Building With the Future in Mind Since 1955

This is a story about a repair project we did in the spring of 2012 for Piper Mertle at 617 Marine Drive in Bellingham; it’s a story we hope you don’t have to repeat.  That’s why we’re going to describe it in detail; that’s why Piper agreed to include her name and address… so that you’re better able to connect to an actual person and an actual home in our community.

Here's a look at the window wall facing southwest, the direction of our region's most exposed wind-driven rain.

Here’s a look at the window wall facing southwest, the direction of our region’s most exposed wind-driven rain.

Piper called us for help because of a chronic problem of water infiltration into her living room through just one of many picture windows.  And this only happened during the worst of storms. We’re not talking about a lot of water or much readily apparent damage… some stucco cracking on the exterior; some drips inside during severe wind-driven rain.  This story is humbling because of the relative difference between the vast amount of structural damage you will see in these images, as compared to the minor symptoms visible prior to deconstruction.  Who would have known…

Piper, a teacher at Sehome High, did a major remodel with another builder in 2006, about 11 years after moving into her home in 1995.   The remodel  involved deconstructing the structure down to the subfloor of the main floor, thereby saving the foundation, main floor assembly (posts, beams and joists) and subfloor. The changes Piper wanted to make to her home warranted such an aggressive strategy…  22 large dumpsters were needed to cart the quantity of debris away!

{Jokingly, Piper also said she’d put her name and address out there to bring attention to her band!  So Rick asked her for a link to her French-Cowboy band called ‘Fever Creek’ and she said that you can find the group on Facebook by searching for ‘Fever Creek’ or go here… Hey Piper, what the heck is French-Cowboy music?}

After this extensive remodel all of the new windows just installed leaked due to a manufacturer’s defect, so they were replaced yet again only this time with a better grade window more aligned to the weather exposure they face… atop the bluff above the railway tracks on Marine Drive.  In fact, when a train comes by, the top of the rail car is at the level of Piper’s yard, and the tracks are right next to her rear yard property line!  So her home is completely exposed to our worst wind-driven rains from the southwest.  Worse yet, her home is atop the bluff so the winds are driven up the face of the bluff before slamming into her home.

One window continued to leak even after they were all replaced again and it is this window that led her to call us.  “I think I had 3 contractors look at the leak but I only hired the one who caulked it ineffectively. Some people thought the cracks in the stucco were causing the leaks; others thought is was caused by improperly installed windows.”

Here's a first glimpse at what we discovered during demolition!

Here’s a first glimpse at what we discovered during demolition!

When asked why she called us in particular Piper listed these reasons:

      1. She had listened to Rick’s radio shows on KMRE -FM and liked what she heard.
      2. She read, and appreciated, Rick’s columns in the Cascadia Weekly.
      3. She already knew Cindi (our VP; Manager of Adaptations Design Studio; Rick’s wife).
      4. She had played music with Rick’s son, Orin, years ago. Orin and his wife Kendra were part of a well-known, local bluegrass band called “Feed and Seed” and, as you might know, local musicians are a pretty tight crowd.

During this initial phone call with Rick, Piper shared a few more details:

      1. A second window was also leaking but more intermittently.
      2. The main leaking window presented these symptoms:  the interior drywall at the top of the window was stained and had started separating from the window and the adjacent drywall; the dripping water was starting to damage the interior window sill.
      3. The finished interior wood floor was starting to show signs of discoloration.
      4. No one had used any testing equipment to try to use building science to determine the cause of the chronic problem.
      5. During substantial storms the home quivers  — not unlike other homes but it does indicate the significance of the winds she gets; 90 mph gusts have occurred; she can also feel the house vibrate when trains pass by.
We didn't want to leave you hanging, so here's another first glimpse at the finished product. Please read on to understand how this story unfolded...

We didn’t want to leave you hanging, so here’s a first glimpse at the finished product. Please read on to understand how this story unfolded…

Here was Rick’s initial thought:  if numerous people already looked at the problem, and caulking was already attempted, it was time for some forensic work.  So he suggested she call Leon Costanten at First Choice Building Inspection Service ((360) 647-7486; www.firstchoicebis.com) Piper immediately recognized Leon’s name given that he had done the initial home inspection when she bought the home in 1995. “Oh yeah… Leon,” she said with confidence… the same confidence Rick throws his way; the very reason he suggested his name!

Piper hired Leon and his suggestion after visiting the site was to do an actual test of the window to simulate wind-driven rain.  In more technical terms, he wanted to perform an ASTM E1105  test … otherwise called the Standard Test Method for Field Determination of Water Penetration of Installed Exterior Windows, Skylights, Doors, and Curtain Walls, by Uniform or Cyclic Static Air Pressure Difference.

Here’s a slideshow of this test on Piper’s home.  You’ll see Leon working with our Production Manager Patrick Martin (wearing a hat) and our Project Manager Chris Pasquini (wearing a blue t-shirt). PLEASE NOTE: IF YOU START THIS OR FUTURE SLIDESHOWS IN THIS ARTICLE YOU THEN HAVE TO STOP THAT SLIDESHOW SO THAT THE NARRATIVE DOES NOT JUMP UP ‘N DOWN AND DRIVE YOU CRAZY!

  • Leon Inspection (49)
  • Leon Inspection (5)
  • Leon Inspection (32)
  • Leon Inspection (38)
  • Leon Inspection (39)
  • Leon Inspection (41)
  • Leon Inspection (45)

In lay terms, this test involves:

      1. Directing a controlled spray of horizontally directed water at the window and its surrounds, thereby simulating the environmental-equivalent of  45 to 50 mph wind-driven rain.
      2. Isolating the inside surface of the window with plastic and creating a negative pressure (i.e. a partial vacuum) within this enclosure.
      3. Using a thermal imaging, infrared camera to track if — and where — water penetrates the window and its surrounds.  Why infrared?  Remember back to high school physics… if water is getting into the wall void some of this moisture will evaporate, and evaporating moisture cools in temperature, thereby allowing the infrared camera to pick up the temperature change.

The test clearly showed water infiltration above the window. Leon’s conclusions:

      1. This window was not installed correctly. (Obviously, if the same trades person installed the other windows, logic would say that similar issues may affect some or all of the other penetrations.)
      2. The cracks in the stucco were probably not the cause of the problem; instead, the cracks were a symptom of the problem… poorly installed and flashed windows.
      3. Water may be reaching this window from above the window itself, perhaps because of the poor installation of the upper window as well.

So Piper hired us to deconstruct this window area; pull off the siding and remove the window; study its installation and why it failed. The game plan included the total elimination of the stucco on this bay-facing region of the home.  All of it.  Instead of replacing the stucco with stucco yet again, Piper agreed to new fiber-cement HardiPlank siding and primed cedar exterior trim.  In addition — and perhaps of utmost importantance — we would incorporate a drainage plane installed behind our new siding.

What’s a drainage plane?  Simply put, the logic for a drainage plane is this: water wins!  Water will infiltrate any and all siding; it will prevail; it will infiltrate through small cracks in caulking, siding, flashing, overhangs… it just does! 

A drainage plane simply helps drain the water out of the building  instead of allowing moisture to soak into the building materials, which is conducive to the development of mold and rot.  Again, simply put, the idea is to create a space behind the siding so that any water that has made it there can drain down and out.  This is one arena where being down and out is a good thing!

So off with the stucco… this next slideshow reveals what we found beneath this cladding.

  • Mertle During (390)
  • Mertle During (398)
  • Mertle 4-17-12 (3)
  • Mertle 4-26-12 (13)
  • Mertle 4-26-12 (14)

Deconstruction allowed us to conclude the following:

      1. The primary cause seemed to be the lack of adequate building wrap (often referred to as an infiltration barrier, or a weather-resistant barrier (WRB)).  Best stucco practices insist upon two layers of 60-minute building wrap because the layer closest to the stucco or other cementicious material will break down over time due to the alkalides in the mortar. HERE is a link that addresses this.
      2. We suspect that another contributing factor was the flexibility of the wall itself… given its exposure to the wind and the amount of glass.  Once the stucco cracked and water was able to get in, it had no way to get out.  The deterioration was just a matter of time.
      3. None of the windows were installed with head flashing which probably contributed to the failure as well.

This next slideshow reveals the reconstruction process, just prior to painting.

  • Mertle During (487)
  • Mertle 4-26-12 (2)
  • Mertle During (598)
  • Mertle During (635)
  • Mertle During (705)
  • Mertle During (811)
  • Mertle During (546)
  • Mertle During 5-15-12 (3)
  • Mertle During 5-15-12 (75)
  • Mertle During 5-15-12 (42)

For a more detailed, critically important discussion of proper weatherization techniques, go HERE to learn about the infiltration barrier, flashings, drainage plane and siding that make our installation secure and dependable, even against weather such as Piper’s home must stand up to.  Know that every production person on our team has been well trained on these weatherization techniques.  And we don’t stop there… on Piper’s project, for example, we had the DuPont rep visit the site because the unique challenges there warranted this visit; we wanted to get it right the first time!

Rick asked Piper what advice she’d offer to other property owners and she had this to say:

“Find the right person to figure out what’s causing your problem. Know that water can migrate sideways!  Until Leon came on board no one could identify the problem, but everyone wanted to fix it!

“I sure appreciate A-1 Builders promptness, quality and cleanliness.  Thanks for coming to my rescue!”

The point of our story is not to avoid buying or living in a home on a wind-exposed bluff facing the southwest! Sure, this is the worst case weather scenario and, therefore, the quality of construction is more important in this case than for a home naturally protected from the elements.  Instead, our point is that you should pay attention to your home and chase down the cause of symptoms you see as soon as possible.  It continues to shock us  just how fast mold and rot can settle in and make your life — and pocketbook — miserable.  Don’t wait! Remember that the symptoms Piper experienced were very minor… some interior drywall and trim staining that went along with minor water infiltration during substantial storms.  Then look at the resulting rot!

Don’t wait! Call us…

We have an in-house expression… pay us now or pay us later. By this we mean that building things correctly costs more than not, right?  A no brainer.  But when clients are faced with trying to save some dough, it’s easy to jump into a low price while overlooking why a lower price may be less… is it because the builder has not done enough training on the techniques described in this story?  In the end we find that you get what you pay for.  In Piper’s case, the faulty workmanship would have cost pennies on the dollar to have gotten it right the first time: another layer of building paper and some flashing… some of the least expensive building materials out there!  Instead, saving these pennies cost Piper dearly.  Instead, please, please, please… pay us now and let us do the right thing!  In the long run, this is your best value. Waiting until later will cost you a whole lot more.

This story is another reason to consider a periodic evaluation of your home for suspect symptoms.  Consider having someone like ourselves perform a wellness exam on your most expensive and most precious asset.  In the long run these condition evaluations will prove invaluable and will probably save you a lot of money… and heartache.  (Go HERE to see a sample Pre-Remodel Condition Evaluation).

Imagine Piper’s heartache while standing in her backyard looking up at her 6 year old wall after we removed the stucco.

Let us help you avoid said heartache!

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