Paid any attention to flashing lately?
No, not people flashing through your neighborhood… naked. I mean the flashing that’s supposed to be installed on your home to help ensure its ability to shed water.
I’ll bet such flashing is not on your radar, but given the costly damage that occurs when flashing is done poorly, building flashing needs to be top of mind for property owners like yourself. Forget about folks running around naked! This is more important.
Buildings naked of adequate flashing are exposed to the elements much like a human running naked through town after 18 inches of snow dumped on the ground… the building and the human are not likely to make it in the long run!
So let’s talk about building flashing….one of the least expensive and most important parts of a structure. Our goal here is to help you prevent water infiltration; to help you become more aware of flashing; to help you watch out for deterioration in your home’s exterior shell.
And we’re not talking about caulking here. Caulking doesn’t serve this critical role of preventing water infiltration. Sure, caulking is better than nothing, but it’s more cosmetic than bomb-proof prevention. Even if you install the best caulking money can buy, you get but a few years of resilience before the caulking begins to pull away from the cracks that permit water to get in. Sure, the caulking itself may last a long time, but it’s the expansion and contraction of the adjacent building materials that tend to tear the caulking away, thereby exposing the vulnerable cracks to water infiltration.
Much like everything else in life, the quicker you uncover a problem, the easier and cheaper it is to fix. And to make structural problems worse, the rate of deterioration increases over time as wood-destroying organisms (i.e. insects; mold; etc.) set up shop. Gaps and holes get larger, thereby permitting more and more water to make it inside. So you want to nip it in the bud as soon as possible; you want to prevent the entry of water into the wall cavity or into the structure’s framing components.
Flashing is typically located where one building material meets another… around windows and doors; where roofing meets siding; where a water faucet penetrates through an exterior wall; where siding meets exterior trim. Simply put, flashing is the first and most important line of defense against water getting into the voids of a structure through the myriad number of cracks, holes and penetrations. Without flashing, water wins. If water wins, you lose, because wet rot results from water infiltration.
Why does a cheap, yet critical, building material, cause such a racquet? Don’t carpenters and other tradesmen know how to install it well, using some basic, best practices? Wouldn’t building inspectors or plans examiners address these mistakes if a carpenter missed it or installed it wrong?
Quite simply, there is no inspection for it! Flashing is installed after framing and sheathing have been inspected. But the next inspection of the exterior occurs at final inspection, after siding, roofing, exterior trim, windows and exterior doors have been installed. So the flashing is invisible to the building inspector! It’s also invisible to you if you didn’t watch its installation and knew enough about how it should have been installed!
You’d think the code would have specific requirements for how one flashes a penetration through the shell of a building. You’d think a designer’s’ plans and specifications would include such flashing details. You’d think an inspection would be warranted after the flashing is installed… before the builder is allowed to cover it all up with siding.
Yet, for single family residences and duplexes, the code basically ignores the critical nature of flashing. Once the code addresses multi-family construction, though, plans and specifications are required to include detail drawings for proper flashing. But in the City of Bellingham, our research has found, plans examiners aren’t even supposed to review those details!
Many in the building trades had high hopes when the relatively new International Residential Code (IRC) replaced the Uniform Building Code (UBC). The former UBC requirements for flashing weren’t prescriptive enough – the rules weren’t clear enough. This makes some sense… with new materials and procedures hitting the marketplace all the time, the code didn’t want to remain stagnant. Would the code have to change with every new proven methodology and new material? So the rules weren’t specific and what little direction was offered wasn’t being enforced.
The authors of the more recent IRC, thinking that they were placing too much burden on the building inspectors who weren’t enforcing the prescriptive requirements anyway, dropped back to some very generic language, basically saying that a builder should not allow water to penetrate the building assembly… with very little specific guidance.
But the IRC did create some hope because it included language about a drainage plane. It recognized the fact that water typically wins, finding its way through siding, caulking, paint… and even flashing, at times. If reality proves this time and time again, why not accept the fact that water does get behind the siding and create a drainage plane for it to drain down and out, thereby preventing further damage? So the IRC had this to say:
“The exterior wall envelope shall be designed and constructed in a manner that prevents the accumulation of water within the wall assembly by providing a water-resistant barrier behind the exterior veneer… and a means of draining water that enters the assembly to the exterior.”
This ‘means of draining water that enters the assembly to the exterior’ is otherwise referred to as a drainage plane… a small gap between the rear of the siding and the infiltration barrier, allowing any water that made it through the siding to simply drain out at the bottom.
Sounded like a great plan, and quite simple…. install the siding on top of rather thin furring strips, thereby leaving a gap behind the siding!
However, to our amazement, Washington State then pulverized this intelligent strategy by including this exception:
The requirement for a means of drainage shall not be construed to mean an air space cavity under the exterior cladding for an exterior wall clad with panel or lapped siding made of plywood, engineered wood, hardboard, or fiber cement.
This singular exception prevents our local permit centers from insisting upon the proven intelligence of drainage planes.
So what’s one to do to prevent water infiltration? If inspectors don’t look for flashing – in fact can’t even see it … if poor flashing creates wet rot and accelerated building failure, and if drainage planes aren’t required, what’s one to do?
The answer is quite simple… research your builder! Because it’s the builder’s practices, and not the code, that drives the quality of what’s being built. Be sure your builder addresses flashing in their plans and specifications and, if not, insist upon it. Ask your builder if they train their employees to install proper flashing? A simple ‘yes’ isn’t enough; drill down to understand what you’re getting! And insist upon drainage planes of the vulnerable planes of your home.
“Put your money into the things that are hardest to change later: good design, good relationship to the site, good foundation, good basic structure, good energy conservation. The finishes are easy to change later if you can’t afford to do them all right now.” – Marc Rosenbaum
And consider this: does your methodology to select your builder tend to find those who know what they’re doing? Think about it: if you’re getting competitive bids on some work, do you think a lower price will include best practices for proper flashing? Doesn’t it follow that a company offering a low price may not train their folks as well?
We have an expression in-house that goes like this…’pay us now or pay us later’. We find that there’s a significant cost in trying to save money. Because, in the long run, after you’ve paid the initial cost of a low price, later to aggravate this spending with wet rot repair and the like, did the low initial price really save you any dough?
“We always pay dearly for chasing after what is cheap.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Our business model looks like this: best practices, although more expensive in the short run, produce the best value in the long run.
Allow us to go one step further… if builders are notorious for leaving out, or poorly installing, inexpensive yet critical things like flashing, what else are they doing that may lead to later costs?
Unfortunately, builders are notorious for this lack of quality control. We all need to recognize that ‘building to code’ is hardly the right standard to brag about. Anything less, in fact, is illegal. And, given the arguments contained herein, we all need to recognize that the code doesn’t recognize flashing!
That’s why we find ourselves repairing so much rot. That’s why we’re performing more and more wellness exams, or Pre-Remodel Condition Evaluations. And that’s why we want to help you prevent a similar story, in which water infiltration finds its way into your home’s structural voids… and into your pocket book.
Consider following one such story. We carefully documented Piper Mertle’s story for you HERE. It’s a fascinating story we hope to help you avoid.
“As a physician, I am aware of how insidious cancer can be. I was not, however, previously aware of how insidious and destructive water infiltration related to poor flashing around new window replacements can be to a home’s structural integrity. In my case it turned out to be the equivalent of house ‘cancer’.
“I purchased a house in Edgemoor that had previously undergone a minor remodel with the replacement of 9 large ‘view’ windows. A low bid was chosen by the previous owners. Six years after the installation I discovered that the south facing exterior wall, where the window replacement occurred, showed signs of deterioration. I pulled off an exterior cedar board only to see extensive rot with evidence of prior termite activity. I called 2 different contractors recommended to me for an assessment. The first said he could replace the rotten exterior boards and do some caulking and be done in a few days.
“Rick Dubrow, owner of A-1 builders, was suspicious of more extensive, occult, underlying damage, in excess of what could be identified on initial inspection. His extensive knowledge of the destructive nature of water infiltration was apparent. He described to me how many of his projects were related to poor workmanship involving the limited understanding of proper flashing. After subsequent, more extensive evaluation by his carpenters, the scope of the project enlarged greatly… and should have. The damage was far more extensive than what was readily apparent. Sure glad we caught it when we did!
“From the get-go, the methodical and “scientific” approach Rick and his colleagues demonstrated impressed me, as did the subsequent weeks of meticulous repair/reconstruction”. The repaired wall is ‘like new’ again! It is now obvious to me that when you do a construction or reconstruction project… you get what you pay for!!! And what you are paying for with a professional is accrued knowledge and expertise.
“I give my accolades to Rick and his crew.”
Jonathan Franklin, MD