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What to Look for in a Commercial Building
Nan Harvey, A.I.A.
published March, 2000, Howard County
The economy is great, your business is booming, rates are good and you're
ready to finally buy a building and move your business in! Before you do though
you should consider not just what the building looks like today but what kind of
shape it's going to be in a couple of years from now and the kinds of
maintenance work that's going to be required to keep it looking good.
Some buildings, like people, age better than others. A building may look
great immediately after the construction is complete but start looking shabby
right after the warranty period is up. Another building may look great but dated
and still another may provide years of service with little required
What makes the difference Of course, more durable materials often come with a
higher initial price tag but not always. After looking at hundreds of different
commercial buildings with varying levels of care, we have found that there are
some materials that just do not age well and probably should be avoided if
possible no matter what the initial cost. By no means an exhaustive list, the
following things should be considered when you're looking to purchase a
- Treated timber retaining walls, stair treads, and deck supports don't last,
especially if they are in direct contact with the earth. Better choices include
brick, block masonry, stone or precast concrete.
- Exterior insulation and finish system (EIFS; a brand name for the material
is "Dryvit") can be easily damaged adjacent to parking or loading areas and
should be protected with bollards or a more durable building material. Even
aluminum or vinyl siding can be easily damaged and should be placed with care in
- Aluminum downspouts should also be protected when vehicles can damage them.
Downspouts should always have a hard surface to wash onto directing rainfall
away from the building and preferably away from pedestrian walkways that can
freeze during cold spells.
- Gypsum board soffits at exterior overhangs, porches or open covered areas
are subject to deterioration and moisture damage. Prefinished metal or exterior
grade plywood soffit materials are more durable choices.
- Mechanical equipment should be placed to allow clear access and ventilation
around it but be protected from parking or loading vehicles. If equipment is
placed on the rooftop (generally a good solution), access by repair personnel
should be via a secured hatch and roof protection should be provided along the
most direct route of travel.
- Incandescent light fixtures with glass globes should be protected if they
are placed close to pedestrian walkways in areas where there is a possibility of
vandalism. Better choices include metal halide or high pressure sodium light
fixtures that are directed to cover the desired areas and not flood adjacent
residential areas, if any.
If you've found a building and fallen in love or the location just can't be
beat but it has some of the undesirable materials listed, don't despair. Work
with your broker or agent and the building owner. Find an architect or
contractor who can work up replacement or repair costs and try to negotiate
corrections before you purchase the property. Always try to find out what the
maintenance costs have typically been during the life of the building and what
materials and equipment have been replaced. Work up a worst-case-scenario budget
for at least the first five years (your bank may want maintenance costs figured
for the term of the loan) and make sure you can cover these things. After all
this, buy it, move in and enjoy your new independence!
Nan Harvey attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA
(BA in Art), and graduate school at Va. Tech. in architecture. She moved to
Washington, DC then Baltimore, where she renovated a rowhouse and then an old
farmhouse while working for various architectural firms in Baltimore.
Nan started Building Consultants, Inc. construction monitoring and condition
survey services in April 1990, and added environmental services in 2000. As a
dedicated volunteer for Habitat for Humanity International, Nan has built houses
for deserving families in Nepal and Brazil.
She can be reached at BCI at (410) 715-2277 or nan@eConstructionServices.com.
BCI provides expert project review for real estate transactions.