By Deidre Miller…
In the mid-auts, I worked as a project engineer for a firm in Toronto that specialized in commercial building inspections, often in advance of property sales. For two or three days a week, I was onsite, recording the condition of building exteriors, roofs, plumbing, interiors, electrical systems and heating, cooling and ventilation systems.
As someone who had worked as a building designer, both in structural engineering and architecture, it was fascinating to see how buildings and building systems changed over time and what details tended to become problematic when left to themselves for decades.
I could launch into a discussion of rotted joist ends or failed caulk on face-sealed walls. I could talk about modified bitumen installed over the top of built-up-roofs and economizers on heating and cooling combo units sealed up in an attempt to save on heating. But, that would be boring. Instead, I’ll talk about the basements.
Looking at a basement can give you an incredible amount of information about a building. It’s likely to host the furnace or boiler, the main electrical panel and the water main, and it often features a stunning array of exposed plumbing, ductwork and wiring. The foundation walls are usually unfinished and the ground floor structure is almost always exposed. These are the bones of the building. The high-quality basements will have been kept dry and might even have sheet piling from the UK’s leading sheet piling contractors added to help support it.
When a basement is clean and logically arranged, it makes an inspector’s job much easier, and that was often the case with newer buildings. However, it has to be said: The hundred-plus year old basements were the most fun. They were complicated, they were full of issues to note, and inspecting them was like being in a horror movie. I sometimes felt like Scully or Indiana Jones, and the explorer in me could not wait to see what lay behind the next door or around the next corner.
Sometimes, the lights didn’t work and we had to use flashlights. It was like being in “The X-Files,” and we even looked like government agents in our polyester business suits.
I kept expecting to find a skeleton or some menacing alien slime. (Un)Fortunately, the slime always seemed to be associated with the mechanical or plumbing system. I saw many interesting basements as a building inspector, but there are two that have really stuck with me: a beautifully preserved Art Deco electrical panel for a large apartment building, and a basement in a run-down historic building that was worse than anything I’ve seen in a horror film.
The Very Beautiful Antique Electrical System
In the basement of one large early twentieth century apartment building, there was a pristine (though dusty) wall of artfully arranged black Art Deco electrical boxes and perfectly organized wiring. As far as we could tell, the system dated to the 1920s and had never needed repair, so it had not been updated. There were still no complaints about the electrical service in the building.
It was a little bit sad to recommend that the electrical boxes and wiring be replaced, but the whole electrical system was “well past the end of its life expectancy.” Unfortunately, there’s no museum for historic electrical installations. This outstanding piece of work outlasted the electrician, his children and possibly his grandchildren. It is tragic that I don’t have a picture.
The Dungeon of Horrors
Then, there was the nineteenth century building in a rough part of town that had been in use as a private club. From the exterior, it was a charming example of traditional Toronto construction, with decorative patterns in white and red brick and French-style dormers.
The basement was probably the scariest place I’ve ever seen, both from the perspective of superstition and building maintenance. It was wet. It was smelly, as it had been used for food storage and had a filthy, half flooded room full of tapped beer kegs. It had rotten joist-ends sitting on the masonry foundation walls. It had plumbing pipes of different metals attached to each other and duly oxidizing at the junctions.
I’d never seen so many things wrong in a single place. Yet at street level, it was a nice looking historic building. Nothing had been done to maintain it over the years, and when there was a cataclysmic failure, haphazard repairs had been made. Bringing it up to a decent standard was going to cost the buyer a fortune!
I’m not working as a building inspector now, but I still remember many of the buildings I explored back then. It was always the private spaces where people didn’t normally go – the basements and lofts and roofs – that were the most interesting.
Deidre Miller is an engineer with an architecture degree who has lived in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and worked in building design, evaluation and regulation.
All photos in this article were taken by Deidre Miller.