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By: Fred Willcox
Copyright© 2010
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Today I had one of those interesting discussions with a builder. This is a great example of why houses that are built today are so poorly constructed. In my experience, builders do not know how to build houses and they are not interested in building quality houses. They are only interested in their profits. Remember that when you decide to build a house.

My client, the person who is paying the builder to build their dream house, asked me to meet with their builder this morning to go over some problems I found with their almost completed new home. The house is located in my little city within the city of Houston. My little city has its own building official. You would think that our building official would be very good at his job as he is not all that busy and he is pretty well paid since property values are very important to the citizens. The values of the property are one of the things that attract home buyers to this area.

Every single defect that I found in this newly constructed home was a building code violation. Further, every defect that was found in the house has been in the building code for at least the last twelve years.

So much for the competency of our building official.

I met with the builder and explained the defects that I found with the house. The builder was agreeable to making most of the repairs. His objection was to correcting the flashing and drainage of the brick veneer on the house.

There is a one inch air gap (wall cavity) behind the brick veneer on houses in this area. In theory, this air gap is free of obstructions and water runs down the air gap and drains out through the weep holes at the bottom of the brick wall. Weep holes are where the mortar is missing from between the bricks on the first row of the brick veneer. Water gets into the air gap from rain, from lawn sprinklers and from condensation.

In real life, the air gap is obstructed by mortar, by soda cans, potato chip bags and sandwich wrappers, etc. Water cannot drain out of the weep holes because the water is trapped by the obstructions in the air gap. In recognition of this fact, the brick manufacturers and the wall sheathing manufacturers began requiring that wall drains be installed above the exterior doors and windows and below the window sills. They also require that all wall penetrations, which are pipes, wires and electrical conductors, etc. along with the tops of the window and door penetrations be flashed to reduce the amount of water entering the air gap.

Water trapped in the air gap will ultimately enter the house as water vapor. This water vapor increases the relative humidity inside the house and can lead to the growth of microbial organisms, which can include toxic molds.

In older houses, water in the air gap makes little difference. These houses were not sealed against air infiltration and the refrigeration (air conditioning) systems were oversized so that the equipment can remove the moisture vapor from the air.

In newer houses, the houses are better sealed to reduce air infiltration and water intrusion. The sizing of the refrigeration equipment has been reduced as there are fewer changes of air from outside air infiltration and there is supposed to be less water in the air because the houses are better sealed. High efficiency refrigeration equipment does not run for long periods of time so the equipment’s ability to reduce humidity levels is reduced.

Failing to properly drain the air gaps defeats the water barriers built into the house and reduces the efficiency of the air conditioning equipment. This makes the house uncomfortable to live in as the humidity levels are increased. One of the major complaints I hear from new home owners is that their new houses are not comfortable to live in, the air circulation is poor and that they keep having to lower their thermostats in order to be comfortable in their houses. The smaller sizing of the refrigeration equipment and the higher efficiency of the equipment is meaningless because the home owner has to run the air conditioning equipment all the time to keep their house comfortable to live in.

Today, the builder wanted to argue about the issue of the wall drains and wall flashing. His argument was not that the flashing and drains were necessary. His argument was the expense of installing the drains and flashing, which is nominal, and the fact that inspectors hired by builders do not call out this building code violation and the violation of the manufacturer’s installation instructions.

As far as the cost issue goes, flashing and wall drains are made of sheet metal. Sheet metal is not an expensive component in building. Yes, there probably would be an increase in cost as brick masons learn to install the drains and flashing. After that initial learning phase, the increase in cost would probably be in the range of $500.00. Hardly a deal breaker compared to the cost of a new house.

However, this is not an expense that a builder can profit from. Builders can profit greatly from counter tops and cabinets and appliances. Structural components are not pretty or glamorous. I think that we can safely assume that most homeowners are not going to take their dinner guests outside to show then the new wall drains.

As to the second issue, I said to the builder: “If the inspector you hire to bless your work actually called out items such as flashing and wall drains you’d fire him wouldn’t you?”

The builder replied: “Of course. I don’t want him calling out stuff that increases my cost.”

I replied: “Then why would your inspector tell you how to build a house correctly when he would only be fired for his efforts? Your inspector only inspects what you allow him to inspect.”

From that brief conversation, you should have learned all you need to know about the actual value of your builder and your builder’s inspector.

When you are hiring a builder to build your new house first, have your lawyer review the contract between you and the builder to insure that you have some rights to make your builder build your house correctly.

Second, state in the contract the standards, at a minimum, that you want your new house built to. I would suggest that, at a minimum, the standards of construction be the current edition of the International Residential Code (IRC), the current edition of the National Electric Code (NEC) and all manufacturers’ installation instructions, which ever is the most rigid standard for each part, component or system.

Third, hire a competent, thorough, detail house inspector to inform you if the house is being constructed properly.