March 5, 2004
Low-Quality Residential Construction
I received a short but important email last night. Paul Schieber wrote: "I'm a student at Bob Jones University. My major is carpentry and am doing a research paper on how construction quality has declined (both materials and the work itself) compared to the 1950's. I saw your column titled 'The Pursuit of Perfection', and was wondering if you could give me reading materials on the subject or point me in the right direction."
I thought about his request for a moment and couldn't come up with any quick references to trade publications that have tackled the subject head on. The first thing that did come to mind is a website run by homeowners who have been victimized by poor-quality construction. It is called Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings. No doubt its acronym - HADD - is a play on MADD.
If you have been a victim of poor construction, you may want to share your story there. The facts you place on the table may help an unsuspecting homeowner in your city or town. In fact, you may become a chapter president. One woman who I have helped over the years overcome a nightmare encounter with a Michigan builder is now president of the Michigan HADD chapter.
Grassroots movements like this have huge power since they can distribute facts via the Internet. Of course that is the most important thing: tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what may have happened to you.
Remember last's week's mention of Ed Littell in Arizona? You know, the guy that transforms regular fluorescent light fixtures into windows to the sky? Well, I got a great email from a woman. Here it is *unedited*:
"I believe my gynecologist has had one of these skyscapes, for years, in the fixture just above the examining table (with stirrups). Just thought you'd like to know, Tim."
Name Withheld By Requet
That email made me grin for hours. Why? Because it reminded me that there are fantastic subscribers to the newsletter who have a great sense of humor. We all need more humor in our lives - at least that is my opinion.
So, The mailbox is Open! If you have a comment of any type - positive, negative, humorous or a related story you want to share about an item in the newsletter, I am bringing back to life the Letters to the Editor Section of the Newsletter.
DEAR TIM: I know this sounds crazy but I am thinking of building a home from concrete blocks. Are there any advantages? What about disadvantages? I am concerned about safety and cold temperatures. Will the block crack if it gets extremely cold? Melissa L., Braxton County, WV
DEAR MELISSA: Surely you are acquainted with fairy tales. Believe it or not, there is much wisdom in those great stories. Read the fairy tale about the three little pigs and you will quickly learn that a house built using masonry materials resists not only the big bad wolf but also wood destroying insects, fire and much more. Open any world history book or visit Europe and you will also discover things that built with stone and masonry materials can last for thousands of years.
A home built using concrete block is nothing new. Travel to the South today and you will see many homes built using concrete block. It is an excellent choice as termites can infest and start to destroy a wood framed home that does not have adequate protection. Concrete block homes that include easy-to-install steel reinforcing can stand up to vicious hurricane winds. Fire typically does not cause a well-built masonry home to collapse. These houses can often be restored with much less effort than a wood frame home destroyed by fire.
Concrete block homes also work well in areas that suffer from earthquakes. Once again the architect or engineer simply has to specify inexpensive steel reinforcing rods that are inserted into any number of hollow voids in the concrete block. A wet concrete mixture of sand, cement and sometimes small rounded gravel is then poured into these voids. This wet mixture surrounds the reinforcing steel and once it cures and hardens imparts incredible strength to the structure.
It is vitally important that a registered engineer develop the specification for this reinforcing steel. It might also be in your best interest to have the engineer stop by the construction site as the home is being built to make sure the steel is being installed correctly. This may require more than one visit.
The thermal mass created in a concrete block home has numerous advantages. There is far less air infiltration if the home is built well. Concrete block homes are virtually soundproof if you purchase high-quality windows and doors that have excellent weatherstripping. The void space between the window and block must also be sealed well to stop air that acts as a sound-transmission conduit between outdoor noise and your ears inside the home. The thick masonry walls also help to maintain comfort within the home, especially if they are well insulated. Keep in mind that Native Americans used mud and masonry homes to stay cool in the extreme temperatures of the desert Southwest.
The disadvantages of building with concrete block are few in my opinion. There is a slight aesthetic issue. If your builder uses regular concrete block with no facing, your home will possibly look like a warehouse. You can purchase concrete block that has very interesting texture and shapes. Concrete block can be stuccoed readily and this extra masonry can be tinted to nearly any color so you will never have to paint the home.
You need not worry about concrete block and cold temperatures. If the block is well made and the builder installs it according to all industry standards, the block will withstand any cold weather Mother Nature can muster. The block and mortar will also resist repeated assaults of cold rainy weather for many years.
You should proceed with your plans to build with concrete block. There are several associations that represent the manufacturers of this material and they probably can show you any number of photographs of homes built with concrete block. My guess is you will be amazed as the block is hidden by other common building materials both inside and out. I strongly recommend that you also hire an architect and engineer who can prove to you they have designed numerous concrete block residential homes. The experience they bring to the table will be invaluable as the plans progress.
SIDEBAR CONTENT # # #
Concrete block has been used for years to build residential homes. During the 1950's in many parts of the nation, four-inch hollow block was used as the back-up masonry material for brick homes. The outside of the home was brick, but the inside rough surface was concrete block. Furring strips were nailed to the concrete block and plaster or drywall was then applied as the interior finish surface.
The positive attributes of concrete block far outweigh any negatives aspects. The biggest hurdle will be finding a builder that is familiar with concrete block. All too often certain building methods and techniques get kicked to the curb in favor of newer methods. New does not always mean better, not by a long shot. What’s more, there have been many innovations with concrete block over the years. Any decent concrete block supplier can astound you with all of the possibilities and advancements in simple concrete block.
You should consider getting a great new magazine - Extreme How-To. I am the Editor-at-Large of this publication. Getting in on the ground floor of a new magazine launch is very exciting. You should come along for the ride!
I just built a house with a very large “cooking” masonry fireplace. The opening is 6 feet long by 4 one half feet high, the top is arched. I have days when the fireplace works wonderfully and other days you can see the smoke going up but then it swirls and comes out at the very top. If I keep a door slightly open across the fireplace for a while it does not do that. Other days I don’t have to open the door, it works great for days. Then all of a sudden the next day I will have the smoke billowing out. Why does it do it some times and not other time? Help!!
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Fireplaces smoke because they are not built right. There can be many different defects: improper firebox design, missing smoke chamber, chimney flue too large, chimney height too short, etc.
Many people do not realize there are distinct relationships between the width and height of a fireplace opening and the shape, size and sloped faces of the internal firebox size of the flue and the overall height of the chimney. I have covered this topic in great detail in a past column about Smoke-Free Fireplaces. A table showing the size relationships for firebox openings, the firebox dimensions, etc. are in a past Builder Bulletin.
You can use the information in the table to determine if the fireplace firebox was constructed properly. If is defective, you are going to have to bite the bullet and get the builder to do it right the second time around.
Posted by Tim Carter at March 5, 2004 10:33 AM