put that same amount of money in the bank, the interest alone would yield $300 per year to pay for cleaning the gutters, and you would still have the $6,020. Maintenance programming is a good way to protect the investment you have in your home. It is also a good way to provide your family with a safe and comfortable place to live. John Leeke is a historic building specialist in Portland, Maine, who helps homeowners, contractors and architects understand and maintain older and historic buildings. For more information about managing maintenance, visit his website: www.HistoricHomeWorks.com