Home buyers urged to protect themselves

A few years ago, Randy Smith was asked to investigate leaky windows in a five-storey Calgary condominium. “We opened it up and it was all rotted, top to bottom,” said Smith, a building science engineering manager with Williams Engineering Canada in Calgary. “The columns were rotted, supporting the decks; we actually had to condemn the decks.”

A few years ago, Randy Smith was asked to investigate leaky windows in a five-storey Calgary condominium.

“We opened it up and it was all rotted, top to bottom,” said Smith, a building science engineering manager with Williams Engineering Canada in Calgary. “The columns were rotted, supporting the decks; we actually had to condemn the decks.”

It cost about $875,000 to repair the four-year-old building — an extreme example of what can happen when a building envelope fails, but by no means an isolated incident, said Smith.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg. I think most buildings have issues, it’s just a matter of how severe.”

Smith was in Red Deer on Friday to conduct a presentation on building envelopes and what can happen when they’re not designed or constructed properly. A civil engineer, he’s specialized in building envelopes for the past 18 years.

When moisture is allowed to penetrate a building, mould and rot often results, said Smith. That can lead to health and safety issues, as well as costly repair bills and disruptions for the occupants.

The problem is easily preventable.

“On a $350,000 house, to do the building envelope properly with all the details that I’d want, it’s about five grand,” said Smith.

“To rip off the back of a 2,000-square-foot house and redo the stucco is 40 grand.”

Deficient building envelopes are less common in large commercial structures, said Smith, explaining that such projects are usually well-designed and carefully inspected.

“Multi-family residential is typically where we see the most problems, and the most expensive problems. And then single-family homes are, from what I see, a disaster.”

Smith attributed this to designs not being properly vetted, inappropriate materials being used or improperly installed, poorly trained tradespeople, a lack of co-ordination and communication between trades, poor supervision, inadequate inspection and testing, and an overall failure to pay attention to detail.

“Out of all the building envelope problems we investigate, about 75 per cent is greed and about 25 per cent is stupidity.”

The problem grows worse when builders are busy, as they were prior to the recent recession, said Smith.

“This latest construction boom will easily give me buildings to work on until I retire,” predicted the 50-year-old.

Steve Bontje, president of the Central Alberta branch of the Canadian Home Builders Association, rejected Smith’s concerns.

He said most tradespeople are very skilled and have completed the regulated requirements of apprenticeship programs. Builders also obtain ongoing training, he added, including in areas like moisture control.

Members of the Canadian Home Builders Association are required to have third-party warranty protection, and all builders must adhere to the Alberta Building Code, said Bontje.

“At the end of the day, we want happy customers and we want to be proud of our products, so I don’t think anyone tries to cut corners at a homeowner’s expense.”

Smith said the Alberta Building Code is not a high standard.

“It’s not the best way to build it, it’s the minimal way to build it.”

When problems do arise, said Smith, it’s often difficult for homeowners to obtain redress.

“For a homeowner to fight something, it’s long and painful and expensive.”

He recommends they take steps to protect themselves before a loss occurs.

When choosing a builder, home buyers should search for past lawsuits and complaints to the Better Business Bureau, said Smith. Detailed construction plans should be obtained and the builder asked how important elements like the roof will be built.

Hiring an inspector to monitor construction is also an option, he said, as is visiting the site regularly and taking pictures.

“You want the builder to know that you’re on top of it.”

In the case of existing homes, look for existing signs of trouble, advised Smith. These are unlikely to materialize during the first year, but by years five to seven problem areas should become evident.

“That’s usually where the nasty bits start to show up.”

Many builders now work with building envelope consultants to ensure their work is sound, said Smith. But he stressed the importance of being aware of building envelope concerns and taking steps to protect yourself when buying a home.

“The key here is to raise the issue with the public. It’s very much buyer beware.”

Information about building envelope consultants can be found online at the Alberta Building Envelope Council South website at www.abecsouth.org.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com