Readers of GreenBuildingAdvisor’s Q&A forum, and the bi-monthly Q&A Spotlights, are probably used to thorough parsings of seemingly small details in high-performance construction. But GBA reader Peter L. brings our attention to an elemental question: Are we still in the dark ages of residential building?
A case in point is a partially completed house near Phoenix, Arizona, that Peter says is missing only a layer of rigid insulation and building paper before it will be finished with a coat of stucco. The photos he sends show whole sections of wall without sheathing, and a bizarre detail of using building tape to seal window flanges to nothing but air.
“Brand new build going up in Phoenix,” Peter writes. “What you see is completely 100% framed and ready for stucco. The missing OSB sheathing is done on purpose. They do ‘open framing’ and use sheathing only where required. The rest is open 2×4 framing.
“They will stuff R-13 batts within the 2×4 walls, staple on some building paper, then put 1 inch of rigid EPS on the outside, and use conventional stucco to finish it off,” he continues. “A recent blower door test on a home like this showed 15 air changes per hour. All of the ductwork and air handlers are installed in the 150°F unconditioned attic.”
Construction at this level has some obvious problems and some not-so-obvious flaws as well. With no sheathing in spots, for example, burglars can get inside with nothing more formidable than a screwdriver.
Is this type of construction typical? And what would home buyers think if they could look beneath the skin of a house like this? Or maybe we’re just generally too fussy. Those are topics for this Q&A Spotlight.
Damage to exterior foam and building paper is common
Peter describes the typical construction sequence after framing and partial sheathing this way: First, applying a layer of building paper, and second, a 1 inch layer of rigid foam insulation before the stucco crew moves in. But because some areas aren’t sheathed, there’s no solid support between the studs to prevent ladders and careless workers and tools from breaching the building paper, which is the weather-resistive barrier (WRB), and breaking the foam.
A lack of solid sheathing also makes a weather-tight window installation difficult, if not impossible. Window flanges should be taped to the OSB sheathing, but where sheathing is missing the tape is applied to nothing but air.
“When they stretch the building paper layer over the open void of the studs every 16 inches, they end up ripping the paper in dozens of spots because without the OSB sheathing there is no solid backing surface,” Peter says. “The paper ends up ripping between the studs and they end up stapling the paper to open air since they miss the 1.5-inch stud area. They end up totally massacring the WRB.”
Crews have an equally difficult time nailing the foam to the studs, so that layer, too, gets mangled. A lack of roof overhangs means that rain gets past the stucco layer, past the foam and ripped building paper, and in some cases right into the R-13 fiberglass batts in the wall cavities.
The lack of wall sheathing is also an invitation to easy entry by burglars. Once they figure out where the studs are located by tapping on the wall, it’s not difficult to cut their way inside with nothing more than a utility knife.
“Yes, folks, that’s how they build them in the Wild West,” he says. “I come from the Midwest, where I lived in a home that was built in the 1960s. It never had a water leak through the wall and one couldn’t break in by cutting a hole from the outside wall. That home that is 55 years old was better built than this junk they are putting up today.”
Regional market conditions are a factor
Are shoddy construction practices the result of regional market forces? Dana Dorsett thinks so.
“My understanding is that local markets in much of the Southwest demands a very low price per square foot, which drives all sorts of cost-cutting measures (including rampant exploitation of undocumented labor) for builders to stay competitive,” Dorsett writes.
“The skim-coat-of-stucco-on-1-inch EPS sheathing with the minimum amount of shear panels or cross bracing doesn’t exactly offer much confidence about the longevity of the building, even if the big bad wolf doesn’t show up to huff, puff, and blow the damned thing down,” he continues. “But sadly, it seems to be the current standard in the region. I’m sure there are a lot of trailers that will last longer than some of these houses.”
Also, local building codes are apparently no help.
Most Arizona building codes are based on the 2009 version of the International Residential Code, Dorsett says, which requires an inspection or blower door test results of 7 air changes per hour at 50 pascals or less — half the leakage rate of houses built like this.
“Maricopa County (the Phoenix metro area) does not require the blower door test,” Peter replies. “The county amended any codes requiring blower door tests. The blower door test that was done was merely for reference purposes to see how tight or leaky these new homes are. “
And the result is very high energy bills for residents.
“The photo at the top of the thread is of course a two-story home and around 3,200 square feet,” Peter adds. “They will install two 5-ton AC units, one for each floor. The monthly summer AC bill on this type of home will average around $350 to $500 per month depending on where the occupants set the temperature at. Typically, they set it at 79°F but for those who like it colder at around 75°F, they will see the $500 a month bill.”
Is the local labor pool a factor?
Writing from neighboring New Mexico, Nate G suggests that part of the problem is that undocumented Mexican workers that make up most of the labor pool are more familiar with masonry construction than wood framing. Not taking advantage of their skills, he says, is a missed opportunity.
“You tell a bunch of Mexicans to lay block and plaster it, and they’ll do a beautiful job, code or no,” Nate writes. “You give them a pile of lumber and tell them to build a house, and it comes out like that mess, even with codes and inspections. They simply don’t have the cultural knowledge of wood construction that others do; they can do masonry, but we don’t ask them to do it here. They can’t understand why.
That’s not it at all, says GBA senior editor Martin Holladay. “Your obsession with ‘illegal Mexicans’ is entirely misplaced,” Holladay says. “The fact that this house has almost no wall sheathing, and convoluted ductwork in an unconditioned attic, has nothing to do with whether the workers on the site were born in Denver or born in Guadalajara,” he continues. “I’m sure that it was the developer who approved the design and specifications, and directed the contractors to install just a few sheets of OSB on the corners, and to route the ducts through the attic.”
Construction workers do what their employers pay them to do, Dorsett adds. “It’s an open secret that undocumented labor is widely (ab)used in the house building industry in the southern U.S.,” he says. “But regardless of citizenship or other status, construction workers do what their employers pay them to do, at the quality standard that the employer demands…
“There are crappy builders everywhere, and if nobody is calling them to task on it, that becomes the accepted standard,” Dorsett continues. “It doesn’t take a lot of training or time to fix most of the construction detail issues in those pictures, but it does take some willingness on the builder’s or inspector’s parts to make it happen.”
He doubts it would be much cheaper to insulate a house built with CMUs to code minimums would be much cheaper than stick-framing, but the difference probably wouldn’t be huge.
“Still,” he says, “if the market isn’t asking for it, it won’t get built. We can all shake our heads about the insanity of it all, but that’s the way it is. Code enforcement is spotty even in the best of markets, all but absent in others.”
Builders would do even less if they could
Peter spoke with one of the builders on the project he’s documented, and learns that energy efficiency isn’t very important.
“They stated that they would leave the wall cavities without insulation if they could,” Peter says. “Granite tops and fancy kitchen cabinets sells homes. R-values and energy efficiency do not.”
The sales brochure for these homes, he adds, is focused on square footage, fancy tile work, cabinetry, and molding, “and nothing at all about R-values and air-sealing techniques.”
“Most people buying homes are clueless about what is inside of the walls, ceilings, or windows, or the missing OSB on the walls,” he says. “It’s all hidden behind drywall and stucco.”
Our expert’s opinion
Peter Yost, GBA’s technical director, had this to add:
Why are we still seeing this sort of stuff in the 21st century? I think that this video, “If Cars Were Built Like Houses,” provides part of the answer. Yes, quality can be achieved on the job site, but the process is inherently more than just challenging.
In this specific instance — production homes in hot dry climates — is there really any way that high performance can be achieved? I think so, for these reasons and with these caveats:
Open-cavity face-sealed stucco homes are being built regularly in the Southwest that comply with Energy Star Version 3.0 and offer thermal comfort guarantees and space conditioning energy bill guarantees. (See, for example, Environments for Living Platinum homes in Phoenix.)
Ducts in unconditioned space never cut it; high-performance production builders in the Southwest primarily insulate and air seal at the roofline.
If you include home security as part of the definition of a high-performance home, then “open-cavity” wall assemblies clearly don’t cut it. (Pardon the pun on “cut.”) But then there are “high-performance” production builders in the mid-Atlantic using thin-profile foil-faced panels (such as Thermo-ply who would not make the cut either.
To build high-performance buildings, you have to invest in training the trades, and when you do, they get it.
Many years ago, when I was working in the Building America program at Building Science Corporation, we did a case study on a production builder in Banning, California, who had the most amazing build team. (The guy’s name was Josh, but I can’t find the case study on the BSC or the Building America Solutions Center.) The “champion” was a very young project manager who trained, treated, and lauded every building assembly (and HVAC) contractor and their crews with 100% attention to detail. At a site meeting I was invited to attend, every single worker — right down to the young tiny guy insulating and air sealing all the lousy and tight spaces in their attics — was incredibly proud of his work and their product. These guys “fought” to stay on the crews working for this particular manager. Latino or Anglo—no one cared. It was doing good work with good results that drove this team and their work, and it really showed.
When you hear someone in the building industry say, “Buyers just aren’t interested in energy efficiency or performance,” it’s because they are not interested. I am so tired of hearing this; it is flat-out never true. Imagine someone buying a car or other “performance” purchase saying, “I don’t care about miles per gallon or horsepower or if the heater, defrost, or air conditioner works well.”
It’s not that home buyers don’t want performance or energy efficiency — they just don’t connect those attributes to their home purchase, strange as that may seem. If you make that connection for them, they move very readily from buyers interested in curb appeal and granite countertops to savvy performance-interested buyers. This would all be a lot easier for builders and buyers if realtors, appraisers, and lenders understood buildings as performance products too, but that is another problem I am tired of ranting on…