Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Roof Over Our Heads

This is our roof, and I'm not saying it isn't a nice one.

Panoramic Pacific views as far as the eye can see, and plenty of space for enjoying them with as much or as little company as you might want.

But the flatness that makes it such a swell place for taking in the natural beauty on all sides is also where serious trouble begins during every rainy season, starting in earnest in July and lasting well into October.

The monsoon falls in buckets, and when the plummeting water stops on our roof, gravity isn't quite done with it. Most of it heads straight for the drain and eventually for the ocean just down the hill. But not all.

Quite a bit of the water that doesn't reach the drain dives merrily through chips and cracks into an invisible labyrinth of plaster and concrete capillaries that bring it eventually to our ceiling directly underneath.

There are times when anybody who has made the decision to live in a tropical paradise, especially one in which building codes are written in a foreign language, needs to understand that one has consented by implication to certain terms and conditions.

Among them is that certain sections of the plaster and paint overhead will bubble and peel every year. We understood this going in, and we've been good sports. We have mastered the shrug, the knowing eye roll, the philosophical "Well, what do you expect, it's the tropics?"

But we cultivated this easygoing state of mind in the years when we weren't actually living here during the rainy season. We only saw the aftermath when we arrived for our high season vacations, and a half day of painting and plastering was all it took to make it disappear. Sometimes it was actually done before our plane landed.

To ease whatever residual pain we still might have felt, the cost of these annual restorations is shared with our half dozen fellow condo owners. The damage, after all, arises (or descends) from our common roof, even though only the two condos on the top floor are directly affected.

We also pay only our pro rata share of our owner association's annual attempts to prevent future leaks by trying to identify the flaws in the roof and patching them. To date a cavalcade of roofers has only succeeded in moving the problem a little bit this way or that. Every year, gravity is the winner and still champion.

Now though, we know we have to up our game. Because we wanted to get Elizabeth into La Casa Azul closer to the start of the 2013 school year, we came south at the end of September, when it was still raining almost every day.

When we opened the front door we found our sofa draped in plastic and pushed toward the center of the room. Against the wall where it usually stands, water glistened on the floor. Overhead, the ceiling and wall were their usual monsoon shambles, though much worse. Drops fell steadily into the puddles below, apparently from a squall earlier in the day.

Throughout October we deployed the plastic dozens of times. We stopped thinking of the living room as a part of the house, more like a high maintenance patio.

There are all kinds of roofs, tiled, timbered or shingled, flat or pitched, tent, igloo or wickiup, but they're all expected to meet a first minimum condition, which is that they keep inclement weather off your head. Anything that can't do that isn't a roof.

What now? Our track record with local roofers isn't encouraging. Many piecemeal efforts to stop the seepage have failed. Also, a few years after our building went up in the late 1990s, the original owners' group resurfaced the whole roof, installing a "membrane" of roofing felt under the tile. There are supposed to be several layers of felt, impregnated with tar. Done properly, this should waterproof even a flat roof.

Was the one on our building done improperly? Did tropical summer heat under the tile create bubbles between felt layers or breaches at the edges or seams? Did the roofers skimp on materials or damage the membrane as they replaced the tile surface? Could one of our periodic earth tremors have weakened or overstretched it?

Clearly the physics of failure require further study, and we don't have a lot of time. Our annual association meeting is in January. Our building manager says the advice he's getting from our most recent roofer is that nothing short of sealing the entire roof will do. Even though the self-serving prescription comes from a guy who would like to be given that big job, it's hard to argue he's wrong.

But if the expense seems too great or the work isn't backed by a reliable warranty, a majority of owners may not feel like making what would look to them like a risky bet. That will leave us in the market for another of the annual patchwork solutions that could stop the drips at lower cost but so far haven't.

Doing nothing is not an option. As we know from Pam's years in real estate and mine as president of a three-building 1,400-unit cooperative apartment complex, and as all our fellow owners here have acknowledged through years of determined efforts to solve this problem, it's a settled principle of collective ownership that if one owner has a leaky roof, everybody does until it's fixed.

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