For a feature article about construction defects in Builder magazine's September 2013 issue, we are building a timeline of famous construction defect disasters. The list below is what I came up with quickly, and I will ask some of my egghead industry friends for more disasters. In the meantime, please add your famous FUBARS in building history in the comments section.
UPDATED 7/29: Photos added
Paint peels off walls after wall cavities are filled with a new product -- insulation. Because insulated walls are colder, moisture from leaky wall assemblies (windows, etc) couldn't dry to the inside as easily, so it pushed its way outward, taking the paint with it.
Result: Paint peeled off in sheets, first "insulation is evil" cries break the airwaves.
Solution: vapor retarders, like kraft-faced insulation (this was a mis-solution -- not a word, I know -- as seen below...)
Aluminum Wiring Sparks House Fires. Beginning in 1964, aluminum wire replaced more costly copper wire in an estimated 2 million homes, sparking fires in a number of them. This page from the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors explains why, but basically aluminum has a greater resistance to electric current flow than copper and created overheating at splices, outlets, and light fixtures—points of connection often hidden within the walls of homes.
Solution: Complete replacement of the system costs upward of $8,000. Less expensive options include replacing the fixture connections with copper pigtails and installing new receptacles and switches (labeled CO/ALR) designed for use with aluminum. Forty years later, the presence of aluminum wiring must be revealed during any transfer of title.
Plastic pipe falls short on longevity. From the late 1970s through early 1990s, manufacturers touted polybutylene as an inexpensive plumbing solution that would last forever. But pipes and fittings failed in hundreds of thousands of houses within a decade of being installed, as chlorinated water degraded the resin.
Result: Suppliers eventually lost national class-action suits that resulted in settlements in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Solution: At least 330,000 houses were replumbed. The U.S. and Canada stopped accepting polybutylene plumbing as code.
Vapor retarders graduate to impermeable plastic vapor barriers, causing rot by trapping moisture in walls after widespread adoption of a new product -- air conditioners. Vapor control helped resolve the paint issue, but when air conditioners changed the physics of moisture and heat flow, vapor barriers trapped all the exterior humidity inside cold walls
Solution: removal of plastic vapor barriers
Sickly Formaldehyde Foam Insulation. Amid the energy crisis of the 1970s, about half a million homes used urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) to improve thermal insulation in walls. The greater R-values came with an unexpected side effect, however, as the formaldehyde vapors released from the curing foam began to make people sick. The CPSC banned its use in early 1982 for causing “chemical sensitivity,” though they lifted the ban in 1983.
Solution: UFFI poses no risk once cured, but remains highly stigmatized. The high levels of formaldehyde likely were related to poor mixing and installation techniques. However, many states still require disclosure during the sale of a house if it contains UFFI.
Asbestos litigation gives insulation suppliers headaches. Asbestos, once a widely used fireproofing agent, was determined to be a human carcinogen.
Result: Hundreds of thousands of personal injury claims and lawsuits related to asbestos exposure, filed in the 1970s through the 1990s, forced two major insulation suppliers, Johns Manville and Owens Corning, into bankruptcy in 1982 and 2000, respectively.
Solution: Both companies ended up funding multimillion-dollar Trusts that are still managing claims today. In 1989, the EPA banned most products containing asbestos.
Hardboard siding fails. Millions of homes and other structures built using defective Masonite hardboard siding began showing signs of early deterioration.
Result: Buckling and moldy siding allowed water into walls, which bowed studs and caused mold inside -- and millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses.
Solution: Replaced siding and ceased production of that particular formula.
FRT Plywood Chars Prematurely. Fire retardant treated plywood is a chemically treated roof sheathing used to limit the spread of fire between attached units, first approved for use in 1979. The treated plywood would chemically “char” to a state that resists rapid fire spread and reduces volatile vapors in the event of a fire. No one expected that the charring mechanism would kick in at temperatures lower than fire conditions, such as in poorly ventilated attics during summer months. In just two to five years, premature charring began to result in the loss of roofing shingles, sagging of sheathing between rafters, unsafe roof conditions, and in some cases complete roof failure. Rate of degradation depended on the supplier, treatment methods, and attic heat levels, but by mid-1988 it was evident that widespread, serious failures were occurring, especially in townhouse applications.
Solution: The NAHB estimated in 1989 that replacement costs could total more than $2 billion.
Condos rot in Vancouver. Face-sealed cladding systems applied to multifamily units built in the 1990s trap water from leaky windows, bad flashing, and clumsy roof details.
Result: Rotting walls, floors, and balconies.
Solutions: Drained cladding systems, plastic vapor barriers, more insulation, tighter assemblies to control air leakage, and substitution of materials that are more moisture tolerant (plywood rather than OSB).
Mushrooms grow on siding in the Northwest. Starting in 1995, siding contractors in Portland, Vancouver, and other Northwest cities began seeing mushroom-like growths on the bottom edge of LP Inner-Seal, a composite siding made from OSB. The problem mushroomed (sorry) to other parts of North America. [UPDATED 7/12 TO REFLECT CORRECT NAME OF SIDING. WE REGRET THE ERROR --DM]
EIFS scare begins in Massachusetts and moves to North and South Carolina and other states. Almost the exact same thing happened at almost the exact same time.
Result: Exterior sheathing rots.
Solution: Drained cladding systems.
SIP roofs rot in Juneua, Alaska. Approximately 20 multifamily buildings built before 1996 were damaged. Leaky joints in the panels trapped moist air from inside under the roof cladding.
Result: Rotten plywood panels.
Solution: Over-venting SIP roofs.
Brick homes rot in Ohio, Indiana, and other states. Brick absorbs water when it rains, and when the sun comes out, the brick dries. But where it dries to was the key cog in the fiasco that—on top of some ill-advised expansions into new markets—sent Zaring Homes into bankruptcy in 1999. The moisture is pushed inward. Had there been enough drainage space behind the brick, this would have been fine. But mortar bridged the gap and water worked its way into the framing, where it found a plastic vapor barrier and an air conditioned inside. Beazer experienced a similar problem in Indianapolis.
Result: Standing water in wall cavities, mold, rot, and bankruptcy for a builder of 1,500 homes per year.
Solution: Drainage space behind brick, weep holes in the bottom course, and mortar droppings that do not bridge the gap.
Crumbling Synthetic Slate Roofs. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, fiber-cement synthetic roofing manufacturers began using cellulose-fiber reinforcement as a substitute for asbestos. Within five years of installation, however, property owners reported partial or complete failure of the product. Despite being coated with sealants, some fiber-cement products were not sufficiently water-resistant for use in outdoor settings. Moisture moved readily into the cellulose fibers, causing them to swell, and forced cracks in the cement, which cannot expand.
Solution: Manufacturers have either discontinued or re-engineered their fiber-cement roofing product lines, but not before facing several class action lawsuits. Many manufacturers had offered 20- to 25-year warranties on the product, which failed in less than five years.
Chinese drywall causes a stench.Drywall imported from China last decade, and installed in an estimated 100,000 homes in the U.S., turned out to be a stinker.
Result: It emitted sulfurous gas that gave off a rotten egg smell and corroded wiring, air conditioning units, and electronic appliances. It also caused homeowners to be sick.
Solution: Several builders ended up either tearing out the drywall, or paying (along with their insurers and suppliers) for repairs to settle claims and class-action litigation. The debacle spurred the Drywall Safety Act of 2012, which requires labeling to make sheets of wallboard traceable to the original manufacturer and sets sulfur limits as determined by an industry association.
Mold crisis hits Texas. It was caused by overall shoddy workmanship during a huge housing boom -- poor detailing on roofs, gutters, windows, doors, foundations, and plumbing.
Result: Mold claims in Texas grew from $420 million in 2000 to just over $2 billion in 2002.
Solution: Better rain water management, such as sloped grade, gutters that work, and rain screen siding assemblies.
A "perfect storm" of stucco problems develops in Woodbury, Minn. An explanation from Dr. Joe Lsitiburek: "We are seeing problems with stucco claddings in field of the wall—away from windows and other architectural features. And the buildings affected are not shacks. The problems are not limited to 'traditional hard-coat stucco,' but also are prevalent with a version of hard-coat stucco—a cladding type that I refer to as 'lumpy stucco'—more formally known as 'manufactured stone veneer.' Think of it as rocks embedded into the exterior surface of the stucco—hence the 'lumpy” term.' "
A lot of little things caused big trouble, he continues:
- Changes in the properties of building papers and water resistant barriers.
- Change from plywood sheathings to OSB sheathings (less water tolerance).
- Higher levels of thermal resistance (more insulation).
- Use of interior plastic vapor barriers (water trapping layer).
- Changes in the properties of stucco renderings.
Result: Rotting walls. Solution: A bond break layer of building paper between the stucco and the first layer building paper (i.e. two layers of building paper).
These are all I can remember off the top of my head. What defect debacles am I missing? Surely there were problems during the post-war housing boom of the late 1940s and 1950s?
Bad puns cheerfully encouraged.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Indianapolis, IN.