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Drought Harming Buildings- Infrastructure

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Drought harming buildings, pipes in Austin

Building managers see cracks, busted pipes and failing equipment

Premium content from Austin Business Journal by Cody Lyon , ABJ Staff

Date: Friday, August 19, 2011, 5:00am CDT

The drought and extreme heat are wreaking havoc on Central Texas infrastructure, commercial and residential buildings, and their landscapes.

With water pipes bursting, home foundations sinking and plants dying, real estate agents report cracking walls and failing air conditioners.

Pipes are bursting as the soil recedes in many places as a result of extreme dryness. More than 100 repairs were done the week of Aug. 9 on pipes that bring water to the city, according to Austin Water. On a normal summer week, the utility sees about 40 to 50 such repairs.

Meanwhile, residential and commercial property owners have their own problems.

Jim Olenbush, owner and broker at Cantera Real Estate, has had trouble selling properties on Lake Travis that have been rendered less attractive by shallow waterfronts and diminished views. Adding to aesthetic concerns are mechanical and structural woes.

“I’ve seen a number of older air conditioning systems fail, even while homes were on the market or in escrow,” Olenbush said.

Some commercial property air conditioners have fared similarly under the heat. Highland Mall, for example, has seen compressors give out and other heat-related problems, said Operations Manager Rob Ledbetter, who is co-chairman of Building Owners and Managers Association’s local Energy & Water Sustainability Committee.

“The air conditioning equipment in Austin is simply not designed for this sort of weather,” he said.

Ledbetter thinks the harsh conditions will prompt Austin to embrace white roofs, which help reflect sunlight and reduce energy consumption. They’re already popular in places such as Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Meanwhile, shrinking clay soil is causing foundational problems among homes that have never had any, with shifting walls cracking under stress, Olenbush said.

One executive at a foundation repair company with 37 years of experience in Austin has seen requests for inspections and estimates jump.

“We have inspected many 30- to 50-year-old buildings in the past three months that have never experienced any foundation problems until this year,” said David Bullion, president of Austin Foundation Repair. And even though commercial structures see fewer foundational problems because they’re usually built on deep-drilled, steel-reinforced concrete piers, Austin Foundation Repair has seen a 30 to 50 percent increase in inspection requests for commercial buildings and apartment complexes.

Drought-induced foundational problems are prevalent throughout major Texas cities because they have large areas with clay soil, which shrinks as it dries, Bullion said. As a result, masonry, drywall and tile floors crack as foundations settle. Sometimes doors and windows won’t open properly. Such problems are abated only slightly in the winter as cooler temperatures slow evaporation.

Ledbetter thinks the drought’s impact will be cumulative and more dramatic in the coming months.

“If the dry spell continues through fall, we’ll hear more reports of structural slabs shifting and, at the first sign of a hard freeze, the death of many mature trees,” he said.

Adding to the problems, many building owners and homeowners will experience leaky ceilings — when rain eventually comes — from cracks they don’t know about resulting from the dry heat, he said.

“Heat impacts everything on a property, the equipment, the pavement, the landscaping — absolutely everything, “ Bullion said.

Mother Nature also wilting under heat

Austin is under level one watering restrictions, which limits landscape irrigation to two days a week, and it could be reduced to once a week if lake levels fall below 900,000 acres or water use reaches 260 million gallons a day for three days.

Regardless of how often watering is allowed, the extreme heat combined with a thin layer of soil has diminished the effectiveness of irrigation, said Jody McDaniel, branch manager of Greater Texas Landscapes Inc. and chairman of BOMA Austin’s Water Sustainability Task Force.

“We’ve had four trees uproot in the past week at our commercial properties,” McDaniel said. “We’re seeing a lot of plant life that just can’t be helped.”

Austinites may need to think of the drought’s impact as long-term and start figuring out how a rapidly growing and urbanizing region can accommodate its conditions, said Dean Almy, director of graduate programs in urban design and landscape architecture at the University of Texas.

A big part of that will be understanding the role landscaping needs to play in maintaining infrastructure.

“We no longer have the luxury of thinking that landscaping is beautifying architecture,” Almy said. “We have to think of landscaping as part of the necessary ecology.”

For example, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is working to develop grass that requires a tenth of the water needed by standard breeds of grass. Hardier grass can make it easier to maintain a lawn, which can reduce temperatures between buildings, compared to ones surrounded by blacktop.

Also, putting trees on the northwest sides of buildings can cut air conditioning costs by blocking setting summer sunlight, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. At the same time, deciduous trees on the east and south sides of a property provide shade in the summer.

Meanwhile, landscaping must be done with the realization that water is becoming a more precious commodity.

Years ago, McDaniel said, “You could just add more water if the plant seemed challenged.”

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Written by codylyonreporter

January 28, 2012 at 1:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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