With concern mounting over defect litigation, innovation is taking a backseat to the tried and true.

By Pat Curry

An architect hired to test a home after a product failure finds rotted sheathing and studs, plus mold, mildew, ants, slugs, and termites. The moisture intrusion is so bad that when samples are taken, water pours out of the wall.

Unfortunately, this image isn't just a bad dream. It was part of the evidence in a $4 million damage award. The case, involving the use of external insulation and finishing systems (EIFS), is on appeal in the Virginia courts.

EIFS is just one of the products that have cost builders millions over the years. That's why virtually every production builder shares the opinion of Randy Luther, vice president of construction technology for Centex Homes, about new products.

"We prefer to let another builder try those out for five to 10 years and see if they wind up on national TV," Luther says. "We've been burned over the years with lots of different building products. Normal human beings, once they've been burned, learn their lesson."

Problems? What Problems?

With so much at risk -- and insurance becoming scarcer and prohibitively expensive -- builders have few options for avoiding problems with defective products. The reluctant advice from construction defect expert Joe Lstiburek, founder of Building Science Corp. in Westford, Mass., is to stay away from the leading edge.

"Don't be the first in the neighborhood to do anything," Lstiburek says. "Great for innovation, huh?"

Obviously, that's frustrating to manufacturers. It's already tough, they say, to develop products for an industry that doesn't like to admit anything needs a solution.

"Builders don't want to talk about problems," says Tom Schuler, global business manager for Dupont's Tyvek. "I've never met a builder who has a water problem."

For the record, here are a few of the problems. Builders' reliance on non-employees who may lack experience makes adoption of new products problematic, particularly when the installation process is complex. Add to that two more facts: There's little coordination between manufacturers to dovetail systems that interconnect, and products aren't tested under real-world conditions across climate zones.

That's a huge issue with Lstiburek.

"Products tested in Minneapolis will perform differently in Miami," he says. "Very few manufacturers look at system impact and how this system is highly dependent on the climate that it's in. All I can predict is more and more failures."

That could change, he said, if manufacturers and builders put additional focus on research and development -- within reason. Lstiburek's suggestion: "Do one or two houses instead of a subdivision. Don't push the envelope too much." But push it, he says.

Glenn Singer, the manager of building science technology for CertainTeed, in Valley Forge, Pa., is well aware of the barriers to getting new products to market. In fact, that's why his department was created, he says. With litigation driving up liability insurance premiums, CertainTeed knows that builders will be even more reluctant to try new products. So he's "leaving the product bag at home" and working with builders in the field.

The Installation Issue

Where the breakdown often occurs is at installation. That's why Maryland-based Carl M. Freeman Communities started a framing company staffed by craftsmen who do nothing but install windows and doors. As a result, they've completed more than 110 homes without a callback.

"It ensures the windows are installed properly," says Jack Tucker, Freeman's director of construction. "If there were a defect on a product, it's warranted because it was installed properly."

That concern is one reason Weyerhaeuser purchased TrusJoist a couple of years ago. Now, two of the company's four building subsidiaries -- Pardee Homes in California and Winchester Homes in Virginia -- are ramping up their use of engineered systems. Likewise, in Indianapolis, Dura Builders started a separate venture, Dura Panel Truss, to tackle product quality, installation, and volume when it was ready to jump from 300 to more than 600 houses per year. Terry Murphy is general manager of Dura Panel Truss, which pre-frames trusses and walls, and also supplies Dura Builders' windows, doors and trim.

"We control quality; we control our destiny," Murphy says.

Pre-framing the panels and developing a set of blocks for windows have helped reduce installation problems.

"My framing crews aren't rocket scientists," Murphy says. "They're great workers, but they need direction. We make sure every stud is crowned properly and put the sheeting on the product. All they do is set them up, brace them, square them, and plumb them. We know the frames are true."

Homegrown R&D

Because his crews are familiar with the products he uses, Murphy doesn't make changes lightly.

"We really investigate new products," he says. "We expect our vendors to back us up. They're no longer a partner when they want to bow out of their responsibilities. We have a commitment to deliver a quality product to the end user."

Luther feels the same way. That's why he does his own product testing. Lately, he's been checking out self-adhesive flashing with a simple, reality-based approach.

"I take it out, stick it up in the sun, the heat, and the water, come back, and see if it's still stuck," he says.

When he's sufficiently impressed to take testing a step further, he'll contact the manufacturer for assurances that it will stand behind the product, and then try it on five or 10 houses. But he knows that having the time and resources to do this level of research is unusual. The average builder can't afford such lengthy experiments.

"A builder who doesn't have the luxury of having someone in my position can have two things happen: be totally unafraid and jump in with both feet, or never try anything. It's frustrating. I see things I think have a lot of potential."

Singer sees no reason the industry can't move toward a model in which manufacturers form joint ventures with builders to develop products. That might make them more amenable to trying new materials -- and put better products on the market because they've been designed to meet specific needs.

"If we could work with builders to solve problems," he says, "maybe the fear of litigation and the insurance companies would be less and they would say, 'These guys have their acts together.'"

--Pat Curry is based in Watkinsville, Ga.

Products with a Past

A man with a penchant for top 10 lists, building science expert Joe Lstiburek, offers this recollection of products that have haunted builders.

Fire-retardant treated roof plywood. Tested at room temperature, the plywood lost its strength under the typical heat and humidity found on roofs. More than a million roofs had to be replaced.

External insulation and finishing systems (EIFS), or synthetic stucco. A product with tremendous material properties, it has horrible assembly properties. With no drainage plane, it leaks directly into the building.

Hardboard siding. It lost its strength due to extreme water sensitivity after the manufacturing process was changed to address energy and environmental issues. Ironically, the product available now is "environmentally friendly and performs well," Lstiburek says, "but the reputation is so bad, no one will buy it."

Oriented strand board siding. Made of wood flakes, OSB siding had extreme water sensitivity at its edges. "Siding is all edges, right? Hundreds of thousands of homeowners were guinea pigs. They know how to make it now, but it's 10 years too late."

Housewraps. When tested alone, housewraps repel water as a liquid and pass it as a vapor. "That's what we want them to do." When they're put next to cedar or redwood siding, though, the wood sugars migrate and contaminate the surface of the wraps. "They become blotter paper and rot," Lstiburek notes.

Orphaned water heaters. Water heaters and furnaces used to vent through the same chimneys. When the furnaces were replaced with more energy-efficient ones, water heaters were left to use a space designed for much more heat and energy. The flue gases condensed too soon. Not only did the masonry chimneys crumble, deadly carbon monoxide could vent into the house.

Termite treatments. Chloridane was a wonderful termiticide, but it was deadly to humans. Manufacturers invented new products, but effective treatment requires 100 percent coverage, which is impossible. "Everything we've done in the last decade and a half has been futile," Lstiburek remarks.

Polybutylene piping. Touted as a replacement for copper pipe, it was never tested in hot, pressurized, chlorinated water. They leaked. "Builders jumped on it. Lawyers loved it. Now builders use different types of plastics with joints that have been tested in the real world."

Vinyl flooring. A replacement for asbestos floor tiles, vinyl doesn't breathe. Installed on concrete slabs, it traps water between the foundation and the floor. "Which is worse asbestos or mold?"

Vinyl wallpaper. An issue that's particular to humid climates, Lstiburek says vinyl wallpaper in the South is a "vapor barrier on the wrong side of the wall."

Green board behind ceramic tile in bathtubs. "Let's glue tile to paper and put it in a shower," he says. "Where were the adults on this one?"