Common House and Construction Myths
Most of the stuff that "everyone knows" about housing and construction is wrong,
and it is really messing up the market.
By William Decker, CMI, Decker Inspection Services
Did you ever run into a situation where what everyone knew and believed was actually wrong? Like that the Earth was flat before Columbus discovered America (actually, Haiti). Or that cigarettes ward off colds and pneumonia. Or that the Cubs are pennant bound in 2014 (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
Well, there are many things that regular people, and even experienced tradesmen, know about houses, construction and home repair and remodeling that are actually wrong. And these myths and misconceptions are leading to poor construction quality and costly problems for home owners. Everyone knows stuff that is completely wrong, but very few are learning any different.
Before I explain, let's get a couple of things clear. I am speaking from my own experience and knowledge, but I work in the greater Chicagoland area. There is no way that anyone can set building and construction requirements that would properly apply to the entire country. Chicago summers are (usually) hot and humid, spring and fall is moderate but also humid (it's called Lake Michigan) and the winters are bitterly cold, windy and dry (except for 2006 and 2007. Every rule has exceptions.). What works in Minneapolis would totally fail in Tucson and New York City skyscrapers wouldn't last long in L.A. Different areas have different requirements, standards and ways of doing things. In our area, gas water heaters are required to be connected to the gas line by rigid black pipe. In San Francisco, the gas connection must be by flexible tube connectors (CSST). San Francisco has earthquakes and, in Chicago, water heaters are usually installed in closets where people store sharp things that would pierce flexible gas tubing. So there are some regional differences, but most of these common misconceptions apply in all areas.
Masonry houses are more durable and more water resistant
In this area, there is a bias against wooden frame houses that stems from the history of the Great Chicago Fire. As a result of that catastrophe, the Chicago building codes were changed drastically. Not only the stupid stuff that no one noticed (bad load factors for wooden floor joists) and should have been changed anyway, but also new requirements for fireproof construction. These changes still have force today in that Chicago (and many of the surrounding suburbs) require that all electrical wiring be encased in metal tubing or pipe. Almost all the rest of the country allows the use of flexible plastic wiring (commonly referred to as Romex) and it is even approved by the National Electric Code.
As a result of the fire, almost all the residential construction in Chicago was done using brick or masonry construction. The western suburb or Oak Park was famous for its many houses that have stucco exteriors (masonry applied to a frame house). Even today, there is a bias for brick or stone houses, even if the house's actual structure is wooden frame. We call these houses "brick veneer" and many of my clients are surprised to learn that the houses structure (what actually holds the house up) is a wooden frame.
Brick and masonry houses are NOT more water resistant. All forms of stone are porous, i.e., have a lot of little holes and these holes will fill with water and the water will continue to go through the stone until it is equally saturated. Likewise, the mortar that, people believe (wrongly) holds the bricks, blocks or stones together is also make of stone and also absorbs water. In short, water not only goes through masonry but is actually sucked up (via capillary action) by masonry.
The reason that I said that mortar does not hold masonry together is because it does not. While masonry does provide some adhesion of the masonry units, what really holds a brick wall together is gravity. Mortar serves more as a filler, something to fill the irregular spaces between the bricks and blocks, than as glue that holds them together. That is why mortar cracks in a brick wall are rarely the source of water intrusion. Tuckpointing (actually, it is really called "re-pointing") should be done for structural reasons but most people have their walls re-pointed for cosmetic reasons which can cause a whole other set of problems which I will not address here. Suffice it to say that mortar, just like brick, cinder block, stone and stucco are NOT waterproof and will actually absorb water.
By the way, remember that water comes in three forms; liquid, vapor and solid. Solid water, also known as ice or snow, is not usually seen as a problem with water intrusion in a house, that is until the house develops an ice dam and / or until the spring thaw. Likewise, high humidity levels (this area is humid 3 seasons of the year) also contribute to water intrusion problems. Water vapor in the air is drawn into masonry house exteriors as much, if not more, than the dreaded "wind driven rain". When winter comes, this water will freeze and expand, forcing open all the little cracks and pours in the masonry, eventually causing the wall to crumble/
There is an increased movement, at least in this area, to "seal" the exterior masonry surfaces of houses and condominium buildings. Many contactors recommend the application some sort of sealer product, either a penetrating sealer or a "plugger" type coating paint. The thought is that these sealers will stop the water from entering the masonry and, therefore, stop the water intrusion. There are three problems with this assumption;
These products have an effective life, they eventually break down. The silane / siloxane type penetrating sealers break down from UV light, like sunlight. In this area, they have an effective life of 3 - 5 years, and that is only if they are properly applied which is rarely the case.
Most of the time, the water is not entering the masonry wall assembly from the side, but from the top. With the use of new materials, many builders in this area have replaced the usual limestone parapet wall coping stone with the newer (and less expensive) product known as Renaissance stone (a fine grade, polished form of concrete). There was one little problem. Limestone, especially in the 3 - 4" thicknesses used, will stop most water penetration. Renaissance stone passes water like a sieve. The result? Water enters the wall assembly, down through the coping stone, and fills not only the double wythe wall assembly pictured here, but also into the individual cells inside the block itself. This is the most common cause of water intrusion, especially in the local single wythe split faced block condominium buildings that were built like crazy in this area. These building owners have their buildings "sealed", but they have not solved the actual problem.
Masonry is supposed to "breath". Masonry construction should be done in such a way as to allow free air flow on both sides of the wall assembly. In older buildings, there were multiple layers, called wythes, of masonry in one wall. Between these layers was an air space and it was allowed to vent out the top of the wall (under those old clay coping tiles). This allowed the exterior wythe of brick to breath, for free air flow to run along both its outside and inside surface. Most times, this was enough to allow moisture in the masonry to evaporate and allow the brick or stone to dry. It also served to stop all water intrusion into the interior of the building right at the air gap. Water may wick through porous brick, block and stone, but it will never cross an air gap.
The key to building a water tight masonry walled house, of any type of house of building, to properly design (and build) the exterior wall assembly. There are five separate components to a properly built exterior wall assembly. They are;
Rainscreen / Curtain Wall / etc. - Known by many names, depending upon who is doing the talking, this is the outermost portion of any exterior wall. It can be of any material (vinyl or wood or cement siding, brick, stone, stucco, glass, composite) but they all serve the same two purposes;
- Provide a fairly water resistant surface that will shed (not stop) rain or snow and also resist wind.
- Look good.
Air space - An air gap, usually about 1" thick, that provides a separation of the exterior and the interior wall. This air gap allows for the inside of the exterior wall covering to dry and also provides a capillary break against water wicking any further into the wall. This air gap should be properly drained at the bottom, allowing any accumulated moisture to drain out, and vented at the top and bottom, allowing free air flow for drying and evaporation.
Drainage plane - This is a water impervious membrane that completely stops water intrusion. It allows liquid water to drain off and prevents any water vapor from going any further. Sometimes, this drainage place is the building's house wrap (Tyvek, Typar, etc) which stops liquid water from going inward but does not stop air or water vapor. Many times, Architects and builders will believe the house wrap will stop all forms or water and air, and that is where most of the problems begin. Likewise, many masons will simply nail diamond mesh wire directly to the house wrap and slather on their mortar screed coat for stucco or thin stone veneer. If there is any contact with the house wrap, the capillary blocking action is lost and water will flow through.
Supporting structure - This is the portion of the wall that actually holds the building up. It can be sheathing and wooden studs, cinder block, brick or some other material. It's sole purpose is to support the structure. If the other components of the wall assembly are correctly done, the building's structure will not be affected in any way.
Insulation - Insulation is installed in the wall, either in or on the interior of the supporting structure. Fiberglass batts or blown-in cellulose fiber are commonly used, but these materials are usually improperly installed and do not provide for proper air and moisture sealing. In my experience, the most effective insulation is closed-cell spray foam, applied to a thickness of 2 - 3". Spray foam insulation will stop more than 97% of the heat movement in the wall assembly, as well as all air and water (liquid or vapor) movement.
There is a great deal of confusion, even by construction experts, about these terms and how to design a proper wall assembly. Many times, what is learned in Architecture schools and mandated by local building codes are at complete variance with what actually happens in the field. Any and all exterior wall coverings require routine and regular maintenance.
All Builders / Tradesmen are all properly trained and know what they are doing.
Contrary to popular belief, not all home builders or their sub-contracted tradesmen are properly trained and most are simply learning on the job. Sure, there are trade unions for most trades, but in many cases these union workers have priced themselves out of the market. Who wants to hire a union trained carpenter when, many times, they can get much the same work out of some guy who claims he is a carpenter, but never had any formal and professional training.
In this area, there are only two building trades that are tested and licensed by the State of Illinois. They are Plumbers (who are licensed by the Illinois Department of Health) and Roofers, who have to take a standardized test and post a surety bond, but can "lend" their licenses to others who are not, themselves, licensed. Various trade unions used to, and some still do, offer professional training with classroom sessions, in-the-field practical training, testing and continuing education requirements. But in recent years, trade unions have been raising their wage demands to a point that they have priced themselves out of the market. In this area, one can find tradesmen who do very good construction work, but charge much less than union tradesmen do. I have seen exceptional work done by a crew of undocumented workers and very sub-standard work done by union trained and represented tradesmen.
And that is the big problem; there is no easy and reliable means to determine, before the fact, how good a job your contractor will do. Here are some facts:
- 50% of all porch and deck collapses were built by licensed, insured and bonded contractors who had obtained the required building permits and had the required local building code inspections.
- 83% of the construction tradesmen, across all the building trades, have never had any formal, professional training in their trade.
- Although there may be laws on the books that require licensing for a building trade, there is little to no enforcement of these laws.
- Most consumers will choose a contractor to do their work based entirely on the lowest price.
- Almost half of the contractors in business do not carry workman's compensation insurance. If their workers are injured on the job at your property, YOU are responsible to pay for their injuries.
The most profound point to take away from this is that the public is generally misinformed. This leads to our next myth.
Building code requirements and enforcement is a guarantee of quality work.
People completely misunderstand what work being "up to code" means. Building codes, designated and required by various levels of government are merely a bare minimum standard. Why do we have building codes? There are three reasons;
Governments obtain revenues by issuing building permits.
Government Assessor departments, through people getting permits, know when a house has been improved or had an addition. When they find this out, through reporting of building permits, they can raise the value (and the property tax level) of the property, thus further increasing government revenue.
The voting public expect the government to protect them.
Most building codes are set at the local level, that is by the local municipal government. There are national building codes, the International Residential Code (IRC), National Electric Code (NEC), Gas Fuel Code and the National Fire Safety Code, to name a few, but these codes are usually not applied at a national level.
Because there are many areas in the U.S., with different climate regions, different populations and different living conditions, no national building code would work across the entire nation.
The national codes are set by, and regularly revised, various trade and utility associations, not by the federal government. These associations are the best source of information about their particular specialties. For example, the American Plywood Association regularly tests the relative strengths of the various species of wood used in construction. Modern "fast growth" wood farms has tended to produce wood that has slightly less structural strength than the older, slow growth wood. I have seen many older houses, with old rough hewn wood 2 x 6 floor joists that are completely safe from a structural point of view, but if new 2 x 6 wood joists were used, would collapse very quickly. So, the APA regularly publishes its findings and produces tables detailing the required wood dimensions for different spans and load factors. When this happens, the various local (state, county or local) authorities review and adopt these new standards as they apply to their areas and conditions. Most times, the adoption of a new standard can take many years. I know of some local villages that, in 2014, are still working under the IRC 2002 standards.
One must also remember that these local conditions are not just about technical standards. Politics is always involved when dealing with government standards. Politicians should keep the public safe, but they also have to keep developers, contractors, trade unions and construction supply companies happy. Local building codes are as much political documents as they are technical requirements.
Because of this, building codes serve mainly as a bare minimum standard for construction. If a house is built "to code", all that means is that it has met the bare minimum standards that the local authorities have adopted.
In realty, there are more "Authorities Having Jurisdiction" than just the local code department. Manufacturer's publish installation instructions for their products. If your brand new car owner's manual calls for you to have your old changed every 3,000 miles, there is no "car police" to enforce that. But is you don't change the old when required and your brand new car engine explodes, the auto company does not have to honor its warranty and you have to pay for the repairs yourself.
Likewise, if your roofer uses a nail gun to install your new roof shingles, your 30 year warranty is voided (Seriously! Look read the wrapper that the shingles came in.) Did the contractor install your new sliding glass door using the proper flashing and according to the manufacturer's instructions? Did the guy who actually did the installation even know what flashing is? In my experience, he answer is usually "no". Do the local code requirements cover these things and do the code inspectors check? Again, the answer is usually "no".
In the Chicago are, we have a large number of 3 story apartment rental buildings and most of these buildings have large, wooden rear porches. People like to have a place to sit and grill meat and have a few beers and party with their friends. If they lived in a house, they could build a deck, but they live in the city and only have a porch.
By definition, a porch is for "ingress and egress only". That means that a porch is supposed to be used for going out and coming in and not for sitting on and certainly not for having 30 people dancing on. In 2003, "Two wooden porches laden with college students collapsed during a party early Sunday, killing 12 people and injuring 57 others when they plunged into an alley, officials said." according to the Chicago Tribune. The investigation determined that the porch in question was not in compliance with the local building code requirements. It's ledger board (the board that is attached to the building and holds up the floor joists) was not properly secured, that the building and has come loose. This can be seen in the picture on the right, but there are other code violations that are readily apparent (horizontal, climbable balusters, improper joist connection to support post, undersized, support post, etc). The city inspectors ruled that the collapse (and the deaths) were the result of having too many people on the porch. But the most significant legal affect of the event was an Illinois Appellate Court ruling that no code inspector or building code department in Illinois has any liability for construction damage or deaths of their inspections fail to discover dangerous construction defects.
Again, this is not meant to vilify the government, but the general public should be aware that they must do their own due diligence.
Contractors are crooks, they charge too much and do shoddy work.
Hey, don't get me wrong. There are bad contractors out there. I see bad workmanship every day and try my best to protect my client's interest. But, in my experience, the people most responsible for bad construction work is the homeowners, themselves.
When a client calls me, the most common (and usually the first) question they ask is "How much?". Not how good a job I will do or how thorough is my report or what will I inspect, but simply "How much is this going to cost me?". While I am an inspector, not a tradesman, I can very much identify with their problems when dealing with clients.
It is just common nature for people to expect a Rolls-Royce while only wanting to pay for a Yugo. The typical homeowner has no real concept of what things cost. They fail to understand that a good tradesman has invested years of training and gallons of sweat into learning how to do what they do. I do a lot of work in a very affluent area (Chicagoland North Shore) and have many customers who are Physicians, Lawyers and Commodity Traders. They make a lot of money and usually do so because they are very smart. What they fail to recognize is that there are many forms of smarts. If you don't agree with this, try calling a Neurosurgeon to properly install your crown molding or a high powered Lawyer to fix a leaking pipe. Some people are good with their brains and others are good with their hands. The best fine, finish carpenter I know, a guy who has been doing work for more than 25 years and holds multiple patents for cutting edge construction details, barely was able to graduate high school. But I would put his workmanship and attention to detail above any Stock Broker I know.
The undue focus on price, and the unrealistic expectations of what the work will cost, is the primary reason that there is so much sub-standard construction out there. A very good, quality roofing contractor I know recently lowered his workmanship standards. When I asked him why, he responded, "You can be the best roofer in the world, but if nobody hires you, you still go out of business.". Another roofer I know always gives out three quotes, nit just one. The three different quotes describe three different levels of workmanship; good, better and best. The "good" quote calls for cheap, 10 year shingles and does not allow for proper flashing. The "best" quote calls for the highest quality of materials and workmanship. The price and warranty portions of the contract also reflect the quality of the work and the price difference between the good and the best runs about 20%. This allows the roofer not only to keep working, but also helps to educate the customer about why the "best" job costs more. Good work uses better materials and takes more time and, therefore, costs more. This is a no brainer, but is not commonly understood.
So, the homeowner hires the cheapest guy, gets the work done and then complains when the work is poorly done. He can never blame himself, so he blames the contractor. These cheap guys are usually fly-by-night clowns and change their phone numbers regularly and so he homeowner complains to everyone who will listen and smears all contractors. This leads to more public suspicion of contractors and further depresses what the customer expects to pay for the work. Meanwhile, all the quality workmen are forced out of business and get into another line of work. The cycle perpetuates itself, especially during the recent hard financial times.
There are many more misconceptions and myths out there, and I may write about them in the future, but I believe that a proper understanding of the construction and Real Estate industry helps to improve it. I might also add that a qualified, licensed and professional home inspector is the best possible insurance that one can have when buying or maintaining your house. We can not only check out a house before you purchase it, but we can provide the homeowner with unbiased knowledge and experience when maintaining or improving it. I get paid the same whether the house is the best built house ever or if it is a complete train wreck.
Home Inspectors are not just about buying a house anymore. We can help to keep your home.