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It’s 2015 and they still build like this…

Peter L | Posted in Energy Efficiency and Durability on

Brand new build going up in Phoenix, AZ. What you see is completely 100% framed and ready for stucco. The missing OSB sheathing is done on purpose. They do “open framing” and only use sheathing 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 and then put 1″ of rigid EPS on the outside and use conventional stucco to finish it off.

A recent blower door test on a home like this showed 15 air changes per hour.

ALL of the duct work and air handlers are installed in the 150F unconditioned attic.

The gable wall you see is just a standard truss and it will be left open like that, NO sheathing. Once the home is completed and if you go into the attic and lean on that gable wall. You can damage the wall and move the entire gable wall with just one hand. In high winds the gable wall will actually flex and rack. A truss like that has very little horizontal shear strength.

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Replies

  1. Alan B | | #1

    Looks very secure, someone wants to rob the place and all they need is a kitchen knife or a steel toes boot or a piece of 2x4 or 4x4

  2. Peter L | | #2

    Alan,

    Funny you should say that. A few years ago a rash of home burglaries took place in Phoenix and the way the burglars were breaking into the homes wasn't through the windows or doors. They would cut a hole in the wall between the wood studs and just crawl into the home.

    You can take a flat tip screwdriver and with one hand press it against the stucco wall and the screwdriver will break through very easily and end up inside of the home.

    When the stucco crew installs the rigid foam on the exterior they have to be careful so they don't place a ladder or lean against the home or they could fall through in-between the studs and end up inside of the home.

  3. Peter L | | #3

    You have 5 studs in a row that provide a great thermal bridge but they did thermally break the one stud underneath the window by actually physically breaking it. That's one way to stop a thermal bridge, just splinter the stud when you run electrical ROMEX through it.

    That window flashing detail leaves a lot to be desired. The peel & stick membrane doesn't have anything sold (OSB sheathing) to adhere to. That will result in a wall leak. After a heavy monsoon rain shooting thermals on these walls is a fun venture. Leaks galore. Most of the time the fiberglass batts absorb the water so the homeowner is clueless about the leak. Although in very heavy rains the batts can't hold the water any longer and the drywall takes it on and begins to show water damage.

  4. Alan B | | #4

    I believe in Texas test tubes were declared illegal since they could be used to make drugs, Arizona may ban drywall knives (and saws) and finally screwdrivers because they are burglary tools. On the plus side it will prevent these houses from being put up.

  5. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Peter,
    My favorite detail here is the "attaching flashing tape to air" detail.

    I think we can all agree that 15 ach50 is a lousy blower door result. I think we can also all agree that these days, most walls need more R-value than is provided by 3.5 inches of fiberglass batts and 1 inch of exterior rigid foam.

    That said, I can conceive of ways to make this wall assembly work. If an engineer has reviewed the plans to make sure that the walls are properly braced, a conscientious builder could tape the rigid foam layer to reduce air leakage, and the rigid foam layer could become the WRB. It's also possible to use sprayable caulk on the interior to reduce air leakage. Of course, I doubt if these builders do that.

    .

  6. Charlie Sullivan | | #6

    Martin, to make your plan work you'd also need EPS with embedded razor wire to deter burglars. I understand that startup costs to open an EPS operation are reasonably low. Business opportunity anyone?

  7. Peter L | | #7

    The house of horrors doesn't stop there. When they stretch the building paper layer over the open void of the studs every 16" o.c., they end up ripping the paper in dozens of spots because without the OSB sheathing there is no solid backing surface. The paper ends up ripping between the studs and they end up stapling the paper to open air since they miss the 1.5" stud area. They end up totally massacring the WRB.

    Then comes the 1" foam and that gets nailed down and the workers once again have a difficult time finding the studs so the foam gets beat up badly. Now comes the tricky part. Where the OSB Sheathing exists, they have to switch from 1" foam to 1/2" foam because they have to compensate for the wall thickness and have a flush surface to stucco on. So where there is open framing (no OSB) they use 1" foam. Where there is OSB sheathing, they switch to 1/2" foam. This then gives them a flush surface for the stucco. It's a COMPLETE DISASTER, trust me.

    Then comes the metal chicken wire lathe and that gets nailed and stapled on also. After all this the rigid foam looks like someone took a hammer to it and beat it to death. Which is exactly what happens. The R-Value has to drop due to the damaged foam.

    To add injury to insult the walls typically do not have any overhangs so when it rains the stucco takes on and absorbs the water. As the water makes its way past the stucco and foam the ripped up building paper lets the water get past it and the R-13 fiberglass batts take on the water like a sponge.

    Yes, folks, that's how they build them in the wild west. Coming from the Midwest where I lived in a home that was built in the 1960's but 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.

  8. User avatar Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #8

    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.

    The skim-coat-of-stucco-on-1" 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. 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.

  9. Alan B | | #9

    No minimum codes for houses like these?

  10. User avatar Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #10

    Most of AZ code is based on IBC/IRC 2009:

    http://www.iccsafe.org/about-icc/government-relations/map/arizona/

    Under IRC 2009 air tightness can meet code either by inspection criteria per TABLE N1102.4.2, or blower door testing to 7AHC/50 or less. A 2x4 /R13 (no exterior foam) is all that code demands for most of the state:

    http://publicecodes.cyberregs.com/icod/irc/2009/icod_irc_2009_11_sec002.htm

    Could a house tested at 15ACH/50 could be later "passed" based on a visual inspection (of the $100 tip slipped to the inspector)?

  11. Peter L | | #11

    Alan & Dana,

    Maricopa County (Phoenix metro area) does NOT require the blower door test. 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. Suffice it to say, without OSB sheathing and only building paper stretched between most of the stud centers, it's a leaky mess at 15 ACH50.

    Yavapai County and Coconino County which comprise Northern Arizona, they have more stringent codes since they are Climate Zones 4 and Zones 5.

    The home photo at the top of the thread is of course a 2-story home and around 3,200 square feet. They will install TWO 5-ton A/C units, one for each floor. The monthly summer A/C bill on this type of home will average around $350 - $500 per month depending on where the occupants set the temperature at. Typically, they set it at 79F but for those who like it colder at around 75F, they will see the $500 a month bill.

    The A/C units on these homes short cycle a lot because the house is so leaky and so poorly insulated that after the A/C shuts down it doesn't take long for the home to heat back up again when it's 110F outside. The units usually run about 15 minutes long, turn off for about 10 minutes, then turn back on again.

  12. Peter L | | #12

    Here you can see how they finished off the window peel and stick flashing. Since there is no OSB sheathing to adhere to they simply just let it flop around in the wall cavity. The building paper is put over the window wrap.

  13. Peter L | | #13

    Here is the bottom sill plate and you can see daylight between the weep screed and the sill plate. The black building paper and the rigid foam is already installed on the outside wall. There is no OSB sheathing so the weep screed has no solid backing to lay flat on and adhere to.

    There is some HORRENDOUS air leakage going on here. The entire perimeter of the home has these large gaps. You can also see a green tube in the picture. What is that? Glad you asked. Since the homes have these large gaps at the wall bottom they install "pest tubes" which are hollow tubes that they pump high-pressure pesticide spray. This then sprays poison into the wall cavities to kill off the bugs the crawl into the wall cavity. The R-13 fiberglass batts are squeezed onto one side of the horizontal tube so to answer your other question. Yes, the batts are incorrectly installed.

    Yes, this is for real.

  14. Peter L | | #14

    The attic is no better. The attics out here get to above 150F during the summer and take a look at this DUCTOPUS inside of an unconditioned attic. The 2 air handlers are also located in the attic. When the systems turn on the rooms get blasted for the first 15 seconds with hot air.

  15. Alan B | | #15

    Impressive, the design is so poor they have to add supplementary systems to attempt to compensate (while possibly poisoning the occupants). If this is the minimum required by code it would be interesting to see how much cheaper they could make it without code.

  16. Nate G | | #16

    This being Arizona, and the labor I suspect largely being illegal immigrants, without a building code they would probably build it like they do back in Mexico: with masonry. It would probably wind up being 100 times better than this monstrosity.

  17. Alan B | | #17

    If it were better and cheaper they would already do it because it would exceed code. You don't have to degrade your building to meet code, its the minimum you have to at least achieve, the codes were instituted because building quality was so poor it put lives at stake. Obviously the code here is pitifully poor, but i will assume if it meant decent you would complain even more strongly while still arguing it would be better without it.

  18. Nate G | | #18

    Assuming I'm right that most of the laborers are illegal Mexicans, it's not really about code vs non-code. I see this same kind of thing here in New Mexico. You tell a bunch of Mexicans to lay block and plaster it, and they'll do a beautiful job, code or no. 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.

  19. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    Nate,
    Your obsession with "illegal Mexicans" is entirely misplaced.

    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. 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.

  20. User avatar Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #20

    Peter: IRC 2009 doesn't require blower a door test- it's only an option in lieu of inspection, an "either-or" type of deal. Inspection works, if it's a quality inspection.

    But given the photographic documentation the inspector would have needed an amazing pair of inspection glasses to give it a pass.

    A CMU wall in zone 2B (Maricopa County AZ: http://publicecodes.cyberregs.com/icod/irc/2012/icod_irc_2012_11_sec001.htm ) would meet code with only an inch of EPS on the exterior (http://publicecodes.cyberregs.com/icod/irc/2012/icod_irc_2012_11_sec002.htm ), and would be a heluva lot nicer build than the house in the pictures. It's even easier to do a decent looking cementicious EIFS hard coating on Type II EPS cap-nailed to a CMU wall than what they're doing with the framed walls.

  21. Nate G | | #21

    Who's obsessed? Dana is obliquely making the same argument as mine, albeit in probably a more politically-correct manner. :) I stand by my assertion that the pool of local skill in this region of the country is better with masonry than wood. That said, everyone can share in the responsibility for this mess. The developer can take the blame for the bad design, but these pictures show plenty of egregious installation errors as well. CMUs might even have been cheaper when you account for the cost savings on the stucco, interior wall covering and finish work, omission of integrated poison system and termite pre-treat, and lower callback rate. Houses like this are a class-action lawsuit away from bankrupting their builder.

  22. User avatar Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #22

    I certainly be loathe make broad assertions about what Mexicans (documented or otherwise) can/can't do well- not even about those Mexican family members of mine whose talents & skills I'm very familiar with.

    It's an open secret that undocumented labor is widely (ab)used in the house building industry in the southern US. 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. Even if it only takes 2% more time to get a detail right, if the employer doesn't demand it the error rates those details will soar, and if they DO demand it they go to near-zero. There are crappy builders everywhere, and if nobody is calling them to task on it, that becomes the accepted standard. 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 builders or inspectors parts to make it happen.

    Apparently there is a quantity over quality standard at work here, but it has nothing to do with the immigration status or general skill level of the labor pool. If the contractors find doing the worlds-worst stick built assemblies cheaper, faster and more profitable, that's where they'll go. But a quality code-min build in that climate would put thermal mass to good use, though it would be slower and more expensive to build than code-min EPS framed-tents with batts & bug-juice squirters in the framing. I doubt very much that insulated code-min CMU is cheaper to build than framed code-min construction in AZ, but it may not be a huge up-charge.

    Still, 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.

  23. Eric Habegger | | #23

    "Still, 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."

    Wow, Dana, you said a mouthful there and so true! I happen to think that there is a basic connection between regions that support completely unfettered capitalism, and the kind of building shown here. But for some reason the same individuals that will complain about these buildings won't make the connection why the worst examples appear in those areas. More Goldman Sachs please. One cannot seem to have a more balanced and common sense idea of economics without receiving their ire.

  24. Expert Member
    Malcolm Taylor | | #24

    Dana wrote:
    "Code enforcement is spotty even in the best of markets, all but absent in others."

    I'm beginning to think we are fortunate outliers here. I have part one of our Building Envelope Inspection on Monday. That's when we walk through and discuss how we are going to detail the walls and openings, flashing, etc. Later he will come out to inspect the rain screen, and then the finished envelope. We have a separate insulation and air-sealing inspection for the interior too.

  25. Peter L | | #25

    I was fortunate enough (or maybe unfortunate) to speak to one of the builders and they were candid and stated that they don't care about energy efficiency. They stated that they would leave the wall cavities without insulation if they could. Granite tops and fancy kitchen cabinets sells homes. R-Values and energy efficiency does not. They finished off when the statement that they sell the home and walk away. Who cares what the monthly electric bill is? The builder doesn't have to pay it, only the homeowner (s) for the next 50+ years are stuck with the high energy bills.

    It's sad but true. Everything on the "sale sheet" for these homes is all about square footage, fancy tile, fancy cabinets, crown molding, large garden tubs, etc. 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, windows, the missing OSB on the walls, etc. It's all hidden behind drywall and stucco.

    The only thing that will change this is EDUCTION and AWARENESS of energy efficient homes. How they make the home very comfortable to live in, quiet, low cost of ownership, low utility bills and good for the environment (fossil fuel reduction to heat/cool).

  26. Alan B | | #26

    "The only thing that will change this is EDUCTION and AWARENESS of energy efficient homes. How they make the home very comfortable to live in, quiet, low cost of ownership, low utility bills and good for the environment (fossil fuel reduction to heat/cool)."
    I wish it would but like you said, people care about the granite countertops. When energy doubles or triples in price and incomes fall drastically, then people will care. Its only a small percentage of people who care about how or why things work, most everyone else thinks about whats on TV, how to get through their day at work why they have no money since they just got paid and what are they doing this weekend.

  27. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #27

    This conversation reminds me of a blog I wrote back in 2009. Here are the opening paragraphs:

    "The average new home is so poorly built, it’s enough to make an environmentalist weep.

    "Windows are routinely installed without any consideration of orientation. As a result, south windows fail to take full advantage of free solar heat during the winter, while west windows worsen summer overheating. Windows are often installed in unshaded walls, even in hot climates. In the absence of legal requirements for high-performance windows, builders regularly choose windows with appalling U-factors and solar heat gain coefficients (SHGCs).

    "In the southern U.S., air-conditioning ductwork is still routinely located in attics. Most builders insulate walls by hiring a low-bid subcontractor to stuff fiberglass batts between the studs. In the U.S., unlike in Sweden, most new homes receive occupancy permits without ever undergoing a blower-door test.

    "Yet the low standard achieved by U.S. builders is understandable — even logical. Many builders ask themselves, “Why should I pay for foam sheathing?” After all, builders don’t pay heating bills — homeowners do. In other words, the interests of builders and homeowners are not aligned."

  28. Expert Member
    Malcolm Taylor | | #28

    "The only thing that will change this is EDUCTION and AWARENESS of energy efficient homes."

    Or, as we have here, a stringent building code and the will to enforce it.
    Cars didn't become more efficient or safer through education or awareness. The manufacturers were dragged into making improvements by new standards.

  29. Peter L | | #29

    This photo shows on how easy it is for the crews to damage the building paper layer since there is no OSB sheathing behind it to support and back the paper.

    With these types of rips and penetrations the water during rainstorms will find its way into the wall cavity and soak the R-13 fiberglass batts and damage the drywall if it gets wet enough.

  30. Peter L | | #30

    This is what happens when it rains. The exterior stucco wall must be ripped open and the wall dried out and it resealed (hopefully) to not leak again. This leak was discovered when the interior latex paint created a water bubble and the latex balloon popped and leaked everywhere.

    Other leaks are not as evident as they soak the fiberglass batts but do not get to through the drywall. The way these leaks can be found is after a rainstorm one would walk through the interior of the home with a thermal camera.

  31. Lucy Foxworth | | #31

    Peter,
    I think you are providing a service just by showing people how these homes are built. It is abysmal, no one wants to live in a home built like that. No homeowner who has seen these photos would want a home by that builder. They would realize that the home is not secure and cannot be comfortable without significant expense.

    I've been stunned by these photos. Some of it is kind of funny in a pathetic way, I especially laughed about the air flashing.

    Do you have a blog or a Facebook site? You could post it some of your photos there under "State of the Art Home Building in Arizona" or "What the Building Code Allows in Arizona". Somebody will google it and be amazed as we are that builders think this is an acceptable way to build a home. You don't have to disclose where these examples are located. You'll be educating people to ask questions about the structure of their homes.

  32. Lucy Foxworth | | #32

    I wrote a sample blogpost on my blog about this topic. I think that if we had a good name for a blog or a Facebook site that would get on the search engines, I think we could have a decent shot at doing some effective education.

    I am not a good writer. I just wanted to put a sample post out there just to try to get stuff started. I am also going to post this link on the Scott Gibson article about this topic.

    Let me know what you think - titles for the blog, topics, etc. We'll see if we can get one started and have an impact.

    http://greenvillegreen.blogspot.com/2015/07/home-construction-in-wild-west-so-you.html

  33. Lucy Foxworth | | #33

    Peter,
    I am trying to read some stuff about Building Code in the Cite of Phoenix. On this page of the Building Construction Code Change Proposal (https://www.phoenix.gov/pddsite/Documents/iecc_amend.pdf) I am trying to figure out if the code was changed for attic duct insulation to R-6 from R-8.

    Why would anyone argue for that in a SERIOUSLY hot climate? I find it hard to believe that the other changes are more cost effective. R-8 is crazy low for that climate anyway.

  34. Peter L | | #34

    Lucy,

    I believe it is R-8 for attic duct insulation but that is ridiculous like you said. The use foil wrapped in fiberglass batt insulation for the attic duct work. I highly doubt it really performs as R-8, even so, sitting in a 150F attic kind of defeats the whole purpose since the air handler is not insulated and it sits in the attic. When the units turn on you get blasted with 100F+ air.

    Best practice is to install the ducts in a conditioned attic since there are no basements out here. Everything is pretty much slab on grade.

  35. Lynda Robertson | | #35

    @Lucy

    Remember the Three Little Pigs? I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house down.

    Gotta love a pig logo, and http://www.blowyourhousedown.com is available, $2.99 on GoDaddy. :)

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