Interview: ‘The Undercover Contractor’ talks about how to prevent construction catastrophes

By Jenny LescohierJuly 19, 2021

Matthew DiBara of DiBara Masonry - otherwise known as The Undercover Contractor - talks about ways to keep concrete structures safe over the long haul

The sudden collapse last month of a 12-story condominium complex in Surfside, Fla leaving at least 97 people dead has the world wondering how such a tragedy could have happened.

The 135-unit building was only 40 years old, after all, but according to reports, signs of deterioration in the lowest levels suggested problems had existed for years and the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association was grappling with how to pay for the necessary repairs. Sadly, while solutions and their costs were debated and reviewed, the damage to the underlying structure had grown past the point of no return and a portion of the building fell to the ground in the middle of the night while most residents were sleeping.

Reports indicate experts believe there was a problem with the construction of the pool deck which sat atop the building’s parking garage. Over time, leaks in the concrete damaged the structural integrity of the foundation, which to make matters worse, was built upon the sandy coastal shores just north of Miami Beach and withstood regular abuse from the region’s tropical storms and salty air.

Many are now asking what this means to the many buildings still standing along Florida’s coast, as well as those yet to be constructed. What role can contractors play in helping to ensure their safety?

To get insight into these questions and more, we talked with Matthew DiBara, owner of DiBara Masonry, a fourth-generation contractor in Los Angeles specializing in repairs, restorations, and new installations of stone, block, brick, concrete and pavers.

DiBara brings his family’s 100-year history in construction to The Undercover Contractor podcast series, which he founded earlier this year with the goal of ending corruption in the industry by educating property owners. He’s also written an upcoming book by the same title.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: Tell us about your work.

Matthew DiBara: I’m part of a fourth-generation family business and I’m also ‘The Undercover Contractor,’ which is about helping property owners by passing along the things we’ve learned over 100 years.

At DiBara Masonry, we do structural consultations for repairs, renovations and restorations. My company does inspections of the kind you would do if you had an issue like the one in the parking garage down in Surfside, Fla. I’m very familiar with the conditions they found there - stress cracks, spalling concrete, vertical sealing, overhead patching, and so on.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What might you see during an inspection that would tip you off to a situation like the one in Florida?

DiBara: Cracking in the concrete; usually, it’s the ceiling we’re most concerned with. When you’re dealing with pool decks, we see very fine cracks or minimal damage on the surface where the cause is, but we’ll find a lot of issues when we look up at the ceiling from the level below. In addition to large cracks, we’ll often see concrete spalling, rust streaks from where the rebar is getting exposed to moisture, as well as white mineral deposits. These things are scary.

I’ve had to tell clients we need to do a full structural analysis because what I see here is very dangerous. They know if the results are unfavorable, it could cost them millions of dollars. Even if the results aren’t terrible, the price tag could still be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Often, a condo association board is involved and obviously, they don’t want to face that, so that’s when we sometimes hear, ‘We’ll get back to you’ but we never hear from them again.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What actually fails in most cases? The rebar or the concrete, or something else?

DiBara: It comes down to thermal expansion. You have exposed surfaces that get a lot of sunlight, which means a lot of expansion and contraction which can cause very small cracks, if the structure wasn’t designed or constructed properly.

Those cracks allow water to get in direct contact with the rebar, causing it to rust. When rebar rusts, it expands with massive force, and that’s what pops the concrete. The rusted rebar expands the crack, which in turn allows more water in, which makes the rebar rust even more. Once the rebar rusts enough, it decays like a cavity in your tooth, and loses strength. The diameter of the rebar might then be half of what it’s supposed to be, seriously compromising its structural integrity.

But really, the root problem usually comes down to one or both of two things: Defective or less-than-ideal construction, and deferred maintenance, which can result from a lack of clarity. Often, the general contractors that build these structures don’t convey to the owner what is needed to properly maintain the building. That’s why I’m a proponent of inspections every one or two years, because then the owner knows what’s happening and there are benchmarks for comparison.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: Is there anything that can be done to prevent problems or stop damage once it’s discovered?

DiBara: We recommend an inspection at least every two years, and for owners to stay on top of maintenance. It gets unbelievably expensive when structural maintenance is deferred. If you ignore problems when they start, sometimes the damage - and the cost to fix it - grows exponentially.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What are some examples of maintenance procedures that can make a significant difference in the long-term safety of a structure?

DiBara: First, there needs to be clarity around what needs to be done and when, and that starts with regular and frequent inspections. Then we can provide a reasonable timeline. For example, if we find a concern, we can tell the owner we believe this issue is an emergency, or this should be done in zero to six months, or within one year or five years. We can provide perspective so they can run proper budgets.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What’s an example of something you really don’t want to see during an inspection?

DiBara: Concrete really shouldn’t crack, but it’s one thing to see cracks in a floor and another to see them in a ceiling. People will say, ‘but when I’m at Home Depot, I see cracks all over the floor, isn’t that a problem?’ That’s called slab on grade, meaning the concrete sits on dirt, and it’s not nearly as dangerous to find cracks there as it is in a structural slab that’s getting direct sunlight and moisture. A lot of what we’re looking for are signs of rust… brown stains and white mineral deposits, which suggest water is in contact with the rebar.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What can be done in those cases? Is the structure beyond repair?

DiBara: If a building is designed and engineered properly, engineers will sometimes suggest cracks be ground and filled with a flexible caulking. Or if a crack isn’t too severe, they might recommend an epoxy injection to ‘weld’ those sections back together. Other times, when there’s a sporadic failure, you have to cut out certain areas and patch them.

In more severe cases, if there’s a localized failure in a concentrated area, it might be necessary to build additional support in the form of another post or column.

The key is timeliness. I once did an evaluation that showed $30,000 worth of filling and caulking was needed, but the owner put off the repairs and within a year and a half, those cracks grew, let in moisture and suddenly the repairs went from $30,000 to $650,000. A lot of owners think of these defects as a linear progression, but it’s not. It’s actually exponential.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What is your advice to all stakeholders?

DiBara: The key takeaway is to confront things head on and get as much knowledge as you can. Don’t mess around when it comes to structural stuff. It’s tough because it’s never pretty; owners spend all this money to fix structural problems and the result can actually look worse.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: Is there any government oversight on this?

DiBara: No, commercial improvement repairs are the final frontier, truly the Wild West. Basically, inspections are done when structures are built and then there’s no clear handoff to the owner in terms of maintenance. People know more about the maintenance of their refrigerator.

Once again, doing an inspection every two years might cost $5,000 if it’s a large structure, but it really is a situation where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You have a timeline on paper and can keep an eye on how things progress.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What can be done in markets where, like south Florida, there’s severe weather and the elements to contend with?

DiBara: There’s a silver lining to every unfortunate circumstance and although the building collapse in Surfside is tragic, it opens up a conversation. What I’m hoping is it’s going to make contractors be more vocal about what they see on their jobs.

We need to educate both sides – contractors and owners – about the need for regular structural inspections and maintenance. There are no shortcuts when you’re dealing with the structure of a building.

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