Builder: A Changing Definition

I don’t care for the term “builder” anymore. I recognize that my perspective on this may be miles away from where the public is at. The term brings me such a negative feeling, now, largely because today’s “builders” are building half a million dollar homes that can’t keep water out for a full ten years. And maybe it’s because I’ll talk to my windows dealer or kitchen cabinetry dealer to find out which options are available to meet a client’s needs and they will start by offering the “builder” grade products at the bottom of the crap heap. Sorry, but not really, because it’s true.

It wasn’t always this way. A builder used to be a revered craftsman. As a matter of fact, they would absolutely HAVE to build quality homes. Why? Because a builder didn’t have these new “super materials” to hide behind. A builder used to have to know how to keep water moving out over the face of the roofing and siding. Super materials are things like ice and water shield that can seal out all sorts of moisture, when properly incorporated. Ice and water shield is not entirely new, having been on the market for probably thirty something years. The thing is, though, that a layer of ice and water shield should never, ever be anything more than a magnificent insurance layer. Water should really never touch it, but always be directed out over the face of the shingles, or siding, etc..

And if one of the builder’s homes did leak, he was in for it. It would be a big deal because technology and a diverse array of power tools were not there to get him through it quickly. Building and repairing were much more labor intensive. And without ice and water shield to slow the water down, the leak would rear it’s ugly head before the one year anniversary. There would be no insurance company taking the hit, just the builder. These painful lessons are sometimes the greatest for personal growth.

That was how it used to be. Then, what happened to those good old days? Well, I believe that the building boom of the 80′s featured a perfect storm of crap. People had been laid off from their jobs due to a recession. Eventually, the real estate and building markets came roaring back with a vengeance. The big kingmaker this time around was the proliferation of building technologies. We now had all sorts of power saws and nail guns for framing, siding, roofing, and finish work, and ice and water shield to cover one’s hiney on the roof. The net result was that any old Joe was now either a carpenter or a builder.

I remember being just a puppy in the trade in the 90′s. Having a classical education from a 3rd generation, old school German carpenter, even a puppy like me could pick out some of these 80′s garbage houses from the good ones.

Alright, where does that leave us today? Today, being a “carpenter” or a “builder” is well within the reach of anybody that believes it can be bought in a big box store. “Yup, I just got me a new nail gun, a couple of saws, a new truck, a contractor’s insurance policy for $700 and now I’m a contractor.” Well lucky duck! And as far as being a “builder,” this term lost all prominence with the association of “builder grade” product lines. I’ve been hired time and time again to solve rot and water infiltration problems at the personal homes of “builders.”  Their own homes aren’t lasting more than ten years before being stricken with rot.

Nowadays, you rarely see a builder saving some select hardwood trees on the lot for either a little shade or character for the home. Builders don’t bother to learn about how to position the home in relation to the sun, how to orient the interior layout to maximize the sun (like having a sun filled kitchen or breakfast nook in the morning to get your day started), or how to properly incorporate soffit overhangs to allow for solar heat gain from the low winter sun, but still provide protection from the higher summer sun.

A builder, these days, often means nothing more than a guy or a gal with a checkbook, a vision, determination, and a lack of respect for the craft. They buy the lots, pick a home plan from a generic book, and hire the subcontractors and “carpenters” to build it. How do they hire these tradespeople? Well, I suppose if I didn’t know there was any difference I might hire according to the bottom line.

Unfortunately, the craft of carpentry is being dumbed down as well. When I was first learning the trade, a carpenter had to know how to use surveyor’s tools to layout and position the concrete forms for the foundation. He would then frame, roof, and side the building. Next, it was time to move indoors for insulating, followed by interior trim work and finally building his own kitchen cabinetry in place. Now, guys and gals need only know four skill sets: Framing, roofing, siding, and interior finish and cabinet hanging. That would be absolutely wonderful if the guys and gals calling themselves “carpenters” actually had training and experience in these four areas. Unfortunately, we’re becoming an instant gratification nation. Nobody’s interested in paying their dues. If you want to be a carpenter, just buy a nail gun, watch a YouTube video, and just as if a magic wand had been waved over your head…Boom! You’re a “carpenter!”

Although there’s a vast library of material to draw from, there’s no need to get into tons of examples to back any of this up. Indeed, most people that have been homeowners more than five years have some first or second hand knowledge of this.

Are there “builders” out there, today, that are REAL craftsmen and women? Absolutely. Finding them will be a whole other issue; they are such a dying breed. The best advice I can give would be to listen to the counsel of your friends and family. Remember, however, that your friends and family may not be in the best position to judge the competency of a builder. You see, just about every project sparkles the same for the first few years. It’s usually after the first five years that problems will begin to surface. So, those friends and family members that have been using a builder long term, well their endorsement should carry more weight. Most importantly, have patience and speak with long time clients to find out how their homes have performed. and how the builder has responded to any issues arising.

 

By John Bradshaw

 

Plywood ‘vs OSB (Waferboard)

Sometimes choosing the building materials that suit us is a difficult decision. In the case of plywood ‘vs OSB, it’s a no brainer.

The home is a system, exterior claddings, framing and insulation, and interior claddings that all interact with each other on some level. The most important variables playing into this equation are: Air movement into and out of the building envelope (factoring heavily into heat loss), vapor transmission to and from the building envelope, and strength.

Air movement- how drafty your home will be- is the same for either plywood or OSB, theoretically speaking. The most important thing to remember is to properly nail the plywood on the outside walls and roof. That means extra nails at all edges, and adjusting the depth setting on the framing gun from super deep setting for framing, down to relatively shallow for shooting ply or OSB. Otherwise, your nails will blow most of the way through it and you’ve lost strength.

Speaking of strength, there is a difference between OSB and plywood. I’m no engineer, so let me relay my personal experience. I was fresh out of high school in the early 90′s and learning about framing houses on the coasts of Beverly and Marblehead, Massachusetts. We often had to build to withstand hurricane force winds, incorporating shear walls to resist lateral wind pressure. When we built the walls laying down, we had one of two choices for bracing it against the wind (no complaints about Bob Seger stuck in my head right now). We could use plywood and lay the sheets across the studs and stagger the joints every four feet in each successive course of real plywood and the stength of the plywood would brace the wall; or, we could cut diagonal bracing into the wall studs from top plate to bottom plate before sheathing with cheap-o OSB. Hopefully this information gives some perspective as to strength.

Next is vapor transmission. This is slightly more involved. Wood can absorb moisture just fine and, when allowed to properly dry out, can repeat this cycle indefinitely. It becomes a problem when the wood doesn’t have the opportunity to dry out. Therefore, the drying process is critical.

Your home is built almost entirely out of building components that hold moisture. The amount of moisture that they hold depends on: The types of materials used, the amount of humidity created by inhabitants (about 70% of a home’s humidity is from occupants cooking, showering, watering plants, dog dishes, perspiring, etc.), the relative humidity in the atmosphere, and of course the amount of air flow in and out of the home.

To allow the home to dry out, we must allow for slow vapor transmission through the building materials. This is why we should never use a vapor barrier on the warm side of a wall system. We don’t want to block all vapor diffusion. This would cause the vapor to hit that sheet plastic “vapor barrier” and condense, with no where to go. After condensing, the next step would be mold.

 

What we need to incorporate into walls and attic floors are vapor retarders that simply slow down vapor diffusion. We must allow the building and all of it’s components to dry out. So, we don’t use sheet plastic on the inside of the walls. Fine, but what does all this have to do with plywood versus OSB? Well, I was laying down a little building science theory, necessary for understanding the importance when choosing a wall or roof sheathing.

If we want to allow the building to breathe, which is the better choice? OSB is made up of wood wafers and glue, then treated with a film of wax to buy some time for exposure to the elements during construction. OSB has a perm rating (the means of measuring how much vapor will pass through a material) that remains very low and constant. When the relative humidity rises, it continues to allow the same miniscule amount of vapor to pass through it.

Plywood, on the other hand, has a decent perm rating and is able to ride a very nice curve. It is made of real, unpulverized wood layers that are glued together in opposing grain directions with an exterior glue. Because it is real wood, when the relative humidity rises, it’s ability to allow vapor to pass through it rises in kind. It allows the home to dry nicely under normal conditions.

Next, let’s talk about mold. Mold is a fungus. Fungi need food. Wood can be food, especially when sopping wet and beginning to break down. Additionally, when wood is pulverized, a sugar like byproduct is created. This is sugar like to mold. Oh wait. OSB is made up of pulverized wood and glue. The more and more that wood is pulverized down, the more sugary wonderful it is to mold. That’s why mold will very easily grow on the paper facing of drywall in a moist bathroom. OSB is far more susceptible to mold than plywood.

Let’s round this out by talking about the all important bottom line. OSB for wall sheathing can cost less than half of what plywood is going for. Let’s say we’re building a decent sized two story addition requiring 70 sheets of 1/2″ sheathing for walls and roof. At current rates, it would cost $525 for OSB and $1,330 for plywood. Now knowing this building science, who would choose to save the $805 and go with OSB?

Let’s consider two more things: Interior subfloor application over floor framing, and the introduction of red type (roofs) and green type (walls) super waterproof OSB sheathing.

First, the easy one. I always use OSB for interior subfloor applications. For this, we are inside of the building envelope and vapor is not struggling to pass through it. It also is cheaper and flatter for floors, making it a great choice and a green choice.

Finally, let’s discuss the introduction of super waterproof OSB. This is becoming incredibly popular for builders. I will never use it. First, you’re still not allowing the home to dry out properly via vapor diffusion. Second, it doesn’t adhere to the most fundamental of all building principles: Every single building component should be overlapped by the one directly above it in elevation. This utilizes the physics of gravity to keep the home dry and has been successful for centuries.

Then how does this other system work? First, the OSB is coated with some special magic potion to keep water out. Fine, wonderful, remembering that this also means that it keeps vapor in. What about the joints between sheets? Well, this is the kicker. It means that the carpenters must use a special- and expensive- proprietary tape gun to apply the special tape to the seams. That’s where we no longer overlap materials. You see, with plywood or regular OSB sheathing, we apply a rainscreen over the sheathing, such as tar paper or Tyvek, etc.. We overlap this rainscreen, maintaining the most fundamental principle of building. Conversely, the tape that is applied to the special OSB relies entirely on adhering over the surface of the plywood, a non glossy surface.

If you hang out at the lumber yard long enough, you’ll hear other guys asking what to do when their finicky tape gun no longer works properly. They dread shelling out the big bucks for a new one. Yes, these applicators don’t always apply the tape to create a watertight seal. And what if the sheathing has a film of sawdust on it’s face? I don’t know, you tell me. If you pay attention to addition jobsites, builders that are using this new super OSB with the taped seams on a roof with a finished living space underneath are still tarping the roof until they get the shingles on  it. How much confidence do they seem to have in the product they are using on the roof? When roof plywood, on the other hand, is properly covered with ice and water shield and roof underlayment paper such as synthetic tar paper, the building will stay dry during construction every time.

Why would the lumber industry offer a product like this? Because they want to sell to the ever growing demographic of builders that don’t understand how to properly and permanently water proof a building. The lumber industry is dumbing down the products. Yes, we should all write our representatives in congress.

In conclusion, plywood made of real wood is by far the best thing for your exterior walls and roof. It only needs elementary attention to waterproofing details, and will then allow your home to breathe properly. OSB is the best choice for interior flooring substrate.

This material was largely a result of an education from Joseph Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng., ASHRAE Fellow. He has been widely renowned as an international building science expert for decades. If you want to learn more about building science or cure insomnia I’m just kidding, some of the writings on the site are actually very entertaining), visit his website at http://www.buildingscience.com.

 

By John Bradshaw