Epic Fail: The Problem of Moisture and Flooring

The most common and recurring issue leading to flooring failures is expensive to fix—but there are ways to help prevent it.

03/01/2017 By Robert Nieminen

In any commercial interiors project, flooring specification establishes the foundation upon which so much of successful design hinges. From wayfinding and safety to noise attenuation, branding, and aesthetics, there is hardly an element of an interior design program that is not either enhanced or hindered by the choice of flooring within a space. As such, the floor selection and installation process can often be the deciding factor between a beautiful, effective environment and a costly mistake.

Yet in spite of flooring’s significance within the scope of a project, too many design, construction, and building management professionals often overlook or neglect to effectively address the most commonly recurring and expensive flooring-related problem: moisture. In fact, North American commercial property owners spend an estimated $2.4 billion on remediation of structures and floor coverings as a result of moisture-related flooring failures annually. An additional $1.2 billion is spent on topical moisture treatments (of varying effectiveness) in an effort to address moisture issues prior to the floor covering being installed. These incidents add significant cost to any project in terms of project delays, unplanned expenses associated with costly topical systems, flooring replacement, and litigation, as well as the incalculable lost opportunity cost associated with business disruptions, loss of reputation, and loss of return customers.

Fortunately, there are a number of steps design and construction professionals can take to mitigate these risks, including conducting proper testing procedures, identifying and addressing areas of concern, engaging in effective communication (early) with the project team, and advance planning. This CEU will not only identify the most troublesome flooring problems created by the presence of moisture in concrete, but will also outline specific steps that design practitioners and facility executives can take to mitigate the risks of exposure to this persistent and expensive issue.

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What Could Go Wrong?

Regardless of the type of floor covering in question—be it carpet, laminate, rubber, tile, vinyl, or wood—nearly every product is affected in one way or another by the presence of excess water vapor emissions from concrete and accompanying pH issues. We’ve all seen the dreadful results of flooring products that have failed due to moisture, as the telltale signs are obvious: debonded sheet flooring, bubbles, blisters, adhesive degradation or oozing, cupping, dents or indentations, gaps between tiles, mold growth ... you name it. If left untreated, the implications to the building and its occupants can be significant, including the entire floor lifting off of the slab or a host of health and safety problems that result from the presence of mold and mildew.

Moisture can be introduced to the flooring surface from a leak in the plumbing or a natural disaster, for example, which requires professional repair and remediation to the infrastructure of the building. But for the purposes of this article, we will focus specifically on the somewhat less obvious source of moisture: the natural water vapor present in the concrete slab. The reason for the emphasis on moisture in concrete is because of a simple, but critical, fact: all concrete contains moisture, which is not static in nature. On the contrary, water vapor present in concrete slabs—both new and existing—will interact with flooring materials and the environment, and can have a detrimental effect like those scenarios described above if not taken into consideration when planning and installing the floor.

As stated previously, the industry-wide financial implications associated with moisture-related flooring failure are astronomical. Beyond the obvious price of purchasing new materials and labor, there are a number of other factors to consider when calculating the true cost of replacing a flooring system due to excess moisture. For example, once moisture-related problems surface, locating the source of moisture may require the service of a construction professional and/or a health inspector to determine the extent of the damage to the space. Permits or other fees may also be involved depending on local regulations.

More importantly, consider the fact that water damage may not be limited to the floor itself, but may have compromised other vital building materials such as studs, floor support beams, and sheetrock. Regardless of the scope of the damage, site remediation, replacement materials, and labor also need to be factored into the equation.

Learning Objectives

Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through the pages of the magazine. Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this issue’s article. To earn 1 learning unit (LU) as approved by AIA, read the article, then log in to take the corresponding exam.

After reading this article, you should be able to:

  • Identify problems leading to flooring failure resulting from the presence of excess moisture.

  • Name two areas of concern as it relates to concrete and moisture.

  • Outline a plan of action for preventing or remediating concrete moisture issues.

  • Explain the difference between two moisture test methods for concrete used today.

Additionally, environmental issues and health hazards may result from the presence of moisture, which must be addressed before repair and remediation take place. Mold and mildew have been linked to a number of respiratory and other health-related issues in occupants who have been exposed to them, and HVAC systems that have been operating in the area where mold and mildew have been found will need to be inspected and possibly cleaned by specialized contractors.

Finally, if moisture-related flooring problems take place in a space that is occupied, the costs and complexity of the remediation are compounded. Operations may have to be temporarily suspended or relocated, while furniture and fixtures may need to be replaced depending upon the extent of the damage.

Clearly, given the potential failures and costs associated, it is in the best interest of design and construction professionals to take proper steps to ensure that the investment in new or upgraded floors is protected. In the following sections, we’ll explain how.

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