When we talk about the new house, we’re always focused on the look.
Nobody talks about the lasting look or what it takes to get one. What’s required to ensure that your new house will look as good in 30 years when your mortgage is paid off as it did on the day you moved in?
The answer: a strong focus on durability, which is “the most underrated aspect of any new house,” said Dan Chiras, a green building expert, teacher and author of “The New Ecological Home,” who is based in Evergreen, Colo. It’s surprising that it gets such scant attention from the buying public, he added, because over time it’s the reason that some houses come to be valued more than others.
In every market in the country, there are houses that command higher prices because of their durability. These houses are rarely labeled as such. Instead they are identified by the name of the person who built them because his or her work has stood the test of time. In some cases, the builder’s reputation lives on long after he or she has passed from the scene.
For example, Washington, D.C., home builder Henry Wardman became well known for the several hundred houses he built in the northwest area of the city from the 1910s through the ’30s. To this day, nearly 70 years after he died, they are still known as “Wardman houses.”
Having once owned a Wardman house myself, I can attest that it was very solidly built. When we sold it 21 years ago, its metal roof had lasted nearly 60 years, and the original furnace was at least 10 years into overtime and still going strong.
Durability certainly requires quality materials, Chiras said. But it also requires an inordinate amount of attention to the details — both large and small — that keep water out of the structure.
Superior framing with high-quality lumber, the best type of insulation to max your energy savings and lower your utility bills, and the Leonardo Da Vinci of interior paint jobs will all be damaged if they endure prolonged exposure to moisture. Not only will this produce mold inside the wall cavity, but it can also cause the wall to rot, said Chiras, noting that such a disheartening discovery was recently made by his neighbors not long after their final payment on a 30-year mortgage. In their case, the entire exterior wall had to be rebuilt at a cost of $125,000.
Two kinds of moisture affect houses: one is rainwater and the other is condensation from moisture-laden air. In our discussion, Chiras focused on the rain issue.
To keep the rainwater out, the first line of defense is a good roof to protect the living spaces below, Chiras said. Just as important, however, are the gutters and downspouts that carry off the rainwater that hits the roof surface. While homeowners appreciate the function of the gutters and downspouts, few realize where, exactly, the water should be discharged from them, Chiras said. The sweet spot is about 6 feet from the house, far enough to keep the rainwater from affecting your foundation and basement.
The cheap and easy fix is a 6-foot metal extension at the base of the downspout, but it can be easily kicked off or dented by a wayward lawnmower or an exuberant dog (a problem we’ve experienced at our current house). The more expensive, but more effective solution is a downspout that empties into a buried drain that expels the water some distance from your house.
Rain that falls in your yard can also be a problem. To keep this source of rainwater from affecting your foundation walls and footings, the ground around your house must be sloped away from it. The degree of slope required can vary with soil type, but generally it should have a minimum slope of about 5 percent, Chiras said. To the untrained eye, this looks basically flat. To ensure that you are maintaining this slope properly, he recommended that you increase it somewhat because the slope is easier to maintain when you can see it.
Even with the correct slope around your house, some of the surface runoff will be absorbed into the soil, which will also be taking in water from elsewhere in your yard. As the rainwater works its way down to the water table, it can go every which way, including up against your foundation walls and footings. To keep it out of your basement or a crawl space, the foundation walls must be waterproofed on the outside, generally with a black, gooey substance made from tar. With the goo in place, water runs down the wall, collecting in a French drain encased in gravel that runs along the top of the footing. The French drain carries the water away, preventing further mischief.
The water will also try to come in through your basement slab. To stop this intrusion, the slab sits on thick polyethylene plastic sheeting. This in turn sits on top of a 6-inch bed of gravel that drains off any water coming its way. (Gravel that naturally occurs in soil creates excellent drainage; acreage with this condition is prized by vineyard owners).
You’re still not done with the rain. It can also hit the outside walls of your house, sometimes quite forcefully. Your cladding might be a waterproof material like vinyl or a water permeable one like brick. Either way, those pesky raindrops can wick their way behind the cladding through the tiniest of cracks. To keep this water from penetrating any further, you need a drainage plane. That is, a layer of black, asphalt-impregnated paper, or Tyvek, the same stuff used to make Fed Ex envelopes. When the water hits the Tyvek, it runs down and out.
Next is the flashing. Where one material meets another on the exterior, water can also wiggle in. To stop it, you need metal flashing strips to bridge the two, as for example, where the siding abuts a window frames. Proper flashing is essential for the roof, especially in the valleys created when two sloping roof surfaces intersect.
And finally the caulking. This is applied where on the exterior two materials meet and there is a potential air leak that can allow moisture to get into the building wall, as for example, where the siding meets the protruding pipe of a garden hose faucet. You can also have both flashing and caulking in some areas, for example around window and door openings.
A critical fact about caulk that many homeowners forget is that it doesn’t last forever, Chiras said. It must be regularly reapplied by a conscientious homeowner. How often depends on where you live.
And even when all these precautions are taken to keep rainwater out of your house, you can still have substantial water “intrusion” because of circumstances beyond the builder’s control. When the basement of our Wardman house flooded, the source was next door. Our neighbor’s basement had flooded, and the water went right through the 12-inch brick firewall between our houses.
Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be reached at www.katherinesalant.com.