1995: The 9/11 of Home Construction

Posted on 09. Nov, 2014 by in Older Homes

Bare Minimum: A house built to code is the worst house you can legally build

When researching my next inspection I always check the build date.  If it’s between 1978 to 1995 I’ll be on the lookout for questionable workmanship and defective products.  1995 represents a turning point, a time when established presumptions about how to build houses proved inadequate for new products and updated efficiency requirements.  The change was not as immediate or catastrophic as 9/11.  Yet 1995 represents as well as any other year a benchmark; a time when old ways failed to serve new needs.

A series of events; a wide-open profit-driven market, new code requirements for tight, insulated homes, defective products and un-informed construction methods culminated in a series of legal judgements. The ensuing storm of financial loss continues to this day.  Notable failures in Metro Atlanta were Polybutylene water pipe (PB), hardboard lap siding, particularly Louisiana Pacific Innerseal brand, and EIFS (Exterior Insulated Finish Systems), commonly referred to as Synthetic Stucco.  These products dominated their markets in the go-go years of Atlanta’s suburban expansion.

By the early 90’s inspectors knew something wasn’t right.  We were searching for the answers to why“They don’t build them like they used to” yet our suspicions had to wait for an accumulation of evidence, research and, ultimately legal action, for confirmation.  During the great Atlanta suburban expansion builders and manufacturers ruled the market.  When inspectors raised doubts they were viewed as a nuisance (see link below).  Manufacturers claimed, correctly in some cases, defects were the result of improper installation.  Moreover, material failures were exacerbated by a lack of understanding about Building Science-the interplay of environment, materials and use in buildings.

The frequency and magnitude of failures 
occurring within such a short time period indicated a larger problem. Homeowners wanting third-party review of new construction were the catalyst for the formation of GAHI, the Georgia Association of Home Inspectors.  GAHI membership requires code certification.

My research led to an understanding of How Homes Work.  Some will remember the class I taught of the same name.  I learned that heat and moisture control-especially in the humid Southeast-is critical.  And that composite building materials used in the 80s and 90s fail more readily when exposed to heat and moisture in newer, more tightly built and insulated homes.

Managing risk: PB pipe might last a long time….but then it might not.

Here’s a brief outline of PB pipe, Hardboard Siding and EIFS.  For a more detailed discussion of these topics review the links below.

Polybutylene Water Piping
PB pipe was tested using fresh water.  Most utilities add chlorine to disinfect water.  Over time chlorine causes the pipe to become brittle.  Pipe failures occur where the pipe is stressed:  at improperly crimped joints, where it enters the home, is not adequately supported or subject to vibration.  Qest, Vanguard and Shell are common brand names.

Slow Rot: Hardboard siding failing at nail pockets and bottom edge.

Hardboard Siding
Hardboard siding is a thin stiff sheet made of compressed sawdust, wood pulp or wood chips bound together with a plastic adhesive or resin under heat and pressure.  Cut into boards it was used as exterior siding.  When exposed to repeated wet-dry cycles it begins to swell, especially at the bottom edge and nail penetrations.  Painting slows, but does not stop, failure.

 

EIFS failure Trifecta: Un-sealed EIFS, un-sheltered wall, heat and moisture sensitive OSB wood panel sheathing

EIFS

Synthetic stucco is a type of building exterior wall cladding system that provides exterior walls with an insulated finished surface and waterproofing in an integrated composite material system.  Failure occurs when water is trapped behind the cladding.  Face-sealed systems depend on keeping water out by carefully caulking and sealing entry points at the roof and walls.  Poorly sealed EIFS led to significant wall framing damage.  Installation and maintenance are critical-failed or misapplied caulking being the most common source of damage.  Building codes were changed to require a pathway for water to drain from behind the siding without damaging walls.  EIFS retrofits improve flashing and caulking.

Despite builder resistance the private inspectors’ role in construction is now the norm. We’re both striving to satisfy a more demanding public.
http://tk-jk.net/judi_dan_archive/aboutinspections/lament.html

Polybutylene PB
http://inspectapedia.com/plumbing/PB_Piping.php http://www.ashireporter.org/HomeInspection/Articles/Take-Another-Look-at-Polybutylene-Plumbing/955

Hardboard Siding
http://www.atlantapros.com/home-buyers/defective-siding-products.htmhttp://www.sidingsolutions.com/pages/classtat.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisiana-Pacific

EIFS
http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/digests/bsd-146-eifs-problems-and-solutions

An End of an Era and Beginning of a New Millennium
Product and workmanship failures reached their apex in 1995. 
The construction industry responded with reformulated products, informed construction practice, revised codes, and a deeper understanding of the complexities of building science.  Though these changes are not equal in immediate effect to those made after 9/11 they are moving residential construction toward a healthier, more sustainable future.  Atlanta’s own http://www.earthcraft.org/ is one of several programs leading the way forward.

Check out my youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/ecoinspector

Lend a hand to Dan Curl/Comprehensive Home Inspections at Google Review
https://plus.google.com/105379744050065013937/about

 


2014 So Far: The Good, the Bad, and the Future

Posted on 03. Oct, 2014 by in Architecture, Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Energy, Ethics, New Homes, Older Homes

The end of spring/summer real estate season is time to catch up on personal business, analyze trends and plan ahead.

Armed with flashlight, screwdriver and little gray cells here’smy look around the housing industry

Mega-trends

I’ve worked for up-and-coming multi-degreed professionals, investors, software engineers/designers/managers, medical professionals, first-time buyers, retirees, divorced and widowed persons; everyone except my main source of income; the middle-middle class.   Many homes are still underwater…. there are mega-reasons it’s taking Atlanta so long to recover:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/28/how-the-recession-turned-middle-class-jobs-into-low-wage-jobs/  

Commons place with View

Atlanta

Accessible Atlanta is fact, and not just with Millennials.  Walkable Urban Places, WalkUPs, are where the money is: http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2013/10/03/new-report-reveals-historic-shift-in-real-estate-demand-in-atlanta-ga/

Codes and Safety: avoid the 200F wall

Contractors, Permits and Appraisals 

Most inspection defects aren’t the fault of reputable contractors-they’re caused by homeowners who believe they can do it with just a click of the mouse and a trip to the big box DIY store. http://www.freep.com/story/sponsor-story/hire-it-done/2014/09/26/contractors-are-people-too/16258659/

Un-licensed homeowners, flippers and jackleg contractors cost morein the long run.  Here’s a list of trades requiring licensure.  http://www.contractors-license.org/ga/Georgia.html

Revised appraisal rules taking locally established professionals out of their literal areas of expertise, are a mixed blessing
http://realestate.msn.com/article.aspx?cp-documentid=21080260

Licensed plumbers know sewer should drain downhill

Water Conservation, Energy Efficiency, Healthy Home

The oft-misunderstood DeKalb Water Conservation Ordinancediscussed in detail:  http://dekalbrealtors.com/realtor-tools/

Energy improvements offer above-market returns, not to mention healthier air and better comfort.  Here’s a link to certified energy contractors http://www.bpi.org/tools_locator.aspx?associateTypeID=CT 

Whole-house dehumidifier at Villa Curl also provides a dedicated source of fresh air

 

 

 

 

 

Builders get the first part of the “Build it tight, ventilate it right”equation, they’ve yet to master the second.  Here’s a good first step to understand how to breathe easy.
http://www.southface.org/ez/media/gapoweriaqbooklet.pdf

 

Next time:  History Lesson:  Why 1995 was the 9/11 for Atlanta housing.

Put in a good word for Dan Curl and Comprehensive Home Inspections at Google Review
https://plus.google.com/105379744050065013937/about

 

Letters Home

Posted on 16. Aug, 2014 by in Architecture, Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Energy, Ethics, General, Healthy Home, Heating and Air-Conditioning, Nature, New Homes, Older Homes

Moore’s Law in practice: Duct system zone control motherboards that used to cost 9000 are now 400

Inspectors typically work Point of Sale transactions.  A lot of what we do gets lost in the buyers rush to negotiate, move and settle. Here are my reasons to schedule aMaintenance Inspection every 6-9 years.

The science of how we build and live in homes is changing.  Materials, methods and lifestyle all have an impact on function and durability.

 

The Whole Enchilada: Electric code now requires upgraded mains, panel, breakers, wiring and fixtures. Main panel should have been moved during this kitchen renovation

IT makes for affordable components and systems. There’s no reason to assume that the way we build homes will remain unchanged while the world around us is speeding along at the rate of Moore’s Law

Because of bureaucratic hassle obtaining a building permit in metro Atlanta may be considered an option, not a requirement.  Most Building Codes are updated every three years.  Significant codes changes respond to major disasters or building component failures.

 

Dirty cooling fins reduce efficiency and appliance life

A home built or renovated to code is worst structure you can legally build. Go below that minimum at your own risk.  Exceed it and you’ll benefit in the long run.

Systems and components last an average 6-15 years.  Simple and easy maintenance extends service life

Latent, long-developing defects due to sunlight, heat and moisture are less noticeable and, eventually, more costly to repair

 

 

Moisture wicking through foundation wall makes a moldy basement and reduced wall strength

Additions, renovations and energy upgrades alter the movement of heat, air and moisture inside the home. Good time for an inspection.  Not going to move?  Don’t count on it.  I inspect Never-gonna-move-again homes all the time.

The culture of how we build communities is changing:  http://wabe.org/post/what-do-you-do-broken-suburb.  Keeping up with the Jones is more about re-sizing and lifestyle options.

 

 

 

Not Good Housekeeping. Are you using your mechanical closet for storage?

Lost in Translation:  “the idea that houses can loved and beautiful…..has been reduced to a grim business of facts and figures, an uphill struggle against the relentless urge of technology and bureaucracy, in which human feeling has almost been forgotten.”  Buildings, especially homes, should speak the character and aspirations of their owners.  A home can be more than just new countertops.

Homeowners, builders and realtors may not know all that is, and is becoming, aboutHow Homes Work. That’s my job, let me help.

 

 

House-smart realtor Peggy Desiderio noticed a knothole-split deck stair stringer

Applied Building Science. Adjacent crawl vent feeds moist 93F air onto a 55F supply air duct. The result: 100% saturated subfloor and mold

New methods, durable materials. Moisture barrier and weather-resistant stainless steel exhaust housing

 

 

Postcards from the field

Posted on 30. Jul, 2014 by in Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Energy, Healthy Home, Heating and Air-Conditioning, Older Homes

These recent intown Atlanta inspections put my understanding of building science to the test

Nowhere to run: organic clays do not drain

1.  Poor Drainage

A reputable builder purchased mid-block properties in an older neighborhood.  Local ordinance required he dispose of roof and surface moisture on-site, not to the storm sewer.  He built a comfortable, durable and efficient Earthcraft home.  This property and adjacent lots contain large amounts of organic clay soil. Organic clays do not disperse water, they adsorb it.  My client has a wonderful house and a permanently wet yard.  The builder has a problem:  he’s built himself into a wet corner.

Spliced knob and tube wiring is a fire hazard. Bathroom exhaust is not vented outside. Note that exhaust is directed through the recessed light fixture and further degrades the cloth-covered wiring

2.  Faulty Wiring

While inspecting an infill home in East Atlanta the A/C circuit breaker kicked off.  When reset it kicked again.  I’ve seen the tripped breaker, flickering light, crazed electronic poltergiest before:  voltage drop from loose service main conductors caused a compensatory spike in amperage tripping the breaker.  A bootleg tap (unapproved connection to the public power supply), proved to be the poltergiest.  Make your electrician pull a permit for major improvements.

 

 

Amateur repairs below the chimney were hidden by drywall. Unless properly supported roof framing in this area will eventually fail

3.  Roof Leaks:  The Chimney Cricket and the Soft Wall 

A chimney cricket is a small false roof built behind a chimney on the main roof to divert rainwater away from the chimney.  While inspecting I found a cricket, new metal crown, newer shingles and new siding.  All good, right?  After closing the my client’s painter noted “soft” drywall at the room below the chimney.  Further investigation revealed amateur wall framing repair.

 

This furnace vent connector is blocked by fallen masonry where it enters the chimney compromising both function and occupant safety

4.  Unsafe Heating System

Equate gas appliance operation to a fire: everything’s good as long as there’s plenty of combustion air to feed the flames and an open flue to disperse the byproducts of combustion.  Finished basements rarely provide enough combustion air-especially when gas appliances are closeted.  Gas appliances vented into unlined chimneys are readily blocked by fallen bricks.  The solution for both is to install direct-vent appliances.  They’re designed to draw combustion air from and vent exhaust to the outside.

Moisture from the unvented dryer affects comfort and health: high moisture levels are uncomfortable and conducive to mold growth

5.  Poorly Maintained

We’re all guilty of procrastination when it comes to home maintenance.  Left undone deferred repairs will not only kill a sale, they often lead to expensive repairs.  Always change your furnace filter-when it gets dirty. Install the 4″ pleated fabric type for best results.   Clean your dryer vent inside and outside.  Never vent the dryer inside or under your house.  Replace plastic dryer vents with metal, they’re a fire hazard.  Don’t vent dryers near your A/C unit.

 

 

 

20 years after copper laterals were replaced the vertical galvanized fixture legs are failing

6.  Minor Structural Damage

Understand the redundant method of wood construction:  each repetitive framing member supports and is dependent upon the others around it.   One rafter or joist failure may not lead to an immediate system failure yet progressive failure will occur if the damaged structure is not repaired.  Make sure your contractor understands construction-no amateurs!

 

The lack of external pressure reduction valve and internal thermal expansion device coupled with a rusted-shut water heater safety valve is a potentially explosive situation!

7.  Plumbing Problems

When galvanized piping fails plumbers replace the laterals-the horizontal sections of piping below the home.  They do not replace the main line or or vertical legs (shorter sections run up through walls) unless they’ve failed.  And fail they will, 20 years on.  I called out compromised flow and fouled faucets in an otherwise acceptable 94 year old Virginia Highlands bungalow.Rusted-shut temperature and pressure relief valves are an all too common and potentially explosive safety issue.  Manage water piping pressure with reduction valves, thermal expansion devices and water hammer arrestors. And make sure your water heater relief valve is operable.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMDTEjJUImw

 

 

8.  Window Woes

After the painter has gone verify at least one window per bedroom is operable.  If there’s a fire you need to get out quick.  Windowsills are by definition exposed to heat and moisture.  Keep them in good repair, especially newer finger-jointed lumber. Double-pane window seals fail faster when exposed to direct sunlight.  There are several lawsuits pending against manufacturers of vinyl and metal-clad wood windows, they rot.  Give your window frames a squeeze.

9.  Inadequate Ventilation

Build it tight but don’t forget to ventilate it right  Whole house and thermostatic exhaust fans are out-they create negative pressure within the building. Install passive roof exhaust like ridge vents and turbines. Negative pressure induced when running exhaust fans, especially in tightly built homes, should have a replacement mechanism.  Here’s one solution: http://www.aircycler.com/

There is no provision to replace air combustion and makeup air and the mechanical closet is stuffed with Volatile Organic Compounds (paint cans)

10.  Environmental Hazards

My client, who had a history of respiratory sensitivity, decided she didn’t want  to purchase a home that made her sick, no matter how nice it looked.  My analysis revealed inadequate ventilation and the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds in a tightly built, beautifully appointed Brownstone.

A comprehensive, whole-house approach informed by Building Science gives me the tools I need to assess the condition of your home, old or new, big or small.  Reach me at www.dancurlhomeinspector.com 

Ice, Snow and Old Houses

Posted on 18. Feb, 2014 by in Architecture, Building Science, Intown Neighborhoods, Older Homes

Snowy #2 Tee at Candler Park Golf Course

Notes on Stormageddon and the Decatur Old House Fair

In my capacity as an engineering technician I’ve learned to evaluate storm damage.  Keep me in mind if you’ve got tree-on-the-house.

I spoke to an arborist who told me many firms do not charge to assess trees.  They make their money on surgery, trimming and removal.

Public adjusters assist homeowners by ensuring hazard insurance companies honor their homeowner policies.

Georgia DNR historic preservation program offers tax credits for historically designated neighborhoods like WWII-era Westminster near Emory University.

http://georgiashpo.org/

 

I enjoy my walks down Ponce on snow days

Fencing contractor mentioned his membership in theAtlanta Archaeological Society.  There’s plenty of history in underground Atlanta:  this group gets you digging.

http://thesga.org/category/chapters/greater-atlanta-archaeological-society/

Eastlake Drive neighbor Michael Purser of Rosebud Floors gave me his new CD that explains how to clean hardwood floors the right way.

                                                           http://rosebudfloors.com/

Weatherization contractor told me that dollar costs of energy savings are the same regardless of the age of the home. This confirms my field observations that, in spite of new energy codes, the construction industry and general public don’t understand or appreciate how to build energy efficient homes.  I do, let me show you how.

Architects and contractors specialize in restoration and historically correct renovations.  Their expertise is worth every cent…unless your only metric is how much more ft/2 you’ll get.

 

I gave a talk about why homeowners equate convenience with efficiency and how the study of older homes can help us build better, not bigger.

Kudos to Regina Brewer, a corps of hardworking volunteers and the City of Decatur for another great year at the Old House Fair!