Southern California Works To Address
Post-Storm Florida Faces Plague of Soggy
Homeowner Challenges Michigan
Permanent Coatings Gaining
Changes in California Lighting Law To
Increase Builder Costs
Southern California Works To Address Wildfire
Many local governments still lack codes designed to protect
homes from fires
In the fall of 2003, wildfires in California burned 750,000
acres, destroyed 3,645 homes, and killed 22 people. San Diego
County's Cedar Fire alone killed 14 and wiped out 2,232 houses,
22 commercial properties, and 566 outbuildings as it blackened
more than a quarter-million acres.
Brick siding and a cement roof didn't
save this wood-framed building: Its wood roof and walls were
ignited either by flames that shattered a vulnerable window or
by flaming debris sucked into a roof soffit vent.
The infernos prompted municipal and state governments to take a
hard look at the way homes in the area were built. But this
past fall, as another fire season began with the region
tinder-dry, local governments were struggling to come up with
"Despite the fact that past wildland fires have destroyed more
homes and killed more people than past earthquakes, California
and most cities in San Diego County still have no codes to
address the wildland-urban interface fire threat," reported the
San Diego Regional Fire Prevention and Emergency Preparedness
Task Force in October.
San Diego County adopted new building rules in June 2004 that
mandate double-glazed windows, fire-resistant roofs, siding,
and eaves, and fire-resistant material between roof tiles and
framing. Owners must also clear brush in a 100-foot buffer zone
around their buildings.
But the city of San Diego was still pondering changes in
November. After changing city codes to require class A roofing
last winter, the city council sent provisions on brush
clearing, sprinklers, and fire-resistant exteriors to an
advisory committee for review. The committee's recommendations,
back in front of the board in November, reportedly include
provisions governing gutters, siding, windows, fences, and
sheds. Sprinkler mandates, supported by many firefighters and
adopted by a few smaller cities, remain contentious: Home
builder groups oppose the idea as costly and ineffective.
Urban-wildland interface fire risk is a major concern
statewide. Of the state's 12.5 million homes, the California
Department of Forestry reckons that 7.2 million are exposed to
a high risk of wildfire — 6 million of them located in
areas defined as "urban."
To assess specific ways of protecting a home, University of
California researcher Steve Quarles says builders should look
more closely at site characteristics. For example, San Diego's
Scripps Ranch area, hit hard in last year's fire, was "pretty
much just a tract development," says Quarles. "You had home
next to home next to home, and once the fire got in, the
spacing was close enough that one house would ignite the next.
The way you would protect a house in a development like that
might be different than how you'd protect a house in a true
interface area, where you find a lot of vegetation around the
For close-together houses, says Quarles, radiant heat exposure
from the next-door fire is the major ignition factor. But for
isolated houses surrounded by brush or woods, greater risks
come from flying brands and embers, or direct flame impingement
from nearby burning vegetation.
Wildfires spared many houses seemingly at
random, while leaving few clues in the ashes of their destroyed
neighbors (left). Once a wildfire gains entry to a built-up
neighborhood, it spreads from house to house like any urban
fire, says researcher Steve Quarles. The isolated house above,
built of concrete block and roofed with metal, probably was
ignited by a wind-blown ember that entered a vent. For such
widely separated homes, safety efforts focus on clearing brush
and protecting vents and windows.
Quarles and university colleagues have studied the fire risk
extensively, touring burned-out areas to inspect damage and
conducting tough tests on building materials to simulate a
wildfire exposure. The hit-or-miss pattern of fire destruction
makes it hard to draw conclusions, he notes. "Most structures
were either completely lost, or untouched. There is very little
‘in-between' in a wildfire."
Dumb luck, good and bad, plays a role, he says, "and I don't
think there is any one magic bullet you can apply to your house
and guarantee that it will survive." Still, there are
precautions homeowners can take. "Number one is to do something
about the vegetation near the house, so you don't disadvantage
the house from the get-go." Plantings next to a vent or window
are a major risk: Heat from a burning shrub can break windows
and let flame into rooms, and burning pieces of plant material
can be sucked into soffit vents and ignite attics.
Double-pane windows are more likely to keep out fire, Quarles
says. Storm windows or operable shutters also might protect
windows during a brief fire exposure.
Vent treatments are a complex problem. "There's a whole
discussion in the building science community about whether
foundation and roof vents are even needed in our climate,"
Quarles says, but he's concerned that builders who focus only
on fire protection may be eliminating vents without considering
potential moisture problems.
A variety of venting products, including vents that close
automatically in response to heat, and vents coated with an
intumescent paint that expands when exposed to fire, are
finding their way into the California market. But, says
Quarles, "that makes people a little uncomfortable, because we
don't have a way yet to evaluate those products' performance in
a fire-exposure situation." — Ted Cushman
Post-Storm Florida Faces Plague of Soggy
Months after four hurricanes drenched Florida with record
rainfall, homeowners, builders, and building officials are
puzzling over an unexpected problem: While wind damage in much
of the state was lighter than feared, water damage was
surprisingly extensive. In particular, wind-driven rain appears
to have soaked right through painted concrete block walls in
thousands of new and nearly new homes, ruining carpets and
drywall and fostering mold and mildew.
Orlando television station WESH, which aired homeowner-shot
video of crumbling walls and saturated carpet in November, has
logged more than 600 telephone and e-mail complaints about the
problem. Homes built by nearly all the area's large builders
are affected, according to the station and its sister paper,
the Orlando Sentinel, but only a few builders have been willing
to help homeowners with repairs.
In many cases, insurance companies have also declined to cover
the damage, blaming it on defective construction. Even if a
claim is accepted, says Robert Olin, manager of the Orange
County Building Division, many insurance companies are applying
separate deductibles to each hurricane event. "If you have a
$100,000 home, a 5 percent deductible might be $5,000," he
points out. "Replacing the drywall or carpet in a couple of
rooms is not going to cost that much, and homeowners figure
filing a claim will just cause their premiums to go up."
That doesn't mean they're happy footing the bill, though, says
Olin: "Homeowners are telling me they don't expect any water to
come through their interior walls under any conditions. It just
shouldn't happen, and they want the builder to fix it."
But no one expected the state to experience four hurricanes in
one month — especially such big, wet ones. "Builders say
they've been building the same way for 20 or 30 years and never
had this problem," says Olin, "that it's due to this unique
hurricane event, and that therefore the insurance company
should take care of it."
Builders who say their construction methods met code are
probably right, says Olin. "All our present code states is that
a wall shall act as weather protection for the building; it
doesn't define the term ‘weather protection.' As a code
official, I have a hard time enforcing something that isn't
Florida building officials investigate hundreds of homeowner
reports, Olin says, some patterns are beginning to emerge:
"Before August 2004, there were no problems with water
intrusion through masonry construction. The codes, the
technology, the methods seemed to be working." And the new
problem hasn't shown up in older homes. "We have tens of
thousands of homes made of painted concrete block, dating from
the 1930s through the '60s, and they didn't get the same water
intrusion in these storms."
One explanation for that difference, Olin suggests, has to do
with how many times a house has been painted. "Most homes that
are just a few years old have never been repainted. The ones
that have, we aren't seeing the same incidence. So perhaps five
coats of paint over the years has put pretty good waterproofing
over those older buildings."
Investigators from Tampa, Fla.-based
Construction Moisture Consulting sprayed water on the exterior
walls of 10 Florida homes. Within minutes, interior moisture
readings maxed out at garage-wall mortar joints (top) and
living-space drywall. Soon, water was visibly trickling down
block wall faces (bottom left) and seeping out from behind
baseboards (bottom right).
Sloppy building practices?
Orlando attorney Guy Haggard represents several Orlando
homeowners who are considering filing suit against their
builder. The reason new houses were more affected by the
storms, he argues, is that builders have changed their
practices. "Contractors in the field have told me that in just
the last few years, production builders started putting on
stucco only about an eighth to a quarter inch thick. And then
they started putting on just one coat of paint, with no primer.
They're trying to cut costs any way they can."
Haggard says a report by his hired investigators shows that
walls in problem houses leak not just in hurricanes but during
ordinary rainstorms. His experts have also found evidence of
pre-existing leakage and mold from before the hurricanes. The
storms didn't cause the problem, he asserts, they've just made
people more aware of it: "There was virtually no rain here for
three years. Then the hurricanes came and revealed the problem.
Now homeowners recognize the problem and are looking for it
— and sure enough, after every rain the water comes right
Insurance companies, says Haggard, are all saying the same
thing: "It's a construction defect, and we don't cover
construction defects. It's not a result of hurricanes. And
they're right. There's no hurricane damage to these structures.
Nothing is broken on the house. The water simply goes through
Code change to come? As of
November, building officials in Florida were still tabulating
questionnaire data. Meetings this winter may produce a
recommendation for a code change to require heavier, more
effective waterproof coatings for new masonry walls.
But, says Orange County's Olin, any new rule will require
something of a judgment call. "It's a thorny question: Who
determines how much water is enough? Where do you set the
criteria? Does the wall have to withstand one hurricane, two
hurricanes, three hurricanes? What is the standard? Because
until you establish a criteria standard for that wall —
exactly what you expect it to do — you can't say if the
contractor built it properly or not." — T.C.
Homeowner Challenges Michigan Environmental
Grand Rapids, Mich., lawyer who tried to build a home
on a Lake Michigan waterfront lot was awarded $2 million after
the state tried to stop him. The case is a good example of how
unexpected things can happen to a building project that runs
into an arcane environmental law.
William Heaphy owned what he thought was buildable property in
Holland, Mich., on the shore of Lake Michigan. But when he
applied for a building permit, the town denied it, citing a
state law that restricted building size near the shore. (The
law said that no structure could be built that was more than
three times the size of the first dune facing the water.)
Heaphy sued the town, and won a $25,000 judgment from the
Ottawa County Circuit Court.
But that was just the beginning. The town then repealed the
ordinance to avoid paying the judgment, which put the case
under the jurisdiction of the state's Department of
Environmental Quality. Heaphy applied for another permit, which
the DEQ denied. He took the case to the County Court of Claims
(which hears claims against the state), contending that the
state had, in effect, taken his property. The court agreed, and
awarded him $1.16 million.
At that point, the state tried to compromise by telling Heaphy
that if he combined the lot with two smaller lots he owned, he
could build without violating the ordinance. But because the
lots crossed a public road, he was still unable to get a
permit. The Court of Claims awarded him yet another
The state is appealing the judgment in the State Court of
Appeals. In the meantime, Heaphy is earning interest of $220
per day, which he will get if he wins.
"If I had it to do over again, I might not have bought the
land," Heaphy says. "But if I end up getting a check for two
million dollars, which is where it's at now, I guess it would
end up being a fantastic investment."
Permanent Coatings Gaining
Vinyl siding has become a common alternative to wood siding,
with well-defined trade-offs for both builders and homeowners.
Vinyl is reasonably priced and durable, and it eliminates the
need to repaint. But it also presents aesthetic issues in
custom and high-end homes, as well as in historic projects
where the home's original appearance must be carefully
But now there's another option, thanks to the so-called
"permanent coating" industry. Invented in the late '90s,
permanent coatings are permeable, breathable mixtures of
small-molecule resins and polymers. While some companies refer
to these substances as "spray-on siding," that name is
misleading, because they're actually a longer-lasting
substitute for paint. These days, they're being touted as a way
to have a home with wood siding that never needs
"It goes on 10 times thicker than paint — but the way the
compounds are formulated, when it dries it's only five times as
thick," says Dan McConkey, advertising and marketing specialist
for Alvis Coatings, Inc., of Charlotte, N.C., which counts the
Marconi Museum in Bedford, N.H., among its historical-building
clients. "The end result is that it looks just like paint, and
you can see the same level of detail in the wood grain
Of course, the biggest selling point of permanent coatings is
their durability. Alvis warranties its product for the life of
the home in residential applications, and gives a 25-year
guarantee for commercial projects. Such durability comes with a
price: McConkey says that while the cost of a job varies
according to the size of the house, the expense is two to three
times that of a professional paint job. — C.W.
Changes in California Lighting Law To Increase
In California, the ongoing energy crisis has become a fact of
life for both residents and builders, and so have the
associated higher prices for many basic services. But the
economics of one of those services are about to shift: The
upcoming changes in the California Energy Commission's new
Title 24 lighting standards for 2005 will affect both groups in
The state's broad-based mandate to become more energy-efficient
by switching to fluorescent lighting could provide consumers
with as much as a tenfold cost savings in their lighting bills.
But they will pay for that shift by absorbing higher fixture
costs, and they may need to add dimmer switches to meet the
The law does include some loopholes. For instance, David Wilds
Patton, a lighting designer in San Mateo, says that although
the law states that all light fixtures in the house should be
fluorescent, it does allow some incandescents if they are
placed on dimmer switches. He believes this exception will lead
to a "huge increase" in the number of dimmers sold in
The law also allows exceptions for incandescents placed on
motion sensors, says Patton. "You can get around some parts of
the switch through exception clauses that allow you to use
incandescent lighting if you implement it with a motion sensor.
You see that in normal commercial projects, but we really
haven't seen much of it in residential construction. The
biggest impact will be in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms,
The cost increases for individual items are striking. According
to Patton, a standard fluorescent fixture costs at least a
third more than its incandescent counterpart. The cost of a
dimming fluorescent fixture is 50 percent to 75 percent higher
than that of a standard fluorescent fixture. And motion sensors
hike up the price yet another $50 to $75 per fixture.
Despite the cost increases, Patton likes the move toward energy
efficiency, but he doesn't necessarily approve of the state's
methods. "I'm not positive that the technology has caught up
with the regulations, in terms of people wanting everything in
the house to be fluorescent," he says. "This is an unintended
consequence of the energy crisis, and it's a big change for
builders to get through the transition process."
The new law will likely force designers and builders think of
different strategies for lighting a house. "How do you make the
choice as to what kind of fixture you want to use in what part
of the house? I think it will push a lot of builders toward the
use of lighting designers," Patton says. "That will be good for
us designers, but overall I'm not sure this was the right way
to go." — C.W.
Timber Treatment Technologies (TTT) has introduced a
new wood preservative that the Grosse Pointe Farms,
Mich., company hopes will provide a nontoxic alternative to
traditional, copper-based treatments like ACQ. Called
TimberSIL, the product doesn't kill wood-eating organisms, as
traditional treatments do. Rather, it uses a mineralization
process that makes the wood unappetizing to them. TimberSIL
contains sodium silicate, typically used as a flame retardant.
In the past, sodium silicate's tendency to leach out of the
wood precluded its use as a preservative, but TTT says it has
developed an insoluble form of the substance.
In mid-October, Nevada officials announced a program
to train electrical workers to install photovoltaic
systems, which convert sunlight to electricity. According to an
article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a $250,000 federal
grant will fund the first two years of a state training
program, which will be managed by the electrical trade unions.
The program will train new apprentices and about 80 journeymen
Indianapolis-area Trinity Homes, a division of Beazer
Homes, has set aside $24 million for mold remediation
after a court approved a settlement in a class-action lawsuit
between the builder and owners of more than 2,000 area homes,
according to The Indianapolis Star. The suit had charged that
construction defects such as improperly installed brick siding
and leaky roofs had caused moisture, mold, and other damage.
The work could take years to complete: Trinity has agreed to
complete 216 houses every six months. It also agreed to a
two-year warranty on the repairs.