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Stucco, Water Woes and Rot
Sunday, 13 May 2007

Water woes
As recently built stucco houses continue to rot from moisture damage, critics say a change in the building code won't solve the problem and will make it harder for homeowners to sue. After cutting away a section of stucco from Dean and Gayle Dworak’s Hugo home Monday, Bruce Boerner scraped at soggy oriented strand board he found underneath. The stucco home, built in 1998, has significant water damage. The Dworaks may sue the builder of their million-dollar home.

Water woes
Jackie Crosby, Star Tribune, May 12, 2007  

 Photo by Glen Stubbe , Star Tribune
Engineer Bruce Boerner took a photo of mushrooms growing out of a window frame of Dean and Gayle Dworak’s house in Hugo.

As recently built stucco houses continue to rot from moisture damage, critics say a change in the building code won't solve the problem and will make it harder for homeowners to sue.
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"Too bad they're not truffles," she said with a derisive laugh. "That might help us pay for some of this."

She and her husband, Dean, built and moved into their million-dollar, two-story home in Hugo in spring 1998. Facing more than $200,000 in repairs, the Dworaks anticipate they will have to sue their builder over what they claim is a shoddy construction job that investigators say wasn't even built to code.

Thousands of homeowners in Minnesota and across the nation whose stucco homes were built in the 1990s have found themselves in a similar bind. Many builders didn't understand how the airtight stucco construction would trap moisture. They used noncode materials and didn't make sure to install windows, decks and rooftops in a way that would steer water away from the home.

Years later, the moisture inside the nonbreathable stucco has resulted in extensive rotting and mold problems that can cost hundreds of thousands to repair.

Now, some Twin Cities engineers, inspectors and attorneys are raising concerns about a pending change in the building code that will allow builders to use the type of water barrier used in the Dworaks' home, a material they argue has proved to be ineffective in the fight against stucco's moisture problems.

"It's highly irresponsible," said Bruce Boerner, an engineer with Advance Consulting and Inspection in Lakeville. "I've got hundreds of reports and photos to show why, after 20-some years, we shouldn't change the code."

Since the mid-1980s, the building code has called for builders to install two layers of Grade D paper between the stucco and the wooden wall sheathings as a water barrier.

However, consumer advocates and experts like Boerner say that the vast majority of homes with water damage didn't have two layers of Grade D.

Instead, builders used a different water barrier not allowed by code: a less expensive and less breathable material known as No. 15 asphalt felt. That's what contractors used on the Dworaks' home.

In March, an administrative law judge recommended a code change promoted by the stucco and builders associations that would allow contractors to install either Grade D or No. 15. The change will take effect July 10.

To be sure, there are financial interests on all sides. Homeowners in the Twin Cities have gotten an estimated $100 million a year in damages from builders and their insurance companies, according to some. Boerner said homes he's inspected in the past year need about $15 million in total repairs. If No. 15 asphalt felt is allowed, homeowners could have a harder time proving that the code violation contributed to the damage, attorneys say.

"Part of the problem is that builders didn't follow the code that existed at the time," said attorney Brenda Sauro of Hammargren & Meyer, which specializes in residential construction defects and has been hired by the Dworaks. "Now the judge has adopted the Builders Association's recommendations wholeheartedly without looking at the hundreds and thousands of homes that already have that construction technique -- and are failing."

The Minnesota Lath and Plaster Bureau as well as the Builders Association of Minnesota counter that the paper itself is not the problem, but the way it's installed. No. 15 is allowed in commercial buildings, they say, why not residential as well?

"No. 15 felt has been used by the plastering industry since the 1950s," said Steve Pedracine, executive director of the Plaster Bureau. "It's absurd for the opponents to say it's a step backward."

Pam Perri Weaver, executive vice president of the builders group, called the paper debate a "red herring" and said her goal in supporting the code change was to give builders better installation techniques for the paper as well as windows, roofs and other known problem areas.

"There's not a home in the state that's built 100 percent to code," she said. "It's a guideline, a minimum. What's happened over the course of the last three years is [that] it's become a legal document that can be sued from. That's why we've spent time paying attention to what the words say, making sure it can be understood by the builder. Because it's how the builder nails that paper to the board or installs that window is where push comes to shove."

Engineer Bruce Boerner took a photo of mushrooms growing out of a window frame of Dean and Gayle Dworak’s house in Hugo.

As recently built stucco houses continue to rot from moisture damage, critics say a change in the building code won't solve the problem and will make it harder for homeowners to sue.

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