Something Rotten

Psst, come here. Wanna talk about something really nasty? Almost everyone has it. Yet no one wants to talk about it. What is it? Dry rot. Yuck.

Rot is nifty when it happens in your compost pile. But not in your house.

Look around. It's kind of like the common cold. You’ll spot dry rot in structural lumber, eaves, garage doors, exterior door trim, window casings, and other wood used in construction. Surprising fact: Nearly 10 percent of U. S. annual wood production goes to replacement materials needed to repair damaged caused by wood rot. If your home has escaped damage, count yourself lucky, but don’t get too cocky. Dry rot could be lurking undetected.

Except it’s not dry. It’s wet.

What rots the wood? Mold. Mold spores are everywhere. They can remain inert for decades. All they need is a source of moisture and they can start to grow. Most wood-decay mold grows only on wood with a high moisture content, usually 20 percent or more.

So, ultimately, moisture is the culprit.

And not just dry rot. There's a wide array of different kinds of mold eager to attach your house, including toxic black mold. You do not want this stuff in your house.

If you spend a little time around Wayne talking about construction, sooner or later, he’s going to tell you, “I grew up in Louisiana where it rains all the time. I know what causes mold: It’s moisture. Don’t let moisture get into the house in the first place, and then we don’t have to worry about getting it out.”

Why this topic, now? Well, one of the basic tenets of green building is durability. Our ancestors built for the ages. Their buildings were durable enough to last for centuries. We can do the same. Durability means selecting materials that wear well and that are appropriate for the climate and the application. Durability means using old-fashioned common sense plus building science when designing and constructing a home. Durability means slowing down, paying attention to the tiniest details, and caring enough to do things right the first time so homeowners don't face unnecessary damage and repairs decades in the future.

What got me started on this topic?  Three recent experiences brought durability into sharp focus for me:

First. Last summer we visited Louisiana for a family gathering. We were smack dab in the middle of the swamp, and I was agog. I’m a Texas girl, and I had never experienced swamp. It was lovely. It was wet. Homes of all kinds were strung along a narrow strip of land between the river and swamp. During big storms and hurricanes, it floods. Water rises out of the swamp and drains to the river. Many homes along that narrow strip of land have been repeatedly inundated. On our walks along the river, I was stunned when I saw mold growing on the outside of some homes. (Some of the homes looked like they'd never been introduced to the concept of paint.) I could only imagine what was growing inside the walls.

Second. Recently Wayne has been talking with a home owner concerned about the balcony attached to her home. Structural wood has rotted due to faulty construction practices that were used to build the home just twelve years ago. Now the balcony is structurally unsound. It’s unsafe and must be replaced or removed, a disappointing and costly expense either way.

Third. The corbels. I was out at a job site one day recently. The framing crew was preparing to install decorative corbels at the roof peak. (In architecture, a corbel is a load-bearing piece of masonry or wooden bracket jutting out of a wall to carry structural weight. These days, you see corbels added as a decorative touch on a home. Looks nice.)

Wayne asked the framing crew to hold off. He wanted the painter to stain them on all sides before they get installed. The stain provides a protective coating for the wood. If the corbels had been installed first and stained afterwards, the surface attached to the house would be unprotected and more vulnerable to water intrusion and rot. A stitch in time saves nine.

How to keep moisture out of the house? When it comes to managing moisture in a house, there are four major lines of defense: • Protective exterior coatings and proper exterior trim • Thoughtful design and construction techniques and the use of the right materials • Positive drainage away from the house • Careful moisture management inside the home

Some pretty beefy topics. Let’s talk a wee bit about protective exterior coating and exterior trim. We’ll save the other topics for another day.

Good painting and careful caulking We recently had our own home painted.

Good quality paint or stain does a good job of protecting wood against moisture. But equally important is good prep. Paint won't adhere if the surface is dirty or moldy, or where old paint is peeling. You've got to fix any old problems first. Wayne power-washed the house to remove about a decade of grime. We replaced some fascia boards showing signs of rot. (They'd been there 41 years, so we weren't surprised.)

And then there's good caulking. Water will find a way to seep into any little ol' hole you leave for it. (And you've experienced sideways rain during our notorious central Texas storms, right?) Our painter spent days prepping and caulking. He scraped old paint that had peeled. He caulked every little nail hole and every seam where one piece of wood meets another, and where wood meets masonry. He removed the gutters. Finally, he applied the new paint. Sure looks nice now. Thanks, Jim.

Exterior trim Now here's a perfect example of how attention to common-sense details leads to more durable construction. Window and door trim take a lot of wear and tear and can show signs of aging first. You can get more mileage, of course, if you keep things caulked and painted.

But it helps if the trim is installed correctly. There's a right way and a wrong way to trim a window.

The wrong way to trim a window:  Install the bottom trim all the way across. Then run the side pieces to it. This gives water an opportunity over time to collect in the bottom, setting up an opportunity for mold to grow and rot the wood. Too bad.

The right way to trim a window: Install the side trim all the way to the bottom. Water runs off instead of collecting. The wood trim on this window will last much longer. Simple and thoughtful, and it takes no more effort to do it right.

In conclusion

It was simple dry rot that got me focused on durability these last few months.

You want your home to last.  So do we.

Durability is about quality. Attention to details. A commonsense way of getting things done. Getting in front of problems before they happen. It's not about politics or national infrastructure  or rating systems or measurements.  It's about doing even the simplest things in a thoughtful, responsible way. Doing it right the first time.  Thanks for listening.

--Mary