Water Damage is Increasing – What Buildings Need to Know


Water damage, now eclipsing fire and theft risks, presents an escalating challenge to high-rise buildings, threatening their structural integrity and financial stability. With insurance claims costs soaring to over 60% due to water incidents, the urgency for effective mitigation strategies has never been clearer. This article explores the depth of the water damage crisis and the innovative measures poised to turn the tide.

As we peel back the layers of this growing concern, it becomes crucial to ground our understanding in the reality of recent trends. The numbers paint a stark picture of the escalating challenge water damage poses to high-rise buildings.

Trends indicate a worrying increase in water damage incidents and their financial impact. In 2013, water damage constituted approximately 44% of all insurance claims costs. By 2018, this figure had escalated to over 60%, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. This represents a near 40% surge within a mere five-year span, emphasizing the escalating nature of water damage risks. In fact, according to The Hartford, about 75% of all real estate water damage losses are caused by the accidental discharge of plumbing, HVAC systems and appliances.

The Case of 432 Park Avenue

While statistics offer a broad view of the issue, the real-world impact of water damage comes into sharper focus through the lens of high-profile cases. One such example is 432 Park Avenue in New York City, which serves as a cautionary tale for luxury high-rises worldwide.

432 Park Avenue, once the world’s tallest residential tower, epitomizes the water damage challenges even the most exclusive properties can face. Despite its status symbolizing the apex of luxury living, the tower has not been immune to the pervasive issue of water damage, leading to significant resident dissatisfaction.

In late November 2018, the building encountered two critical incidents. The first, resulting from a failed flange on the 60th floor, compromised the high-pressure water piping system. Days later, a water line failure on the 74th floor caused substantial leakage into elevator shafts, disrupting service for weeks. These incidents spotlight the technical and infrastructural vulnerabilities inherent in high-rise living, leading to considerable inconvenience and financial loss for residents. One notable case involved a resident facing damages upwards of $500,000 due to water infiltration several floors below the leak source.

Further compounding the building’s woes, a potential buyer withdrew from a significant purchase, citing a “catastrophic water flood” that affected multiple levels. This withdrawal not only underscores the direct impact of such incidents on property value but also highlights the broader reputational risks.

These challenges at 432 Park Avenue serve as a stark reminder of the critical need for robust water damage prevention and response strategies in high-rise buildings.

Why Water Damage Is on the Rise

The incidents at 432 Park Avenue are not isolated but symptomatic of wider industry challenges. To fully grasp the magnitude of the water damage crisis, it’s essential to delve into the underlying causes contributing to this surge in claims and incidents.

While climate change and extreme weather events are often blamed for property damage, they are not the sole contributors to the rising tide of water-related claims in buildings. A comprehensive analysis presented in Aon’s April Water Risk Webinar sheds light on the multifaceted nature of this issue, particularly in commercial and multi-family buildings. The factors contributing to the increase in water damage claims include:

Aging Infrastructure and Increased Usage

The backbone of any building, especially high-rises that dominate city skylines, is its infrastructure. However, many of these structures rely on aging internal and external piping systems vulnerable to leaks and bursts. Compounded by heavier facility usage as buildings serve more occupants or varied purposes, the strain on plumbing and water systems intensifies, increasing the likelihood of failure.

Construction Quality and Maintenance Practices

The quality of construction plays a pivotal role in a building’s susceptibility to water damage. Poor workmanship and the use of inferior products can lead to systemic vulnerabilities. Furthermore, deferred maintenance can escalate minor issues into significant problems, often culminating in extensive water damage. Human and user errors, including overflowing fixtures and clogged drains, exacerbate these risks.

Architectural Design and Equipment Placement

Modern architectural designs, such as green roofs or concealed piping, introduce additional water risks if not properly planned and maintained. The trend towards vertical construction adds another layer of complexity in maintaining water systems, as does the placement of equipment without considering potential water damage risks.

Technological Integration and Response Efficacy

The integration of advanced building technologies requires sophisticated maintenance strategies to prevent water damage. However, the complexity of these systems can lead to challenges in timely identification and response to water incidents, highlighting the need for efficient detection and action protocols. Moreover, the rising costs of repair and replacement materials further elevate the financial stakes of water damage claims.

Water System Pressure

A unique challenge to high-rises is managing water system pressure, necessary for delivering water to upper levels. This often requires the installation of booster pumps, which significantly increase the system’s pressure and, consequently, the risk of high-pressure line breaks. Such incidents can unleash catastrophic water flow, causing extensive damage and incurring substantial costs.

Let’s explore some of the more important factors contributing to the higher risk of exposure in greater detail.

Quality and Maintenance: The Hidden Risks in Buildings

Understanding the root causes sets the stage for recognizing specific vulnerabilities within building infrastructures. A critical area often overlooked is the quality and accessibility of building components, which play a pivotal role in either mitigating or exacerbating water damage risks.

High-value properties, such as million-dollar condominiums, are often equipped with appliances and systems that, despite their sophisticated environments, utilize components of inadequate quality.

Component Quality Concerns

  • Substandard Fittings: The use of low-grade materials, such as inexpensive rubber hoses for washing machines, poses a significant risk. These components may have a limited lifespan of 5-7 years and are prone to catastrophic failure at connection points.
  • System Design Flaws: Essential systems like heat pumps are sometimes installed without considering the ease of maintenance, such as the inability to inspect or clear condensate drain pans.

Accessibility and Maintenance Issues

  • Inaccessible Water Isolation Valves: Critical components like water isolation valves are often concealed behind wall panels or mirrors, making them difficult to access for routine checks or during emergencies.
  • Lack of Maintenance Forethought: There is frequently a failure to plan for the long-term maintenance of water-related systems, which can lead to oversights and subsequent water damage.

To mitigate these risks, it is imperative for developers and builders to prioritize the use of high-quality components that match the value of the properties being constructed. Moreover, thoughtful design that accounts for the maintenance and accessibility of water management systems is crucial. These measures can significantly reduce the potential for water damage, ultimately protecting property value and reducing the likelihood of insurance claims.

Water System Pressure Challenges in Tall Buildings

Beyond the quality of components, the very design and engineering of a building’s water system can significantly influence its susceptibility to damage. High-rise buildings face unique challenges related to water system pressure that demand closer scrutiny.

High-rise buildings present unique challenges with water system pressure that can lead to significant damage in the event of a breach. As Mr. Normoyle points out, typical city water pressure is sufficient only up to about the seventh floor. Structures extending beyond this height require booster pumps to deliver cold water to upper levels effectively.

Pressure-Related Risks in Water Systems

  • Booster Pumps Necessity: To overcome gravitational challenges in high-rise buildings, booster pumps are installed, substantially increasing the water pressure throughout the system.
  • Risk of High-Pressure Line Breaks: These pressurized lines, often four to six inches in diameter, can unleash catastrophic water flow if compromised. Even a minor rupture can result in extensive damage, with the potential for costs to escalate into millions within minutes.

For high-rise buildings, it is crucial to acknowledge the heightened risk associated with water pressure and to take proactive steps to mitigate potential damage. Through diligent maintenance, the use of robust materials, and emergency preparedness, building managers can safeguard against the severe implications of water system failures.

Increasing Costs of Water Damage Repairs in High-Rises

The financial implications of water damage in high-rise buildings are substantial, largely due to the cost of addressing mold and structural issues. The complexity of modern building construction exacerbates these problems.

  • Complicated Wall Structures: High-rises often have intricate wall designs for soundproofing and fire safety, featuring multiple material layers. When water penetrates these layers, the drying or replacement process can be extensive and costly.
  • Steel Studs and Water Collection: Steel wall studs typically have open tracks at the base that inadvertently collect water. Without prompt and thorough attention, this can lead to corrosion and weaken the building’s structural integrity.

Insurance costs and availability

The financial strain of repairing water damage extends beyond the immediate costs to building owners and managers, influencing the broader insurance landscape. Insurers, recognizing the heightened risk, are adjusting their policies and premiums in response, reshaping the insurance market for high-rises.

The insurance landscape for high-rise buildings, particularly in metropolitan areas like Vancouver, is undergoing significant changes as a result. Strata corporations have experienced liability coverage cost increases by as much as 50 percent in recent years, a clear indication that insurers are recalibrating their approach to risk management.

Rob de Pruis, the national director of consumer and industry relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, acknowledges the trend: “Premiums are certainly higher than they were five years ago… the frequency of claims has risen.” However, he notes that water damage is not the sole driver of increased premiums. Factors such as inflated replacement costs due to higher real estate values, escalating construction expenses, and the luxurious finishings typical of modern high-rises also play a role.

In response to the billions expended on water damage claims annually, the insurance industry is making strategic adjustments. Premium calculations are complex, but anticipated claims remain a significant component. The uptick in water damage incidents has led insurers to implement stricter controls and elevate premiums accordingly.

Insurers are not only seeking higher deductibles specifically for water damage claims but are also scrutinizing buildings more closely. They may demand comprehensive risk assessments, detailed claims data, and a proactive ‘Water Damage Plan’ from building managers, sometimes as early as the construction stage. Regular maintenance checks, transparency about upcoming capital expenditures, and even on-site evaluations by insurance representatives are becoming more standardized as part of the industry’s response to this growing concern.

This evolving insurance environment compels building managers to adapt, emphasizing the importance of diligent maintenance and strategic planning to manage risks effectively and contain insurance costs. One of the solutions widely being adopted by insurers is proactive risk management solutions such as smart water leak protection solutions.

Mitigating Water Damage Risks

In the face of these challenges, both structural and financial, the future hinges on our ability to adapt and innovate. Water damage mitigation plans are becoming more and more common as the risk of water grows. This may include suggesting or even requiring the building to invest in leak detection and mitigation technologies.

Forward-looking solutions, particularly in the realm of technology and strategic planning, offer a beacon of hope for mitigating water damage risks and securing the longevity of high-rise buildings.

By integrating advanced mitigation technologies, refining construction, and maintenance practices, and fostering a more responsive insurance landscape, we stand on the brink of a new era in building management.

Implementing mitigation strategies is essential for the long-term reduction of claims costs associated with water damage. By adopting a combination of high-tech solutions and proactive measures, buildings can significantly diminish the frequency and severity of such incidents.

Advanced Leak Mitigation Technologies

  • Water Sensors: The installation of water sensors in critical areas, like elevator shafts and along main pipes, allows for the early detection of leaks or floods.
  • Automated Shutoffs: Equipping systems with automated shut-off capabilities enables building managers to respond quickly to unexpected surges, potentially preventing extensive damage.

These technological advancements can alert management to the onset of a water-related issue, providing the opportunity for immediate action. When combined with a comprehensive emergency response plan, they form a robust defense against the costly consequences of water damage. While the upfront investment in these systems may be considerable, the potential savings in reduced claims costs over time can justify the expenditure, underscoring the value of mitigation in high-rise building management.

In this ever-changing landscape, the commitment to mitigating water damage risks not only protects our physical assets but also preserves the integrity of our communities and the environment. As we move forward, let us embrace these challenges as opportunities to redefine the standards of safety, sustainability, and excellence in high-rise living and management.

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