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VIRGINIA UPDATE 1999

07/27/1999

by Helaine Golden

A report on the NBC television show Dateline, which focused on houses with synthetic stucco in the Great Falls, Va., area, has raised new concerns about the product. Synthetic stucco, also known as Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems or EIFS, is a siding system used for exterior walls that has become increasingly popular in residential building in recent years.

Charles McMillion, whose Great Falls home was featured on NBC’s Dateline program, has been aggressive in his condemnation of EIFS and critical of all involved with the manufacture or installation of the product. McMillion, who personally supervised the construction of his EIFS house, found extensive structural damage from moisture penetration and is currently pursuing a lawsuit. He estimates that repairs, which will necessitate the complete removal of the synthetic stucco, will cost him upwards of $125,000. And he says other EIFS homeowners need to recognize just how serious the problem is and to have the synthetic stucco completely removed.

Wayne Foley, owner of Foley Construction Company in Great Falls, disagrees. He is particularly critical of Dateline for presenting what he considers to be "a one-sided and biased picture that ignored contrary evidence from manufacturers and homebuilders." He describes the problems associated with synthetic stucco as generally "minor and curable."

McMillion has founded the Northern Virginia Stucco Home-Owners’ Coalition - NOVASHOC - to gather information and alert people with EIFS to the problems with this type of construction. He has created an extensive web site (www.novashoc.org) to document problems.

Meanwhile, Foley heads up an informal EIFS task force for the Custom Builder Council, a subsidiary of the Northern Virginia Building Industries Association (NVBIA). Foley says he and many of his fellow builders are taking a proactive approach to the problem, revisiting their older EIFS homes to test for moisture and repairing any damage, even though most of the homes are no longer under warranty. Of the 28 EIFS homes he has built, several had no moisture whatsoever, the majority had low moisture readings and required minor repairs to flashing or caulking, and only one home had substrate (wood) damage that was limited to a single area. Foley estimates the average cost of repairs was $400-500.

Although Foley now uses only the new drainable EIFS, which offers "another level of protection," he is not condemning the barrier system. He does acknowledge that synthetic stucco homes require extra maintenance and that owners should be made aware of the upkeep necessary to protect their investment.

Unlike most other methods of home construction -- such as siding, brick or real stucco -- synthetic stucco leaves no means for water to drain out. Water can leak through cracks in caulk or sealants around windows, doors, gables, vents, chimneys or decks or through intrusions made by electricians, plumbers or cable installers. The older the house – and the wetter the climate -- the more likely problems are to occur, but homes of all ages and in all regions are susceptible.

The EIFS industry has maintained that water intrusion can be prevented if synthethic stucco is properly applied according to manufacturer's instructions and if high quality building materials are used. EIFS officials blame the widespread and much publicized EIFS problems in North Carolina on the building boom that drew inexperienced and unqualified builders into that market. They claim that the EIFS was improperly installed and that cheap windows, that "leaked like sieves," were used. They also say a state-mandated requirement that polyethaline be put between the wood wall and dry wall trapped water, creating a "moisture sandwich with wood in the middle."

However, other groups, including the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) have come to the conclusion that "EIFS systems are incompatible with the existing wood frame construction methods in the United States." According to NAHB, "Homes with Barrier EIFS can develop moisture intrusion problems even when properly constructed according to industry standards."

In response to the demonstrated problems with EIFS, certain states have put restrictions on its use. North Carolina has banned it outright. In December of last year, the EIFS industry itself stated that it is no longer recommending the use of barrier systems in single-family residential construction and is advising builders to use the newer "drainable" or "water managed" EIFS systems that allow any water that might penetrate to escape. (No data on the long-term effectiveness of these new systems is yet available.)

Is There a Problem in the Washington Area?

Yes. But no one knows how extensive the problem is. In Northern Virginia, a number of mid- to upper-scale homes and some smaller patio homes -- especially in Great Falls, Reston, Oakton, Vienna and Loudoun -- have been built using synthetic stucco. Suburban Maryland also has synthethic stucco homes.

According to Paul Lynch, director of residential inspections in Fairfax County, "There is a lot of EIFS in Fairfax County -- a lot of commercial buildings, every shopping center and quite a few homes including condos, higher-end tract homes and custom homes." He estimates EIFS is on one-fourth to one-third of the homes in Great Falls. Fairfax County currently requires the signature, on letterhead, of all decision-makers (the builder, EIFS installer, inspector) so if there is a problem, the homeowner knows whom to contact. But Lynch favors the adoption of additional safeguards. "Remember FRT (Fire Retardant Treated) plywood? This is FRT times 10,” said Lynch.

Inspections AreThe Key

EIFS homes should be regularly inspected (yearly, according to most sources) by a qualified, specially trained, third-party inspector who will look for evidence of damage and test for moisture. Inspection is estimated to cost about $500 but will vary with the size of the house.

It is important to know that most home inspectors do not have the appropriate training or tools to test for EIFS damage. Both NAHB and EDI offer training and lists of inspectors. Several sources recommend that testing be conducted in accordance with the Moisture Testing Guide for Wood Frame Construction Clad with Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems that is published by the New Hanover County Inspections Department in Wilmington, NC, 910/341-7456.

EIFS Homes Require Extra Maintenance

EIFS homeowners should regularly inspect for moisture intrusion around windows, doors, roof-wall intersections, decks, chimneys, garage doors and any protrusions through the EIFS surface, such as electric fixtures or connections, water faucets, refrigerant or phone lines, even insect nests.
Recommendations ranged from monthly to twice a year.

Tips For Synthetic Stucco Home Buyers/Sellers

Ray Lynch of EDI advises all buyers and sellers to get a qualified third party inspection by a trained EIFS inspector in order to find any problems and to determine how much time and money is necessary to fix them. Wayne Foley of Foley Construction concurs. "Just as you would fix up other aspects of your house before sale, make sure the EIFS is performing well and remedy any problems."

The Standard Forms Committee at the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors has recently amended the suggested "Useful Information about Real Estate Transactions" form to add "synthetic stucco/EIFS" to the list of items (such as fire retardant treated plywood, lead based paint, asbestos and polybutylene pipes) a purchaser might want to have professionally assessed. The Regional Sales Contract is currently being revised to include similar consideration of synthetic stucco.

In response to a 1998 report on synthetic stucco problems in Northern Virginia and Tidewater, code changes are under consideration that would specify the types of EIFS allowable and require EIFS inspections. Many builders in the area are already voluntarily following these guidelines.

 
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