Every commercial building system and component has an estimated life expectancy—the expected number of years it will remain operational or useful until it needs to be replaced or requires maintenance. An assessment of the estimated life expectancy is valuable for building owners and inspection clients for asset management and estimating maintenance and replacement costs.
Estimating the Age of Various Building Elements
To assess the life expectancy of a building element, one must first assess its age. There are three primary ways to estimate the age of a building system or a specific component: (1) find the installation or expiration date label, (2) examine the technical specifications on the manufacturer label, or (3) visually assess the physical condition or other identifying factors, which requires relevant experience and research. The following provides a basic overview for estimating the age of various building elements:
- Roofs—Many low-slope roof membranes are stamped with an installation date. The age of the roof can also coincide with the building’s age. For instance, a 50-year-old building with a built-up (BUR) roof has an estimated life expectancy of 15–20 years. If the roof is moderately worn, it might be around 10–15 years old. Assuming the first roof lasted 20 years, and the second roof also lasted 20 years, there would be an estimated 10 years of remaining life for the existing roof.
- Exterior—Most exterior elements are not stamped or labeled with installation dates. Instead, research must be done to figure out the installation or building construction date or assess its physical appearance. Many cladding materials have a limited lifespan, while masonry and stone tend to last the lifespan of a building.
- Wood Decks and Balconies—Like exterior elements, these items are usually aged based on the dates of construction or installation, as well as its physical appearance.
- Foundations—The building’s foundation is generally the same age as the entire building, unless it was replaced due to major defects.
- HVAC—Most HVAC systems and components have model or serial numbers that are searchable and provide a manufacturer date, which is usually coincides with the date of installation.
- Plumbing—Most distribution or piping systems will be the same age as the building unless there were defects that required replacements or upgrades. Some fixtures will have labels. For example, toilets usually have labels under the lids or on the tanks.
- Electrical—Much of the electrical gear for commercial buildings, like panels, will have a label with the manufacturer’s date. Electrical gear tends to be upgraded or changed over time based on the decisions of building owners who need to meet the varying or complex needs of their tenants.
- Fireplaces—Masonry units are typically the same age as the building, while premanufactured units typically have a model or serial number which helps to estimate the age of a unit.
- Attic Ventilation and Insulation—These items are usually the same age as the building unless subsequently added. Any added insulation or relevant renovations could be identified by conducting research.
- Doors, Windows, and Interior—These items are usually the same age as the building unless they were replaced due to physical wear or external damage. Some replacement windows might have identifiable labels on either the sash or the frame to show a manufacturer’s date.
- Life-Safety Systems—Many life-safety systems, such as fire sprinklers, fire alarm detection systems, emergency exit lighting, or mass notification intercoms, are inspected at regular intervals due to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) requirements. These items are often replaced as needed and have tags with relevant information.
- Kitchen Areas—Mechanical items and equipment for kitchens generally have model and serial numbers that can be used to help decipher their age.
The Big Three
The top three commercial systems that require the greatest amount of capital resources to maintain are (1) roof surfaces, (2) HVAC systems, and (3) flatwork. Because the estimated life expectancies of “The Big Three” are not anticipated to last the lifespan of a building, they must be visually assessed for conditions that may influence its lifespan. Inspectors should pay close attention to these items, which require an estimated maintenance or replacement schedule.
Understanding the Life Cycles for Maintenance vs. Replacement
Understanding the life expectancy of a particular system leads to the estimated maintenance or replacement life cycle, which is an estimated schedule to keep an item functioning properly. The type of maintenance may range from minor to significant (full replacement). There are three main types of maintenance required for commercial buildings: (1) preventative, (2) corrective, and (3) predictive. Therefore, if all types of maintenance are deferred, the item or systems will simply not last the lifespan of the building and will require replacement.
When reviewing the CCPIA Estimated Life Expectancy Chart for Commercial Building Systems and Components, take note of the numerical value for items expected to last a building’s lifetime and how it relates to maintenance life cycles.
For example, brick masonry is generally anticipated to last the lifespan of a building. The life expectancy for brick veneer in the CCPIA chart is 70 to 75 years, but there is no anticipation that all of the siding will need to be replaced. Instead, the age range refers to when it will require attention, which includes tuck-pointing and replacing any damaged elements.
The numerical value in a life expectancy chart relates to when an item is statistically expected to last or needs to be replaced—even with regular maintenance. Several factors, ranging from preventative maintenance, general workmanship of the installation, geographic location (i.e., wet locations near salt water or heavy industry), quality of the item, and usage can impact the life expectancy of the building’s systems.
Using Estimated Life Expectancies to Inspect Commercial Systems
Standards for Commercial Property Inspectors
The International Standards of Practice for Inspecting Commercial Properties (ComSOP) has the following limitation for commercial property inspectors inspections:
VIII. An inspection does not determine the life expectancy of the property or any components or systems therein.
Since the lifespan of any item can vary due to several factors, the estimated life expectancy published by the CCPIA, and other resources follow this statement for liability purposes. In general, inspectors and their clients need to be made aware that an inspection service does not determine the service-life expectancy. However, this does not negate the importance or usefulness of understanding the life expectancies of various systems and components. Inspectors can use the estimated life expectancy as a reference point to compare the age of the item and make informed judgments. They can also report on any considerations for their clients based on this information.
For example, an inspector might be inspecting a BUR roof that is 35 years old. This roof has a few areas where ponding is present and there are cracks around several areas of the parapet roll-up. An inspector could recommend repairs in these areas, which could extend the life span of the roof. However, if the roof is beyond its statistical service life expectancy, the inspector could use the life expectancy chart to inform the client that the roof repairs are only a temporary fix and that replacement should be expected in the near future. Both scenarios—repair or replacement—provide clients with information, however, a stronger level of consultation can effectively help them with their decision-making.
Given how valuable this information can be for commercial real estate due diligence, some inspectors will choose to go beyond the standard and report on life expectancies or use the information for repair estimates or cost-to-cure reports. The CCPIA life expectancy chart helps put certain items into perspective when creating a cost-to-cure analysis on a property. When including this information in inspection reports, a legal clause should be included in reports and agreements to state that information is not a warranty or guarantee.
Producing a professional and trustworthy commercial property inspection report necessitates an inspector to evaluate hundreds of systems and components within a building and provide their opinions and comments. As a result, inspectors should have some context in order to formulate their recommendations and opinions effectively. The CCPIA estimated life expectancy chart has been designed as a tool for inspectors to use for this. These numbers have been developed by industry experts who have conducted exhaustive research.
It is important for inspectors to consider the other factors that influence the lifespan of building systems and components, including the item’s apparent physical condition and things like geographic location, workmanship, item quality, etc. While commenting on life expectancy is beyond the scope of the ComSOP, an inspector will use life expectancy information as a consideration in everything that they do and every report that they create. Clients can better prepare for present and future capital expenditures based on a professional and accurate report provided by knowledgeable commercial property inspectors.
Article Written By: Rob Claus, CCPI & Maggie Aey
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