Edited by Ted
Foundation Flaws Spark Buffalo
Soggy Season Damps Down Strong Housing
Double Duty: "Winsulator" Interior Storms
Add Blast Screen Rating
Builder Bets Big on Sealed
New York Builders Tackle Scaffold Law (Yet
Feds Suspect Eco-Freaks in Michigan Spec-House
Spark Buffalo Brouhaha
United States senators don't usually pay attention to
basement repair. But in the Buffalo, N.Y., suburb of Amherst,
cracked and buckled basements have drawn the notice of Senators
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer, U.S. Representative
Thomas Reynolds, and, urged on by the politicians, the Army
Corps of Engineers.
The Buffalo News says 500 basements in Amherst are in
trouble. In February, the New York Times treated the
story like a natural disaster. "Hundreds of houses here are
sinking into the earth," said the Times. "The effect is
that of a slow-motion earthquake: Basement floors heave upward,
supporting beams twist perilously and rooms list to one side.
No one knows who or what to blame."
The Times repeated speculation that developers draining
wetlands may have caused deep glacial clay deposits to shrink.
But if the reason for the problem is "murky," said the
Times, the solution is clear: Jack up every house with
40-foot steel piers to bedrock.
The Buffalo News points a finger at developers and town
officials. Amherst encouraged development for years, said the
News, while leaving homeowners in the dark about U.S.
Department of Agriculture warnings that the area's ancient
lakebed clays posed "severe limitations" for home
An unreinforced concrete basement sited
in clay soil shows severe cracking in this photo from the
Amherst, N.Y., Building Department. Amherst now requires
reinforced concrete for every house foundation under New York
State's new residential code, but some older basements in the
town have suffered major damage caused by soil consolidation
beneath footings or lateral soil pressure against
engineers and town officials directly involved with the
problems tell a more mundane story. Few of the foundations
they've investigated show any structural damage, they say, and
the ones that do aren't so hard to explain: They're plain
concrete basements suitable for good sand or gravel soils,
placed in sites with wet, heavy clay.
"These houses average 34 years old," says town building
commissioner Thomas Ketchum. "And we have not found one house
with a problem that has any steel in the walls. Every single
one is unreinforced concrete."
There's little doubt that soil movement is affecting some
homes, Ketchum says. But he also reports, "We just went through
a batch of 377 inspections. A good half of those are no problem
at all — your typical hairline cracks. Some of the rest
have minor cracks and leaking, some need major structural
repairs. But I'm guessing maybe 1% of our parcels have
Most of the severe problems are wall failures resulting from
lateral soil pressure, according to Ketchum — not
surprising for unreinforced basements in clay soils. But what
of the homes that have settlement issues? Ketchum says, "The
major theory of the soils scientists I talk to is that the
change in the moisture content of the clay over decades is
resulting in long-term consolidation. My opinion is that in
many cases, the perimeter drains and sump pumps and mature
trees are drying the soils in a narrow band right near the
And the idea that town officials failed to warn about soil map
data? "Totally ridiculous," says area soil engineer Stan Blas.
"Those USDA maps go down to 4 or 5 feet. Our basements are at 8
feet. Nobody knew what was down there."
Blas has been drilling Amherst soils for 25 years, mostly for
commercial jobs. "We have more data than anyone," he says.
"There are some very disturbing soils in town — layers
below 10 feet where the blow count is zero, where the rods drop
in of their own weight down to 30 or 40 feet." Those sites may
require expensive piering, says Blas, but they are few and
isolated: "You can use good standard construction methods for
residential foundations in most places in Amherst."
Blas scoffs at press coverage of the basement issues.
"Reporters have talked to everybody but the engineers. Those
500 reported houses — most of them just have minor
cracks. Maybe 10% of the problems have anything to do with
New code takes hold. Under
New York's new residential code, effective January 1, sites
with problem soils must have soil tests done. That means every
site in Amherst, says Thomas Ketchum — and his department
is requiring reinforced concrete for every basement. "Most
people are getting in tune with it," he says. "The builders are
on board. We have a pretty good handle on new
But the repairs are another story. "I have been telling people
to hire a geotechnical engineer so they can really understand
what is causing the problem. If you just guess at it, the
repair may not take care of the long-term situation. I don't
want people going out and spending $30,000 on a foundation
repair, only to have to do it again five years from now."
Ketchum hopes the ongoing Corps of Engineers study will
provide general repair advice. But that could take 18 months to
Soggy Season Damps Down
Strong Housing Market
The stalled weather pattern that brought seemingly endless
rains to the eastern U.S. this spring and summer has taken some
of the sizzle out of the year for builders. But with overall
conditions still very favorable, market watchers expect a
strong finish for 2003.
On the heels of heavy late winter snows, spring and early
summer rains added inches of extra water to already sodden job
sites. Few areas east of the Mississippi were spared the
soaking, and papers all over the country noted setbacks for
Charlotte, N.C., got 8 inches of rain in April and 10 in May,
compared to a normal rainfall of 3 inches in each month,
reported the Charlotte Business Journal: "The soaked
earth has simply been too wet to grade. Trenches dug for
utility lines fill with water, and a solid base for paving has
been nearly impossible to find."
After clouds dumped 8 inches of rain on Atlanta in 18 days, a
landscaper told the Journal-Constitution, "We're just
trying to stop the mud."
Habitat for Humanity volunteers worked 12-hour days despite
daily downpours to complete 92 homes in one week during June's
Jimmy Carter Work Project. An unusually rainy spring and early
summer have wreaked havoc on construction schedules throughout
the eastern United States.
The rain brought Virginia contractor Geoff McKenzie extra work
repairing rotted wooden doors and decks, reported the
Hampton Roads Daily News, but McKenzie lost three
quarters of his expected cash flow to delays. He had to paint
one deck rail four times because the rain kept washing his
On the other hand, rain didn't stop Habitat for Humanity
volunteers who flocked to the Jimmy Carter Work Project in
LaGrange, Ga. Despite ankle-deep mud and repeated drenching
storms, the group finished its planned 22 homes in one week and
joined other Habitat volunteers in a simulcast celebration of a
successful 92-home project spread through Alabama and
Double Duty: "Winsulator"
Interior Storms Add Blast Screen Rating
Ed VerVane, the inventor of the Winsulator interior
insulating window liner (www.winsulator.com
), has known for years
that his tough acrylic product provides a measure of physical
security along with the energy savings. But VerVane prefers to
downplay that property.
"I get calls from people in banks or department stores
thanking me because it saved somebody from getting hurt by
flying glass, or it saved the building from an intrusion. I
tell everybody, 'I'm glad it helped you, but I'm not making any
claims.' Maybe it won't ever do that again, so I don't want
people to count on it."
But with terrorism topping the national agenda, VerVane's
government customers have noticed the rumors. When the U.S.
Navy ordered 5,000 panels for its East Coast facilities but
urged VerVane to have the Winsulator certified in a blast
mitigation test, he found it hard to say no.
Darek VerVane installs a Winsulator unit
at a naval facility in Florida. In addition to conserving
energy and dampening sound, modified Winsulator panels can
protect building occupants against flying glass in the event of
"I took three panels to a blast testing chamber in Texas and
tested them just the way we install them, over an existing
glass window," says VerVane. "It blew my Winsulator off, but it
didn't harm the Winsulator. We could snap it right back
But the Winsulator didn't stop enough flying glass from
hitting the rear wall of the test chamber to earn the "low
hazard" rating. So VerVane's engineers added an aluminum frame
over the standard magnetic gasket. "With that, it worked," he
says. "The glass that hit the wall was minimum."
So far, says VerVane, no one has ordered the beefed-up
version. "I'm not marketing it like crazy," he says. "My whole
idea is to stay on track with energy and acoustics." For those
purposes, VerVane is not too shy to brag: "It surpasses
anything on the planet for actual performance, in my
Builder Bets Big on
When it comes to crawlspaces, codes haven't caught up with
building science. Many building departments still require
foundation vents in crawlspace walls, even though studies show
that the vents cause more problems than they solve.
But one production builder in an area prone to damp-crawlspace
problems has decided to get ahead of the curve. In July, Parker
and Orleans Homebuilders began installing sealed and
conditioned crawlspaces for its homes in Virginia and North
Carolina, according to sealed-crawlspace expert Jeff Tooley.
Parker and Orleans has contracted with Tooley to manage
construction of sealed crawlspaces in as many as 300 homes a
The International Code Council is considering modifying the
International Residential Code to allow sealed
crawlspaces in the 2006 edition. Tooley applauds the change,
but he's concerned about the details. "The building science is
good," he says, "but there's not a lot of field experience to
go with it." Tooley is one of the few contractors in the nation
who has installed more than a handful of sealed crawlspaces,
and he says the details are important.
Crawlspace expert Jeff Tooley points out
the code-required termite "vision strip" as he works on an air-
and vapor-sealed conditioned crawlspace for a custom home in
North Carolina. Tooley is currently training supervisors and
crews to construct 300 sealed crawls a year for production
builder Parker and Orleans.
"An unvented crawlspace isn't the same thing as a sealed
crawlspace," says Tooley. "If you eliminate the vents, it's
very important to have an effective soil vapor barrier." The
ground cover has to go down early in construction, says Tooley:
He places "sacrificial" poly on the soil before the deck is
built, then replaces it later with the permanent ground cover.
"I looked at a custom home recently where there were no vents
and no ground cover during construction, and it caused a major
fungus problem," he says.
Tooley has started training Parker and Orleans supervisors on
the construction sequence for sealed-crawl installations. "They
deserve some recognition for taking this step," he says. And
done right, Tooley expects the sealed crawlspaces to be a big
improvement. While typical vented crawlspaces in the region
often fluctuate above 90% relative humidity, Tooley says none
of his sealed crawlspaces has ever triggered the RH alarm he
routinely installs, set at 50% RH.
New York Builders Tackle
Scaffold Law (Yet Again)
All 50 states have liability insurance issues, but New York
may be unique. "We not only have the property defect issues
that other states have," says New York State Builders
Association president Phil LaRocque, "we have a third-party
bodily injury absolute liability law."
LaRocque is referring to Labor Law Section 240, New York's
"Scaffold Law." Dating back to the 1890s, language in the
statute requires site owners and general contractors to provide
ladders, scaffolds, or other safety gear and makes them
strictly liable for any worker injury caused by a fall.
New York State builders are supporting
changes in the state's Section 240 "Scaffold Law," which holds
builders strictly liable for any gravity-related on-site
Broad court interpretations in the 1970s and 1980s expanded
the law's scope, and today precedents leave GCs and owners
vulnerable to multimillion-dollar suits for almost any injury.
"You don't have to prove anything except that it was a
construction site and it was an accident," says LaRocque.
"We've had cases on level ground, or cases that aren't on
construction sites. It depends on the judge. And the insurance
company has to weigh whether it's worth the money to defend it.
For the trial lawyers, it's a gold mine — they don't have
to do any work."
Builders have fought Section 240 for years, and they're
backing this year's Republican bill to modify the law. Some
court precedents support a "recalcitrant worker" defense, under
which an employee who disobeyed safety orders might share some
of the liability. "We want to codify those precedents," says
The New York State Bar Association is backing the change, but
the better-organized state trial lawyers are united against it.
And in Albany, where Republicans dominate the Senate and
Democrats rule the Assembly, trial lawyer opposition is a major
obstacle. Party leaders run both houses in closed meetings,
and, according to a New York Public Interest Research Group
(NYPIRG) report, trial lawyers gave the parties more than
$800,000 in 2002, second only to the teacher's union among the
top 13 cash donors.
Builders did not make NYPIRG's list. Says Phil LaRocque, "It's
an uphill struggle."
Feds Suspect Eco-Freaks in
Michigan Spec-House Fires
A shadowy "domestic terrorist group" called the Earth
Liberation Front, or ELF, may have inspired four arson fires
that destroyed homes nearing completion outside Detroit in
March and June. Area newspapers say police linked the two March
fires to eco-terrorism because of graffiti on a nearby house
reading, "ELF — No sprawl." Similar scrawls have appeared
before at fire sites involving lumberyards and auto dealers,
and an FBI agent told reporters the signature is the group's
But investigators acknowledge that anyone could use "ELF"
graffiti hoping to mislead them. And police offer no solid
evidence to link the Michigan fires to ELF, or even to
demonstrate that the group exists as anything more than an
"earthliberationfront.com" website —
although press accounts blame ELF for fires in half a dozen
states in recent years, causing an estimated $37 million or
more in total damage.
The website encourages fire setting to fight development, and
it posts reports on fires where the "ELF" graffiti is seen. But
an anonymous ELF spokesperson has told reporters via e-mail
that the group has no formal membership and does not plan or
organize crimes. Instead, anyone who acts on the website's
urgings is considered to be part of the movement.
If it's attention the activists want, some politicians at
least say they believe in ELF: Fourteen House members have
cosponsored a congressional bill recognizing ELF as a domestic
terrorism threat and urging the FBI and the Justice Department
to pursue the group.
Organized or not, fires blamed on ELF don't add up to much
next to the billion-plus dollars in damage and up to 200 deaths
caused annually by garden-variety nonpolitical firebugs (more
than half of whom are juveniles, experts say). "Normal" arson
costs $220 million in Michigan alone each year, according to
the Michigan Arson Prevention Committee — and that's just
the direct costs.
OffcutsBuilding owners should be
skeptical of companies promising energy savings from Transient
Voltage Surge Suppressor (TVSS) equipment,
electrical educator Mike Holt. The Federal Trade Commission has
taken action in the past against companies making energy
savings claims about the devices. However, TVSS devices from
reputable companies are useful to protect sensitive electronic
equipment from damaging voltage spikes.
With the travel industry lagging
and condo prices surging, hotel owners and developers have
taken to selling hotel suites as condominiums, reports
the Wall Street Journal. Hotel construction loans are
easier to obtain if some up-front equity is provided by condo
sales, says the paper, and condos in buildings with hotel
services can fetch 40% to 60% higher prices than regular condo
California lawmakers are moving to
save ancient trees still standing in the state, says the
Ukiah Daily Journal. The Heritage Tree Preservation Act,
which passed the state Senate and moved to the House in June,
would bar anyone from cutting down any tree that was alive in
1850, the year California joined the U.S. as a state. Fewer
than 1% of the state's trees would be affected by the proposed
law. But preservationists say the remaining trees are important
for habitat, while logging interests say the law would harm
Colorado lobbyists Freda Poundstone
and Charles Ford want voters to repeal the state's new law that
limits home-defect lawsuits, according to the Aspen
Times. The pair are planning a campaign to gather 67,000
signatures on a petition to place a referendum revoking the law
on the state's November ballot. The law limits punitive damages
in defect suits to $250,000 and requires any homeowner with a
complaint to give the builder notice and allow a set window of
time to make repairs before a suit can be filed.
Wisconsin builders are backing
efforts to tighten up building code enforcement in rural
areas, according to press reports. Currently, towns with
fewer than 2,500 residents are not required to inspect new
houses for code compliance. Legislation supported by the
Wisconsin Builders Association would require towns without any
building inspector to contract with certified private
inspectors to verify code compliance during construction.
A bill in the U.S. House of
Representatives could help small contractors afford health
insurance benefits for their employees, according to a
press release from the National Association of Home Builders
(NAHB). The bill, H.R. 660, would let small employers band
together to purchase health insurance as a group, giving them
access to lower rates and administrative efficiencies currently
available only to larger companies, says NAHB.