Structural defects can vary in their cause, severity, and consequences, but they happen regularly in the construction industry for a range of reasons.
There are different types of defects that occur, but they’re usually classified as either patent or latent. A patent defect is a problem that is easily noticeable with little effort from an observer – such as a surface issue like uneven plastering that’s a fairly quick fix.
On the other hand, latent defects are more serious, as they can go under the radar for months or even years. By the time the effects of a latent structural fault are making themselves known, the unseen damage could be severe enough to pose a significant safety risk, to the point of requiring critical repairs to prevent the building from partially or completely collapsing.
Structural repairs can be extremely costly – not just in terms of the actual repair work, but also the litigation involved in determining who is at fault and who needs to pay up. Reducing the risks of this happening in the first place is the best way to go, but to do this, you need to know all about common latent defects and how latent defects insurance can help.
What causes latent defects in buildings?
Latent defects in buildings can result from deficiencies at any stage of the process, from failures in design and construction to a lack of proper supervision and inspections. They can occur suddenly and early, like a water pipe bursting, or take years to be noticed, such as foundations shifting slowly.
Some defects may have relatively minor consequences, while others can cause severe structural problems to develop over time, and pose serious health and safety risks to anyone using the building. Here are the main reasons, and parties responsible, for common latent defects:
Failures in the early design stages of a construction project will have a knock-on effect on the integrity of the completed structure. If a problem goes right back to the initial technical design, the entire structure may need rebuilding, with the architects and/or engineers at fault.
Their scope includes providing building plans in line with local and national regulations for health and safety standards, and calculating the necessary loads, layouts, and materials based on the site conditions (such as soil type, weather exposure, and intended usage).
Design deficiencies can result in issues such as collapsing roofs and walls, weak foundations, improper drainage, and structural movement due to movement of the soil. Submitting plans for Building Regulations approval can help to avoid these issues.
It’s possible for builders to follow the design and structural recommendations, but fail to use the correct materials – usually in an attempt to save money by using cheaper resources. This can result in anything from water ingress to overloaded foundations if the right support isn’t there.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that construction workers aren’t aware they’ve been supplied with faulty materials, as they seem to function just fine when installed. However, inferior quality can lead materials to deteriorate much faster until they’re obviously not fit for purpose.
Material defects may be the manufacturer’s fault, but the person responsible for the work – be it a developer or self-builder – may also be at fault for not carrying out surveys and testing the installed materials in compliance with Building Control recommendations.
Even the best building plans and materials are only as good as the construction workers using them. If they don’t follow the design properly, or make mistakes in the methodology of one step or another, faulty construction can cause structural issues down the line.
Defective workmanship is one of the most common causes for latent defects, as workers may not realise they’ve done something wrong – or may intentionally do a sub-standard job to speed things along – and the fault can remain hidden for any length of time before manifesting.
For example, failure to install damp-proofing or insulation properly may not be immediately obvious when buying a property, but can later become evident during the first winter in the building, when rising damp, condensation, and high heating bills start to add up.
Examples of common latent defects
Latent structural defects commonly occur in the foundations, walls, and roofs of buildings. The defect itself is typically hidden from view and may not become noticeable for a long time.
There are many signs to look out for that may be the manifestation of a deeper problem, which should be investigated and addressed as soon as possible.
Here are some of the most common latent defects in buildings, and how they typically manifest:
- Poorly designed or laid foundations – rising, sinking, or horizontal movement due to shifting soil, or cracking walls and sticking doors and windows due to overloading.
- Insufficient reinforcement – lack of masonry wall ties (for example) causing cracks and possible collapse of overloaded walls.
- Defective waterproofing – resulting in water ingress, rising damp, mould, draughts, etc.
- Incorrectly installed roofing – leading to damp, rot, sagging, partial or total collapse, and potential pest infestations.
- Faulty drainage systems – leaks and build-ups can cause frequent damp, mould, and indoor floods, sometimes presenting as bulging floors.
Latent defects are often caused by a combination of subsequent failures throughout the process, but the sooner they’re identified, the faster they can be repaired before the damage becomes too great.
In some cases, signs that point to structural defects can also be caused by operational or maintenance failures on the part of the building owner – such as not ventilating or heating the building properly – which is why it’s essential to have them assessed by a qualified inspector.
Minimising risks with latent defects insurance
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to prevent or avoid latent defects completely. Due to the complicated nature of construction work and the various parties involved in each stage, there’s always a risk that someone or something will go amiss – however big or small.
The best way to minimise the risk of latent defects developing in your structure – aside from using developers with robust planning and monitoring practices – is to set up latent defects insurance before the work even begins.
This type of warranty protects the owner of the building against latent defects by ensuring that inspections are carried out at every key stage, catching potential problems before they have a chance to develop and correcting the course of action to complete a robust structure.
Along with easily identifying patent defects, latent defects insurance can reduce the risk of overlooked issues coming to light later, giving the property owner a means of recourse without having to prove that a certain party was negligent. This is especially useful if builders or contractors go out of business between finishing your building and the manifestation of a latent defect.
It’s good practice for the developer or builder to take out a latent defects insurance policy which can then be passed onto the buyer, but the buyer can also set one up if it hasn’t been done yet. Either way, it’s best to get this cover in place as soon as possible.