Construction Defects, The Flood to Come, Part II (June 3, 2006)
Look closely at this photo of a famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Pasadena, Calif., which I referenced in a recent entry (The American House and Frank Lloyd Wright) Do you see the blue tarp?
Yes, it's the dreaded sign of leaks--a blue tarp can be seen draping the upper left wall. Even a building designed by a famous architect and built by experienced craftspeople can leak (or in the case of new, radical designs, will probably leak.) What's my point? Just that it is unfortunately very easy to get construction defects, as either a by-product of poor design, product failures, inadvertent onsite errors or slapdash, hurried construction.
A knowledgeable correspondent had this to say about my recent post on the possibility that the current building boom might well engender a flood of construction defects: (my emphasis added)
I enjoyed your article however you are *dramatically* understating the scope of the problem. I was directly involved as an expert architectural investigator for construction defect litigation in southern California for 12 years. In virtually every project (and nearly every unit) built in SoCal I could find issues that qualified as construction defects. In SoCal the industry is dominated by very large builders and the projects are large - ranging into the hundreds of units. The defects were particularly egregious in multi-family construction, mostly due to the complexity of the building type. The issues typically were not only related to water intrusion but also to structural (particularly seismic compliance) issues, soils (cut/fill and compaction), stucco application, firewall construction, building separation and site grading (particularly regarding water ponding and drainage directed to foundations).The correspondent went on to say:
I might also add that at about the time I burned out on the business the law firms (and their coterie of experts) were rapidly expanding operations in Las Vegas and Phoenix. In fact a close friend bought a pretty fancy twin engine plane to do the 'commute' since he was back and forth so much. The point is that these were for projects built in the 1975-1985 building cycle which was tiny for LV and Phoenix compared to the current mega cycle.I would certainly second that request.
The points made by this astute reader are disturbing, for they confirm the view that the problem isn't just hurried construction built by inexperienced workers, but a legal apparatus which encourages expensive (and not always useful) construction litigation (sometimes the building doesn't even get repaired, despite all the money thrown around in court), and an overworked inspection system. Inspectors, often seen as obstructors by builders and lenders alike, are faced with increasingly complex systems within buildings as well as larger absolute numbers of buildings to inspect.
The problem is also one of scale and materials; a modern three-bath house has a greater probability for plumbing errors than a one-bath house from the 50s simply as a result of the increase in joints and fixtures. Materials aren't the same, either; particle board will swell up and crumble when wet in a way which old solid-wood subflooring did not. Bathroom fixtures were once made to last (you can still buy a decent Chicago Brand faucet, but it may cost $100 rather than $20) whereas modern cheap faucets fail after an alarmingly brief lifespan. Modern waterproofing like Tyvek seals the exterior walls so securely that any leakage inside walls tends to accumulate rather than evaporate.
There are dozens of such changes in practises and materials which provide more chances for errors to creep into the construction process; and as the easy flat land gets built out, new housing in many parts of the country is built on less stable soil.
For another informed view, let's turn to another knowledgeable reader's comments: (my emphasis added)
Thanks for writing this (entry on construction defects). It’s interesting to read it coming from someone who has been a builder and has admitted to making construction mistakes as well. I agree that construction defects could be a near future crisis in housing. In January 2004, Consumer Reports stated 15% of newly built homes had at least two serious defects.Here is an excerpt from the Consumer Reports article cited above:
Why the problems? Many experts point to the country’s 10-year housing and real-estate boom. The top 100 U.S. home builders together sold an estimated 1,000 new homes a day in 2002, or one-third of all new-home sales.This reader's commentary is equally disturbing, for it suggests that at least some significant percentage of builders has addressed the problem not by tightening their standards and improving their defect rate but by invoking legal limitations on the homeowner's recourse should defects not get repaired. Furthermore, it points out the the high cost of building with shoddy materials; all the raw materials, oil and labor that went into producing the throwaway product is wasted once it fails and is tossed into the landfill.
From my point of view, this is yet more evidence of the Wal-Martization of American values: "lowest prices--always." The fact that low-priced junk fails quickly and must be replaced with high-cost American labor is ignored in this "cost-saving calculus," along with the horrendous environmental costs of such waste.
What can we conclude? That it is partly a matter of perspective; if you are the developer or builder, defects are your nightmare; as the homeowner or homeowner's advocate, they are the source of outrage and frustration; as an attorney, they might be your bread-and-butter, and as a city official, they are one of your ever-present concerns.
The upshot? Just this, perhaps: know what you're buying (or having built) well.
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