Using Drones for Building Envelope Inspections

Drones are great tools for building envelope inspections. A lot of what we need to look at is up high on a building, or obstructed from view when we are standing on the ground.

Sometimes binoculars or high powered telephoto zoom lenses on cameras can help. But these only work when there’s a direct line of sight (can’t see low-slope roofs from the ground). Also, for parts of the building far from the ground, the perspective (looking up instead of straight on) can mask some conditions.

When it’s important to see something up close, one option is an elevated work platform like an aerial lift or swing staging. These can be terrific for getting a good view, but also quite expensive, and often cost-prohibitive for many projects.

At Copeland Building Envelope Consulting we’ve found using unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, to be a powerful part of our toolkit. We regularly employ professional drone pilots and photographers to document work in progress as well as existing conditions for building envelope investigations.

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Drones used for building envelope inspection are small remote-controlled flying vehicles with high-resolution digital cameras mounted on them. The operator on the ground has access to a live feed from the camera via a tablet computer.

Overall images are ideal for documenting job progress and quickly understanding the conditions at the building. However, high image resolution also allows a surprising amount of cropping, or “zoom”, after the fact. This means even after the shot it taken, the viewer can examine details that may not have been explicitly targeted for capture.

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This overall aerial straight-down view allows a quick understanding of project status…
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…and the high resolution of the image allows you to “zoom in” for inspection of details such as the ventilation opening at the ridge.

It’s also possible to fly relatively close to building features to get a similar perspective to an arms-length survey from a lift. In fact, in many situations it’s easier to get close with a drone due to building geometry. This obviously depends upon the skill of the pilot and the features of the particular drone, but we’ve had great success getting some up-close viewpoints.

 

An example of when a drone out-performs traditional access methods is internal roof areas. On larger buildings there are often roof areas that are set back a significant distance from the building walls. These may not be easily or safely accessible to walk on. Viewing these internal roofs from an aerial lift can be difficult or impossible due to building geometry and limitations in where the lift can be parked. A drone can easily fly directly over the area to be inspected.

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This roof is near the center of the building, and would be difficult to view up close using even a large articulating aerial lift.

In addition to the benefits described above, a drone inspection is typically more cost effective than a similar arms-length visual survey using an aerial lift or swing stage. The survey can also be completed in a shorter period of time due to the ease of moving the drone to different areas around the building.

However, a drone inspection is not a substitute for a hands-on inspection when one is warranted. There’s no way (yet) to replicate being able to physically touch, prod, and sometimes disassemble parts of the building to identify and solve building envelope problems.

But for many projects, a building envelope inspection by drone is the perfect first step, and delivers great value. If closer inspection makes sense based on the drone fly-by, that effort can then be better focused where it’s needed most.

Aerial photography credit to Prime Aerial Photography of Somerville, MA

 

How to Fix Ice Dam Roof Leaks

Unfortunately, for many, ice dams and the related water  leakage problems are an unwelcome wintertime tradition here in New England. We’ll soon see fall colors turn to bare branches and ice dam season will be upon us again – so what better time to write about how to fix ice dam roof leaks!

You might think that after all these years and all these people getting their houses ruined on a semi-regular basis that we’d have figured out how to resolve ice dam leaks in a reliable way. The good news is that many of us do know how to fix ice dam roof leaks. But there’s still a lot of confusion out there.

So this post is meant to help un-confuse things. Here, in simple terms, is what you need to know about fixing ice dam roof leaks.

What is an ice dam?

An ice dam is ice that forms near the bottom of a sloped roof and blocks water from draining over the roof edge. Just like a dam in a river – it’s an obstacle that keeps water from going where it otherwise would want to go.

Ice dams are usually pretty easy to spot. Big mounds of ice at roof eaves are a dead giveaway. So are giant icicles1. So is water pouring into your living room a day or two after a big snow storm.

How do ice dams form?

Ice dams form as a result of snow on the roof melting and then re-freezing at the eave.

There are lots of great diagrams of the ice dam phenomenon scattered around the Internet. Here is one.

Basically the roof gets too hot and the snow melts. This is mostly the result of heat from inside the house that moves through the roof and melts the snow, which then flows as water downhill to the eave. When the eave is outside of the exterior wall, it is cold (no heat from below) and the water freezes again.

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Photo by Amber Kipp on Unsplash

Why do ice dams cause roof leaks?

A roof that works great during torrential rain may leak like a sieve during ice dam conditions. Why?

Most steep sloped roofs are built like rain coats – not submarines.

A major component of steep sloped roofing that often (inexplicably) goes unnoticed is… the steep slope. The slope is crucial to the roof’s performance.

If the slope is removed, or if it’s exposed to conditions that are just like if the slope was removed, then a crucial element of the roof’s defense against the weather has been compromised.

Low sloped roofs (like on top of your favorite big box store) are often exposed to “ponding water” – i.e. standing water that stays on the roof for a long time. No one likes this but it happens a lot and low sloped roofing materials are (usually) able to deal with it pretty well.

But if a steep sloped roof is exposed to ponding water (like when a big chunk of ice blocks the drainage path) then we need to take some additional steps to make that steep sloped roof perform more like a low sloped roof.

Think of a rain coat. A rain coat keeps you dry when you’re standing in the rain. But what if you jump in the ocean?

When water backs up due to an ice dam blocking drainage, most steep slope roofing is about as effective as a rain coat in the ocean.

What we need for the ocean is a submarine.

How to stop ice dam roof leaks

Ok, you’ve read this far (or maybe jumped ahead) and here’s what you’ve been waiting for: how to stop ice dam roof leaks.

Solving ice dam leak problems boils down to two things:

  1. stop ice dams from forming
  2. keep the water out when ice dams do form

Simple right?

How do we stop ice dams from forming, and how do we keep the water out when ice dams do form?

Read on…

Stop Ice Dams From Forming

To stop ice dams from forming we need to keep the roof cold. There are several key strategies2 to keeping the roof cold, including:

  • improve ventilation
  • improve insulation
  • improve air sealing
  • eliminate heat sources

In an ideal world every steep sloped roof would have ample ventilation and ample insulation. In the real world one or both is often constrained. So it’s usually a process of trying to improve each to the greatest extent practical. Adding insulation and improving ventilation are cornerstones of fixing ice dam leaks.

A less-often talked about component to solving ice dam leaks is reducing air leakage. Uncontrolled air leakage from conditioned parts of a home into places that are supposed to be unconditioned can short circuit the best intended blanket of insulation.

Heat sources in the attic (like ducts or furnaces) are also problematic. Just don’t do it. If they’re already there, you probably want to make the attic “indoors” and stop trying to roll the boulder uphill.

This business of indoors and outdoors is important. Understanding where the line is between indoors and outdoors is critical to properly implementing the strategies above.

Stop Roof Leaks

You can do everything described above to stop ice dams from forming and there will still come a day, if you live in a cold climate, that ice dams will be there. Nature is persistent.

So, when ice dams form, the roof needs to be ready to keep the water out.

Folks have written about how to do this. Basically: build it like a submarine, not a rain coat (i.e. make it waterproof). Use good quality self-adhering membrane underlayment, use the right amount of it, and install it carefully.

Ready for More?

This post is about 1,000 words… all about ice dams… and we’re barely scratching the surface. Want to learn more? Let me know what questions you have in the comments below. I’d love to address your question in a future post.

If you’re struggling with ice dam roof leaks at a property you own or manage – give me a shout. I’d love to help.

 


  1. Like the two houses pictured in this post (red house photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash and white house photo by Amber Kipp on Unsplash). 
  2. For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to differentiate between traditional vented attics and “compact” roof assemblies where the ceiling is installed directly to the bottom of the roof. While the specific tactics to reduce ice dam formation vary between these types of systems, the strategies are generally the same. We can talk more about tactics in a future post. 

Talking Building Envelope Consulting on the Building Materials Podcast

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Andy Armento on his freshly launched Building Materials Podcast. We chatted about a (very) wide range of topics from building envelope consulting (of course) to materials testing and even robots taking over the world.

The Building Materials Podcast describes itself this way:

The mission of The Building Materials Podcast to educate those owners, architects, specifiers, engineers, consultants, and installers about the latest technologies which are disrupting the AEC industry.

Andy’s got a made-for-broadcast voice and me, well, I know some stuff about building science. Anyway, if you’re looking for a half hour of fun listening for your next commute, check out Episode 3 here: http://buildingmaterialspodcast.com/index.php/episodes/

CopelandBEC Founder Named to Worcester Business Journal’s 40 Under 40

Each year the Worcester Business Journal honors 40 central Massachusetts young professionals and I’m proud to be included in the Class of 2018!

From the article:

With this year’s WBJ 40 Under Forty, you see the people who could turn the [Worcester] cultural renaissance from a well-started idea to a full-blown reality. Not only are these up-and-coming professionals dedicated to improving their businesses, but they are putting forth their talents to help the community flourish.

It means a lot to be included on a list with so many distinguished peers, and I’m excited to continue to focus on improving this great region where I live and work.

Congratulations to the entire Class of 2018, and thank you to the Worcester Business Journal for putting this issue together.

Here are links to the entire 2018 Class of 40 Under Forty and my own 40 Under Forty profile.

 

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

Project Update: the Lake House

Wow! It has been a whirlwind month-plus here at Copeland Building Envelope Consulting since launching the firm in June. It’s time for a quick update.

Here are just a few examples of the building envelope problems we’re helping to solve:

  • window leaks and failed cladding on a couple of single family residences
  • roofing replacement and curtain wall investigation at an institutional building on Cape Cod
  • roofing, cladding, and window replacement at a 54-unit condominium community
  • investigation of windows falling out of frames at a church-turned-condo in the Boston area
  • masonry restoration on a pretty famous campus in Cambridge
  • air barrier consulting for a new cigar bar in Boston

If you have a building envelope problem that we can help with – please get in touch, we’d really like to hear from you.

As these projects move along we’ll write more about them and share some of the solutions. Here’s a bit more detail on one of the single family residence cladding failures.

The Lake House

CopelandBEC is providing building envelope consulting services to resolve water leakage at a single family residence on the lake in a MetroWest Boston suburb.

This home has tongue-and-groove cedar cladding installed directly over a typical residential weather resistive barrier. A combination of factors has led to severe deterioration of underlying wood sheathing and framing in many locations.

The house is just 12 years old.

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Rotted wood sheathing and framing at building corner.

CopelandBEC is working with the homeowner, contractor, and architect to design a repair program that can be implemented over several years to address the cladding problems and related deterioration on the whole house. The new cladding system is drained and back-vented, and incorporates a robust air and water barrier.

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The repairs in progress.

More details to come on this one and many others. Stay tuned!

Contact us today to discuss your building envelope questions.

Introducing: Copeland Building Envelope Consulting

A house is a machine for living in.

-Le Corbusier

When I arrived at Northeastern to study computer engineering I didn’t even know what a building envelope was, let alone that someone could make a career out of helping to make it work better. Even when I moved over to the civil engineering department I thought I would design the structures of bridges or skyscrapers.

But thanks to a lucky first co-op assignment (thank you Professor Tillman) I ended up at a firm that had a whole group of people who specialized in this unique niche hybrid of engineering, architecture, materials science and more.

Now after many years, stints at a couple of other great firms (here and here), and even a sabbatical traveling in Southeast Asia I’m embarking on this new adventure in entrepreneurship and I couldn’t be more excited.

What’s the goal?

In short, I want to solve my clients’ building envelope problems.

Folks in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry have a pretty good handle on the right ways to build. But building envelope problems are still far too common and a lot of times they get a shrug – “what can you do?”.

There’s some disconnects in the process and I think a lot of it comes down to communication and education. If everyone on the team is clear on what to do, and understands why it needs to be that way, then results can be better.

So Copeland Building Envelope Consulting will focus on improving the process of designing, investigating, and repairing building envelope systems. I’ve got some ideas on this, but if you have a suggestion please drop me a comment below!

Why start fresh?

I want to reinvent the wheel.

Building envelope consulting has grown into an established, well trodden industry. Lots of folks do it and many do it quite well.

But there is room for improvement.

The client experience can be better. The communication with project stakeholders can be better. The value can be higher.

I want the opportunity to question every decision, every task, every process: is there a better way? Can it be done more efficiently, or explained more concisely with less ambiguity?

Engineers, as practitioners of engineering, are people who invent, design, analyze, build, and test machines, systems, structures and materials to fulfill objectives and requirements while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost.

Wikipedia

As much as I engineer building envelope systems, I also intend to engineer the system of building envelope consulting, from the ground up.

Functional Form

I love and appreciate the art of architecture, but at the end of the day if it doesn’t keep the water where it’s supposed to be then I think there’s a problem. The form and the function are both fundamental requirements of successful architecture.

The Le Corbusier quote at the top of the article is an underlying thread in all building envelope consulting work. Building envelope problems mean the machine is broken.

Our goal should be to keep the machine humming along.

Let’s do it!

I’m ready to bring a fresh approach to building envelope consulting. I would love to hear from you in the comments below – what problems need solving? What gives you a headache and what can be done better?

Thank you for reading!

Matthew M. Copeland, P.E.

Principal and Founder

Copeland Building Envelope Consulting