Wall Water Barriers 101 – 2018

Emily Wychock, P.E.,  a Penn State AE alumnus, continued the tradition of presenting a Simpson Gumpertz Heger (SGH) lecture on the topic of waterproofing and water management to students in the Building Failures and Forensic Techniques class in Architectural Engineering at Penn State.  Wall Water Barriers 101 is a revised and follow up to the traditional and highly popular Waterproofing 101 seminar presented by SGH in the past.  This is the longest running visiting practitioner seminar in the AE 537 class.  Ms. Wychock covered the fundamentals as well as showing a number of case study  examples of her projects to reinforce the various lecture points.  Ms. Wychock covered design, construction, material defects and maintenance issues in her discussion.

Students interested in information that complements the SGH lecture may also want to look into some of the resources recommended by Michael Palmer, Building Envelope Specialist with Dow Building Solutions  who has lectured and consulted with AE  537 in the past.  Mr. Palmer recommends the following links for more information on wall control layers and related topics.

Another excellent resource recommended by Professor Parfitt related to this topic and building envelope design and  failure review in general is the Whole Building Design Guide.  More specifically, it is the Building Envelope Design Guide that relates to waterproofing.  The Building Envelope Design Guide is an excellent reference for this discussion post but it does cover a lot of ground from a topic perspective so you may have to be selective.  On the flip side, adding and relating information to this discussion should be fairly easy due to the amount of information in the guide (and associated references).  Students are encouraged to incorporate information from other sources as well as long as it has a bearing on the discussion.

Another good set of references that go into detail on a number of the items mentioned in the lectures, particularly the physical construction and inspection of wall systems are the  Brick Industry Association (BIA) Tech Notes.  In particular:

BIA Tech Note 7: Water Penetration Resistance – Design and Detailing BIA Tech Note 7b: Water Penetration Restance – Construction and Workmanship BIA Tech Note 7a: Water Penetration Resistance – Materials

The BIA documents explain some of the unique issues related to cavity wall construction that were mentioned briefly in class during our discussions and campus search for mass masonry wall structures.  This reference will be revisited by MKP later in the semester during the planned lecture on masonry movement joints.

Additional Related Publications for Background and Discussion

Two publications that also relate to this discussion topic of interest are:

Fleshing Out Flashing Options,” by Derek B. McCowan, PE, The Construction Specifier, November 2011.  You need to open and use / click on the icon for the article in the table of contents to skip to Page 18 for the full article.  The author is from SGH.

Flashing from the Masonry Perspective” by David Sovinski and Patrick J. Conway, CSI, AIA (both authors from International Masonry Institute), The Construction Specifier, February, 2008.

Built-in wall flashings– through-wall systems and the like– are often modified, reduced in quality or even partially eliminated as part of the value engineering (VE) process. Although these hidden components add little to the building’s visual appearance, wall flashings are essential parts of its weather protection system. Decisions made in the name of VE often provide very modest monetary savings when compared to the resulting degradation in reliability and durability.  That said, many field problems in this area are a result of installation problems or poor detailing…sometimes all of the above.

Featured Photo for this Post:

The featured photo for this post is the IST Building (Now officially renamed Westgate) on the University Park campus of Penn State.  Investigation of brick facade problems for IST by a forensic firm in conjunction with the Penn State Office of Physical Plant (OPP) revealed primarily construction related problems.  You can easily see from the photo or simply by viewing the building facade that the cost of repair of simple items such as brick shelf angles and flashing etc. is extremely disruptive and expensive.  Although you can’t tell from this photo, I believe that in at least some areas, the waterproofing and flashing continuity was disrupted and the flashing did not extend through the brick face…all items that Ms. Wychock warned you about as typical problems in maintaining a properly functioning cavity wall.

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16 Responses to “Wall Water Barriers 101 – 2018”

  1. Katie W.
    September 20, 2018 at 8:16 am #

    Ms. Wychok’s presentation really expanded my knowledge of the building technology world and the importance of waterproofing. In the other case studies and lectures we’ve heard, often, a factor in that collapse or failure is water infiltration. I did not realize how easy it is for water to get in. Water may seem relatively harmless to us, but to buildings it can cause mold, rust, and deterioration. This can lead to unhealthy and unsafe indoor environments. I was astonished that in the case study of the building she showed us, there was just no water barrier whatsoever in some places. She mentioned being on site for inspection as a way to combat this, but they cannot be there all the time. Do you think that poor waterproofing and flashing is due more to insufficient drawings or due to bad workmanship? I wonder if the workers understand the importance of the water barrier and keeping it continuous. Maybe a seminar overviewing such matters like the one we just had could help them take the waterproofing more seriously.

  2. Jackson H
    September 19, 2018 at 9:51 pm #

    The case studies presented by Ms. Wychock in her presentation “Water Wall Barriers 101” were engaging and informative. With her guidance, it was interesting to learn about how to spot and remedy water penetration through moisture barriers. Some issues were so obvious that we often overlooked a simple diagnosis such as “there’s a big hole in the wall”! Other causes were much more subtle and could slip by even a seasoned professional. A tear in the moisture barrier three stories up could create leak issues on the ground floor and trying to find the root cause would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Seeing these case studies opened my eyes as to what to look for when dealing with enclosure issues and how to aid in mitigating them in my role as a structural engineer.

    Simple errors in construction processes and detailing can require major repairs down the line. I know that in the construction industry, the cheapest bid gets the job, but sometimes the cheapest bid isn’t qualified to install the systems that the owner desires. Although the owner sees a cheaper up-front cost, improper installation may cause more expenses down the line after the contractor is no longer responsible for the building, compared to if the owner had spent more money up front on a qualified contractor. It can be a challenge as an engineer who has learned lessons from being exposed to multiple projects, to convince owners to look at the overall lifecycle cost of the building not just in terms of energy usage and other normal metrics, but in terms of inadequate construction and the cost to repair a job that wasn’t done right the first time.

  3. SamZ
    September 19, 2018 at 3:09 pm #

    I found the presentation given by Ms. Wychock as informative as I found it interesting. The introduction to the three basic walls types gave a great base understanding of what can found and what is being built today, knowing how they are supposed to be built and what components go into them is invaluable information going forward in my career given that the vast majority building failures are due to water leaks and moisture migration.

    The biggest thing I took away from this lecture in regards to the system being built today is the importance of quality control for the installation of the system. There were multiple multiple instances in the case studies presented by Ms. Wychock were the water barrier membrane was improperly installed which not only allowed water in but since it was designed to total keep water out the water got trapped on the wrong side of the barrier which compounds the issues. Another instance that comes to mind is the case study where during a testing of a glass system on a balcony revealed there was a leak and then further investigation led to a piece of flashing in the wrong place allowing water in instead of directing it out. This case showed the importance of quality control allowing the incident to be detected during construction instead of after occupant move in, as well as the importance to informed tradesmen on the job. A worker or superintendent may read a detail wrong occasionally but it they know what that piece of flashing was there to shed water and direct it out instead of knowing “a piece of flashing has to do there” they would be less likely to make a mistake that would cause a failure of the enclosure.

  4. Jordan O
    September 18, 2018 at 1:48 am #

    Ms. Wychock’s guest lecture provided a lot of valuable insight into water barriers in walls and different types of wall systems. She spoke mostly of wall systems as they are actually built on site which is very important because more often than not, the product in the field is not 100% reflective of the idealized version drawn up in plans. Learning about common mistakes and how certain wall systems are more constructable is information that we will use in our jobs throughout our careers, but I think one of the more important notes she touched on was the idea of redundant design.

    We talk a lot about redundant design in structures, and how if one member or connection fails, a redundant design can prevent significant damages and injuries, but applying this concept to wall systems is a smaller detail that is easily overlooked. As Ms. Wychock noted, one small hole or gap in a membrane can lead to a build up of water that is not initially an issue, but after 5, 10, or 20 years can compound into a much larger problem. A redundant design could be the preventative measure that saves an owner a significant amount of money in repairs in the long run. The additional cost of a redundant system is well worth the headache it saves and along with good detailing and proper installation, is one of the most important components of a successful building enclosure.

    • Jackson H
      September 19, 2018 at 10:09 pm #

      I agree with you that redundant design in facades could be useful. When facades often account for 20% of a building’s overall cost, it seems obvious that a marginal increase in construction cost by providing some level of redundant design would be useful in protecting such a large investment. I liken it to the example that we learned about in Geotechnics with Walt. I remember him telling us how it is becoming commonplace in the industry to test drill every single column location on a site before making a bid just to mitigate any and all risk of increased construction costs down the road. The added up front cost is worth it for these companies in order to have the piece of mind that unforeseen costs that will be their responsibility down the line don’t pop up. It would make sense if the same attitude was taken towards enclosures. Usually the cheapest bid wins, but in terms of overall lifecycle, it might be more cost effective to pay more up front to ensure that the enclosure was properly installed, than to have to pay to have it all redone later on when they realize the building is leaking in only 5 years. It seems like it is a challenge as structural engineers, to get the owner to see past up front costs, and look at protecting their investment from the start.

  5. Abby S
    September 17, 2018 at 10:00 pm #

    I found the case studies presented by Ms. Wychock to be very informative and interesting, especially the Waddell Building case study. She walked us through the investigation process from exploring the problem areas to creating exploratory openings and performing water testing. The final steps, design and repair, are what surprised me most about this case study. Although designs were created that would repair the issue at the failure locations, it is likely that the exploratory openings revealed only a small portion of all the improper wall construction. Therefore, there is a good chance that these issues will continue to occur at other locations.

    This must be very frustrating for an owner, and it is unfortunate that these issues happen often due to a lack of proper construction techniques. There are certainly a number of reasons, such as cost and time, why the owner would not want or be able to replace the entire system. I once spoke to engineers from a building science firm about a project they had worked on where insulating glass units (IGUs) on the upper 17 floors of a 48-story high-rise were fogging and had to be replaced (https://www.rdh.com/case-studies/the-sheraton-wall-centre/). In comparison, it is amazing to see the different scale that can be associated with these types of issues and how they are addressed.

    This leads me to wonder, how often are enclosure failures localized to a single area that can be fixed at one time? Is it more likely that the failure will affect the entire enclosure, and if so, is it more common to treat only the worst areas instead of executing a complete repair?

  6. Smithr
    September 17, 2018 at 8:46 pm #

    Currently I am working on an owner’s manual for commercial roofing systems as a part of a capstone class. Many of the issues that Ms. Wychock presented are similar to typical roofing failures. As mentioned in Lstiburek’s “The Perfect Wall”, an ideal wall system is just a roof or slab turned on its side.

    I am always interested to see field examples. In particular, the project at the community college was especially cringe-worthy due to the lack of membrane on the structural walls, no drip edges on any of the flashings, no turnbacks on the flashings, etc. Ms. Wychock had mentioned that the contractor no longer existed and that design drawings were minimal or lacking. I do not think that this is uncommon and I am impressed by the investigation that was put together with relatively no given documentation. This should be a selling point to potential clients and I think something to be proud of.

    To that point though, how will the change in construction documentation change the building enclosure industry? Many contractors now use electronic systems to track the submittals, RFIs, etc. Although this is great for the contractors to cover themselves, it is ultimately up to the building owners to keep track of the documentation after turnover. I guess my question is, how effective are systems like BIM in your line of work? Are building owners actually keeping track of this information? If so, generally how much does this help the investigation team?

  7. Sierra S
    September 15, 2018 at 2:30 pm #

    I had the pleasure of working with Ms.Wychock this past summer at SGH. Her presentation provided a general overview of a large portion of the work I conducted. Many people in the building industry do not know or put a large focus on the building envelop during design and construction, however, the failure of the envelopes performance can lead to wide spread issues.

    In the article “Fleshing Out Flashing Options” a focus is put on the detailing of the waterproofing systems. Many failures in the system occur, not do to the material failing, but due to improper installation. As Ms. Wychock mentioned, if a building was just a box with no windows, doors, vents or opening then there would be no need for a building technology engineer. However, it is these openings that need special attention and skill to design around. The article describes that when flashing isn’t properly installed the water cannot be drained out of the wall cavity. Also, seams where the flashing or membrane overlaps are points of weakness. These details need to be done properly so it doesn’t cost the owner later.

    I remember specifically on one project I worked this summer I went out to inspect the installation of a HRA waterproofing membrane. Even though the detailing on the drawings were accurate and notes for proper installation was supplied there were areas that indicated potential failure and areas that have already failed. On this particular project the membrane was not tucked tight into the corners when it had to turn up the bottom of the wall. If someone stepped close enough to the corner it would rip the membrane. It is our job to ensure that the installation is properly done, which results in more site visits. The building envelope is an important function of the building and it is necessary to pay close attention to installation.

    • Smithr
      September 17, 2018 at 8:52 pm #


      I would agree with you that many of the errors we tend to see in the building enclosure systems tend to be with craftsmanship. Attention to detail is definitely an important measure to take up front and it is important to get ahead of these issues and expend “mental capital” instead of “financial capital” to fix these problems.

      Since I’m sure you witnessed a fair share of issues after work had already been completed, I’m interested to see what we could do better on the back end of work. My question is, how do you think Building Enclosure Commissioning will affect the quality of work?

      • Jordan O
        September 19, 2018 at 9:42 pm #


        I was lucky enough to have an internship in building enclosure commissioning a few summers ago. I can tell you from first hand experience that even the presence of the commissioning agent on site increases the quality of work. I’ve seen several examples of roof membrane not properly installed, whether it be air pockets or fish mouths, that the commissioning agent made the contractor rip up the membrane and reinstall it because the way it was initially installed had the potential to lead to a failure. Unfortunately sometimes workers can get sloppy, or are just not properly informed on installation techniques, and the redundancy of another set of eyes inspecting the installation can catch mistakes that could compound on themselves to cause a bigger problem. Another example was a wall section that was built and closed off before the commissioning agent could inspect it. He asked them to open up the wall to check that all parts were installed in the proper order and it turned out there were several mistakes that would’ve led to condensation on the wrong part of the wall. Introducing building enclosure commissioning to the project not only keeps workers on their A-game, but potentially saves owners a lot of money by catching mistakes before they impact the occupied building.

    • Eric I
      September 19, 2018 at 7:55 pm #

      Hey Sierra,

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you said envelope issues often aren’t material failures but installation errors. In my experience with SGH, I frequently found myself drawing incredibly complex details that had a lot of intricate parts. It really is eye opening to think that while what we designed may have been perfect, the end result is equally dependent on the ability of those following our “instructions.” There are so many areas in buildings that need that special attention and design skill but the skill of the craftsman may be dictating the results even more. I too frequently visited job sites to see if the design intent was being achieved and there was almost always one or two areas of concern. It definitely can make you wonder what goes on while the design team isn’t there but every time we pointed something out, the contractors seemed very responsive to our advice. Frequent site visits can be an expensive addition to a contract, but the mistakes caught may make it financially worth it. Those tough details definitely can work our brains but we must always keep the installer in mind. It always looks perfect on paper, but the real world is always more complicated and therefore deserving of our attention!

    • Abby S
      September 19, 2018 at 8:52 pm #


      Your experience at SGH sounds very interesting! It seems like you gained a lot of valuable experience getting to see these types of failures firsthand.

      It is unfortunate that, even when emphasis is put on designing the building envelop, improper construction techniques and poor installation lead to problems. I agree that site visits are crucial to ensuring proper installation, but it still seems to me that errors could happen. Site visits are also time consuming and costly, so I imagine that it would be difficult to be on site enough to completely monitor the installation. In your time at SGH, did you get an idea of how often these site visits occur and how effective they are? I would also be interested to see what types of quality control measures are in place to reduce the amount of failures due to poor construction and a lack of attention to detail.

  8. Ryan L
    September 14, 2018 at 1:39 pm #

    I thought it was interesting that Ms. Wychock referred to issues with detail drawings multiple times throughout her presentation including general installation instructions from product manufacturers, being a prevalent cause of improper installation. I’m wondering if this is typical of commercial/large construction.

    In residential construction, I have seen water barrier efforts during construction being treated as a simple construction activity without much regard/understanding for the performance of the system.

    Sloppy mortar work in a cavity wall; improper dimensions used while using metal breaks for on-site flashing work, stapling TYVEK quickly, etc.

    I think not only understanding a detail, and/or installation procedures, but also understanding how. water barrier works with all wall systems and how openings interact with these systems should be training areas for construction personnel.

    • Sierra S
      September 15, 2018 at 2:54 pm #


      I worked with Ms. Wychock this past summer at SGH and from my experience working on larger projects the installation of the waterproofing membranes had to be supervised. While the quality of installation differed from project to project the work has to be continuously checked because even one discontinuity can lead to major problems. Your example of “stapling TYVEK quickly” seems like the laborers do not understand the use of the system. On the commercial projects the laborers, I believe, were more familiar with the systems. However, their work around grates, windows and corners often produced issues that had to be readdressed. The lapping of materials and adhesion between layers are another aspect to pay close attention to.

  9. Eric I
    September 13, 2018 at 8:34 pm #

    The guest lecture given by Ms. Wychock provided insight into numerous topics about building construction that are so extremely vital but often times overlooked during design. I had the pleasure of working with SGH this past summer for an internship and it was very eye opening to see how complex and detailed building enclosure systems are. I took part in countless investigations and testing during my time there and I was shocked at how common these types of failures really are.

    During her presentation, Emily covered the basics of the three main wall system types. I believe this basic understanding of the systems is valuable for all of us because knowing how they work can help us learn what problem areas to look for. For example, when I began working there I had heard the term “flashing” countless times before but never quite understood the purpose. A few weeks in and after drawing countless details, I really began to understand the point and it was always one of the first things I looked for on site when investigating a water leakage.

    I found the most surprising part of Ms. Wychock’s lecture to be how so many of these water barrier issues are due to process errors. She showed multiple photographs from her own experiences where the waterproofing membrane was cut/missing and where flashings were cut short. These are such small errors in installation that can be hard to notice but their effects can have devastating consequences. One of the biggest things I learned this summer, and her case studies are a testament to this, is that it is vital to provide extremely detailed drawings of these systems or to hire someone else to do so. The second step would be to visit site and ensure the design intent is being accomplished. A small hole in the system may not seem like a lot, but 25 years later it can cost a fortune!

  10. Steven B
    September 13, 2018 at 4:43 pm #

    “Moisture in buildings is a major contributor to mold growth, unhealthy buildings, and indoor air quality” (Whole Building Design Guide website). Ms. Wychock presentation did a good job of pointing out the root causes, ways to avoid and remedial steps to repair the building envelope failures that may result in water intrusion.
    A strong theme throughout Ms. Wychock’s presentation was the way the water intrusion prevention material was used and the quality of the installation. Is the material install correctly? Is the material being used as it was intended. She had examples of self-adhered membrane with water bobbles between the membrane and the wall or flashing not extending the full length of the wall. These could just be classic bad workmanship. However, it could also be an example of a lack of understanding of how the manufacture of the product intended it to be used. As a designer there are question that you need to ask yourself before selecting a product. Is trained required before using the product? Are the instructions on how to use the product straight forward? Is the importance of each step clear? What can go wrong in the installation. Depending on the complexity, you my want to do a mockup of your intended design/installation process and present it to the contractor. Ms. Wychock mentioned that SGH has done this before. This could be another step that to be added to the design/construction process that would improve communication and understanding and hopefully reduce failures.

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