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Keys to a Mondo Condo Failure (II)

Friday, June 20, 2014

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Second of Two Parts

After the Epic Fail of a paint job that caused an unbudgeted $165,000 do-over on a posh young condo tower, one big question remained: What went wrong in the first place?

As it turned out, there were several culprits in this pricey mess. Three stand out.

The Stain

Here's a question that would have been worth asking at the outset: Do you really want a semi-transparent stain for this project?

The owner and architect envisioned a natural appearance for this building, so they specified a semi-transparent stain that enabled the wood grain and texture to show through.

Our job as paint inspectors isn’t to insert ourselves into the creative process. However, there are facts that specifiers should know before choosing a semi-transparent stain.

With this chemistry, there’s no film build, so little protection is provided to the surface.

What to Know

Here’s what the MPI Painting Manual has to say about these stains:

“Semi-transparent stains…have a low level of pigmentation that allows the wood grain and texture to show through, giving a natural appearance.

"Unfortunately, these coatings do not significantly protect the wood from degradation by UV or water, and must be recoated more often than surfaces coated with complete hiding paints or stains. Not for pre-primed or badly stained and discolored surfaces.

"Will not prevent the natural weathering of wood substrates due to semi-transparent nature and very low film build. Use two coats…”

Semi-transparent stain in good condition
Photos: MPI

Semi-transparent stain protected from weather on a soffit stays in good condition. Exposed to rain and heat, it surely would not have fared so well.

In exposures like the Pacific Northwest, where you get rain, rain and rain along with hot summers, degradation can occur in as little as six months.

So let the specifier beware: A semi-transparent stain offers no exterior long-term protection in these (or most) kinds of exposure environments.

(Note: If the coated surface is not directly exposed to UV or extensive weathering, semi-transparent stains may be used with no problem.)

So by choosing a semi-transparent stain, this project was condemned to more frequent repaints. Still, should bare wood have been showing less than two years later? A little more detective work yields the answer.

The Spec and the Data Sheet

Two basic questions here: Did the contractor follow the spec? And, more important: Did the spec follow the product data sheet?

One might assume that on high-priced real estate, extra care would be taken to assure that the finish was applied properly and according to spec. In this case, one would be wrong.

Judging from the bare nail heads in the siding, only one coat of stain was applied (and badly, at best) on the ground at the jobsite. It was then installed, and the painter walked away.

As a rule in our experience, no conventional coating goes on in just one coat at new construction. And semi-transparent stains require a minimum of two coats, per the MPI Manual above.

Applying one coat fails to meet the standard of good practice.

If the industry-standard two coats had been applied, the owner and specifier could have expected longer life than they received.

Exposed nail heads

Bare nail heads indicate that no coating was applied after the siding was installed.

However, upon further investigation, this product’s technical data sheet states that three coats—two coats of the tinted stain followed by one coat of a clear—were required to get the level of protection advertised.

Reading the Instructions

If the contractor had followed the manufacturer’s application instructions, the owner should have had a few more years of service; furthermore, the repaint would likely have been easier.

Applying the required three coats during construction is also cost effective, because the required scaffolding is already in place and the cost is absorbed into the construction budget.

On the other hand, setting up scaffolding for a repaint means that the repaint bid bears the full weight of the cost. And in this case, the building’s configuration required the use of complete scaffolding, rather than lifts, increasing the cost considerably.

Specifier's Oversight?

However, the failure to apply three coats may not entirely be the contractor’s fault. Blame could also lay with the specifier: A good painting spec would have noted the requirements of this product and clearly spelled out the need for three coats.

The inspector hasn’t seen the original spec, so it remains a mystery whether the specifier included this important piece of text.

Finally, the value of inspection cannot be overstated. If the owner and architect had specified that a third-party inspector be present during construction to verify that the required product was applied properly and according to spec, it is fair to assume that all three coats would have been applied before the contractor left the site.

Condo Tower

This building configuration requires scaffolding and lifts for repainting. Access would have been much easier at original construction.

For a project like this, inspection would have cost $2,500. That seems like a small price to pay up front to avoid a $165,000 repaint five years later.

Product Quality

We must also point out that an MPI Approved product was not specified for the project.

We’ve established that in general, semi-transparent stains are not ideal choices for long-term protection. And this was a LEED project, so the architect and owner were eager to use a low-VOC, water-based product.

We understand that, but … the product specified here was not MPI approved. Water-based stains are relatively new technology that lack the decades of performance data that solvent-based products offer. And there can even be a wide range in durability among water-based stains by different manufacturers.

If the architect wanted confidence about the product's durability, he or she could have specified that the product be approved under MPI #156 Stain, Exterior, Water-Based, Semi-Transparent.

Those products have been tested for appearance, applicability, resistance to mold/biological growth and other characteristics. They have also undergone 500 hours of accelerated weathering testing with minimal color change and no blistering, chalking, checking, cracking, flaking or loss of adhesion.

Staining project

Before (left) and after (right) photos show the building repainted with a latex satin MPI 16.

While we don’t know how 500 hours of accelerated weathering correlates to real time, we do believe that third-party data verifying that a product meets this requirement gives the specifier some peace of mind—not to mention, a reasonable expectation that the product will provide at least “good” performance for its class.

The Economics of Failure

So whose fault was it? Candidates include the architect, GC, developer, painting contractor, and whoever did the final quality control on the work.

In any case, reviewing the price tag for negligence, we find:

  • Original painting contract: $50,000; and
  • Repair cost after five years (failure started after two years): $165,000.

And these are just the hard costs. The condo owners paid as well. They paid a premium price for their units. Two years later, their building in a prime neighborhood had a shoddy finish that suggested poor maintenance.

How did that affect their ability to sell their units? And how did it affect the owner’s reputation?

We surmise that it hurt. And a few extra dollars invested in the beginning could have saved the pain.

About the Author

This article was written by Paint Quality Assurance Inspector Clayton Des Roches and is reprinted with permission from the MPI (Master Painters Institute) newsletter. MPI content describes best practices for commercial, institutional, and light industrial painting.


Tagged categories: Coating failure; Coating inspection; Coatings Technology; Condominiums/High-Rise Residential; Exposure conditions; Exterior Wall Coatings; Master Painters Institute (MPI); MPI Approved Product; Stains; Wood stains

Comment from john lienert, (6/20/2014, 8:27 AM)

get what you pay for.........the painting contractor knew exactly what he was doing....screwing the customer

Comment from Mike Ferring, (6/20/2014, 9:09 AM)

The fact that this was a LEED project has little bearing on what products were used on the exterior. LEED only restricts VOCs (and now emissions) in coatings used within the building envelope (interior paints and coatings). The last section of this article, insinuating that all would have been fine if only a MPI approved product had been specified, appears slanted. There was only one coat of stain applied. The product used quite possibly could outperform the 7 approved products in MPI category #156, if the manufacturer's recommendations were followed. MPI is not a panacea that overcomes ignoring the product application instructions and system recommendations.

Comment from Gregory Stoner, (7/5/2014, 12:42 PM)

And I heard that inspection would have saved the day. We both read the same article and came out with different conclusions. Not a big surprise

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