Common Causes For Residential Building Failures

This document has been written to give clients of Property Protect an understanding of the most common types of building defects that can be found in buildings whilst doing an AS 4349.1 inspection. This list gives the reader a basic outline of the more common defects hoodpay and the reader should be aware that there are literally thousands of forms of building defects. The items which we have listed are the more common ones only.


The report lists some of the more common residential building failures including the causes based on the case studies carried out by the writer as a licensed Builder. The writer has also included some of the causes of the failures.

The purpose of this report is to give the reader a summary of the types of residential building failures and the suggested remedies to these defects.

This report is presented as a case study based redribbonlive on the experience and personal records of the author over the last 15 years as a licensed Builder.

A large proportion of structural building failures listed in this report have in my opinion been caused by the mismanagement of stormwater around houses leading to movement in the homes. The remainder of the failures are caused by poor building practices and or poor maintenance.


The most common forms of Building failure noted during AS 4349.1 house inspections by the writer in Adelaide are as follows.

Slab Edge wetting
This is the horizontal ingress of moisture and salts in solution from the soil which enter into footing edges through the capillary action (Suction caused by the concrete) of the concrete. It is caused by a number of factors including, Concretors pushing down the Fortecon membrane with edge forms prior to pouring a floor slab, relatively poor cement concrete in the footing (Many engineers have called for 32 MPA concrete to resist the ingress of salts in lieu of 20 to 25 MPA currently used), ristomanager Concrete over pours caused when concretors edge forms are not placed low enough to stop a horizontal over pour which can lead to water ponding on the top face of the over pour creating a pool of water. The final cause is the lack of a plastic membrane to be placed between the paving and the footing edge.

The damage that can be caused though this problem includes, mould and rotting to the underside of floor coverings internally and the fretting of the concrete through the salt attacking the cement matrix through a hydraulic action both internally and externally. (Salt crystals expand inside the concrete matrix thereby causing it to fret and crack).

Rising Damp in walls
This is a similar problem to Salt damp detailed below. The main difference is that Salt damp is generally a 90 to 100% break down of the Damp Course in the wall whilst rising dampness is a partial failure of the Damp Course and the partial failure generally means that the damage to the masonry MATRIX CRACK wall is not as bad as Salt damp. There is a good chance that rising dampness may be found in most pre 1950 homes and the Rising dampness could be limited to erosion of the mortar joints by as little as 1 to 2 mm from its original face. The treatment is the same is Salt damp.

The client should be aware however that in most cases the rising dampness is not treated as the erosion of the masonry is very slow and it may have taken 50 years for the mortar to erode 4mm deep from the face of the brickwork. I would advise clients to monitor this if the damage is not major.

Salt Damp in Walls
This is caused through the vertical ingress of moisture and salts into a wall which can lead to the wall fretting and not being able to take structural loads. The damage caused to the masonry is from the salt crystals inside the masonry expanding leading to the bricks and or mortar fretting. In some cases the salt damp can render the masonry unstable.

It is caused by a number of factors including the full breakdown of the damp course (Pre 1910 homes had pitch or bitumen between the footing and bricks and this becomes brittle with age), paving and or render bridging the damp course also causes this.

Breacher piece failures in showers This is where the breacher piece fails through metal fatigue via thousands of heat cycles inside the wall (This is where the hot and cold water meet inside the wall in the shower). Water then flows into the walls. Generally a breacher piece will fail in a shower every 25 to 30 years or so and it is quite common. A tell tale sign of a breacher which has been replaced is two off different tiles to the walls of the shower.

During inspections carried out by Property Protect the company carries out a survey of the wet area walls in its premium report using an electronic moisture meter to identify this defect. High moisture levels to the walls next to the shower generally indicate that it is leaking.

Brick Growth
Cracks in walls Older homes can have brick growth cracks which usually occur at the end of a wall in a vertical plane. Clay bricks will actually expand as they are porous. If a house does not have control joints in the wall the bricks can exert a compression load on one another leading to cracking.

Terracotta roof tiles
Fired clay roof tiles will fret when exposed to moisture for long periods of time and this generally occurs at the laps of the tiles. The tiles can also fret in seaside environments due to salt attacking the tiles. It is not uncommon to see these roof tiles fretting to the laps on the underside of the roof tiles. As these tiles age they can also become very brittle and are easily cracked.

In most instances when the tiles are fretting they will need replacing within the short term. Concrete cancer in footings and precast concrete lintels. This occurs when the steel bars inside the concrete rust due to moisture/salt/Carbonation ingress into the concrete. As the bars rust they expand causing the concrete to crack. This can cause cracking in the surrounding concrete elements. The client should be aware that it is very expensive to repair this defect.

Tree damage
Although some tree roots can cause hydraulic damage from the roots physically moving the building element, most Building failures are caused by the tree withdrawing moisture from the soil. This then leads to the soil contracting which can cause Building elements to drop or move.

In a large number of inspections over the years the writer has observed walls and footings dropping or moving due to soil contraction when a tree is too close to the base of a wall. In most instances the writer would advise clients to keep large trees well away from the house. If this is not possible an impermeable root fabric can be used to stop the tree roots growing under a house.

Stormwater damage and Soil movement
This is caused when gutters, stormwater pipes and downpipes overflow/leak causing the soil around and under the footing to be saturated. Once the soil becomes saturated it then loses its ability to take load and the soil can collapse leading to the Building element dropping or moving. In some instances reactive soils can expand also leading to cracking. This then places uplifting loads on a house which can lead to significant cracking and movement as well.

In Adelaide reactive (fine soils such as clays) can be found at the base of the foothills where fine silts run off the hills. The fine reactive soils can generally be found in Rostrevor, Athelstone and Campbelltown.

Lack of Paving around the external perimeter. This can cause expansion and contraction in the soil around the footing leading to movement in the Building. ie Expansion in soil after heavy rains and contraction in the soil in the summer. In some instances the contraction of the soil under the footing (on the external portion) can lead to the footing rotating on the external side as it drops. The author has seen many instances of this occurring and this leads to the whole wall leaning out or in. (Bows out at the base and then leans in at the top). In these instances the wall generally needs to be pulled down and rebuilt.

In many of the Property Protect reports you may see a note detailing seal gaps at the footing paving junction. Many houses inspected by this company have gaps at this junction and this can allow moisture to enter both under the house and also under the paving. Where the water enters under both elements it can erode the soil away and or cause the soil to either expand or contract. In this instance the gap should be sealed off with a flexible sealant.

Older style wiring.
The author has seen electrical failures from the following during inspections over the years., -Canvas coated and vulcanised rubber power cables. In the first instance the canvas can be eaten by rodents or just physically ages leading to the cables being exposed which can result in fires. The same can happen with older rubber cables which can split.

-Power cables not in conduit in contact with steel frames. I.e. If the cables are damaged the frame becomes live. A number of houses over the years have been inspected by Property Protect and found to have new wiring in all areas of the house but not inside the existing hard plaster. During the premium house inspections this company uses a high powered torch to identify wall patches and chases to the walls. An existing house without wall chases above the light switches and power points would generally indicate that the original wiring has not been removed. In this instance Property Protect would advise the client to engage an electrician to carry out a survey of the house to confirm if the wiring is original to these areas. Hard plaster cannot be removed during a house inspection as the vendor would not generally approve this.

Leaking pipes in wet areas This is generally caused through corrosion of lead or galvanised steel waste pipes under or in floor slabs. As the pipes corrode this leads to a leak which can wash away sub fill in a floor leading to the floor and or footing dropping.

This is very expensive to repair as generally the pipes are cast into the floor slabs in the wet areas and they need to be jack hammered up. This is a common defect as a large number of houses in pre 1970 properties have galvanised steel pipes cast into the floor slabs. For these steel pipes it is not a matter of if but when the pipes need to be replaced . Having stated this steel pipes although not draining as well as they should do can function for many years until funds can be found to replace them.

If you have steel waste and or water supply pipes in a pre 1970 house and you are contemplating a wet area renovation with new tiles etc we would strongly advise you to remove the steel pipes prior to the If you renovate the wet areas without removing the steel pipes a failure of the pipes could result in you having to re renovate the wet area at great cost again!

Cracks/Movement in walls
Movement in any home is hard to control. In most instances cracks are caused by changes in soil moisture levels around the footing although trees can also cause significant movement. Horizontal cracks can occur in walls if a window lintel sags or if a footing/wall drops.

Diagonal cracks radiating away from window and or door heads are the most common form of cracks. Lateral movement cracks can occur with a shear load if a footing rotates (Drops) on one side. Due to Adelaide’s dry climate soil shrinkage related cracking in homes is causing many problems. This leads to footing settlement (Dropping of the footing) and cracks in all building elements.

Roof frame failures
The first type of failure is for an older style roof which does not have under purlins and or struts. In this instance the failure is generally from the frame not being able to take the dead loads from the weight of roof tiles. It is common to see the frame sag heavily and split and this instance repairs may need to be carried out. If a roof frame is sagging from the weight of the roof tiles and the timber frame is not splitting or showing any signs of stress our advice to you is to closely monitor the roof frame.

In the second instance the writer has seen heavy splitting to timber around defective gang nail trusses manufactured in the 1970’s. In some instances the trusses could not take roof loads and sagged.


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