or: One Window at a Time
Every once in a while we have an opportunity to do something that makes a difference — something that has meaning beyond the everyday duties and responsibilities of being a parent, or partner or community member. Not to dismiss being a good parent or spouse but sometimes the opportunity to go beyond comes our way.
In Feb ’08, on a return trip from the Builder’s Show in Orlando, my wife and I stopped by New Orleans to check things out. While Kathy had never been there, I had worked in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico for 15 years as a commercial diver on the oil rigs. A lot had changed in the 20 years since leaving the land of crawfish, jazz and good times. The most notable was Hurricane Katrina and Rita resulting in catastrophic damage from high winds, storm surge and failed levees — especially failed levees.
We stayed in the French Quarter at a hotel with a Paul McCartney suite on that trip. Eventually we made our way to the Lower Ninth Ward — the place we all heard so much about from Anderson Cooper on CNN when Katrina and high water were flooding the Crescent City.
Before I visited the city, I’d seen the damage on CNN, but the media coverage had slowed to a trickle. I thought all of the rebuilding had been done. But our visit to New Orleans proved different.
By the time we arrived most of the debris was cleared and what was left needed work — lots of work.
The amount of work was and still is overwhelming — if you try to swallow it at one time. In some ways New Orleans is like a foreign country — a third world country: so many damaged houses, so many empty lots with only narrow driveways and concrete porches. Yet no one was doing anything, or so it seemed at first.
|In some cases, all that remained were facades.|
An All-Volunteer Army
After a day or more of looking around, I realized work was being done, just not at my kind of pace. Billions of dollars have been poured into the rebuilding effort. Some of it has hit the target, but most hasn’t. Here’s why.
Prior to the hurricane, much of the housing stock on the area was in decline. The population of New Orleans has been dropping since the ’70s, but there is still much to value here — a community with deep roots, reflected by the fact that sixty-five percent of the homes in the Lower Ninth were owner-occupied. And though many of these homes were of historic significance, most were built on marginal foundations, had no housewrap, no insulation, had antiquated wiring and plumbing, and would never meet current building codes. While several elected officials have boasted that “We’re going to re-build New Orleans,” for the government to rebuild these homes, they’d have to bring them up to code — an impossible task because the cost would far exceed the appraised value of the homes.
|Some people ask: “What’s worth saving?” I look at it the other way: “How can we throw all this out?”|
And that’s the primary reasons why volunteer and non-profit organizations (faith-based, environmental, historic preservationists, etc.) are doing most of the work. And what a great bunch of folks to be around. No other organized program is having nearly the impact at helping homeowners in the Ninth Ward.
After spending only a few days in the area, I was hooked but didn’t yet know how deep. By June, after I’d made five separate trips to New Orleans, staying for a week each time so I could tend to business back home, I realized I had a lot more to do. With a little support from OSI (a leading manufacturer of construction adhesive and sealants), I was able to plan a two-month extended stay in Louisiana. Once again, New Orleans seemed like a third world country — after all, isn’t this how we handle our foreign affairs?
Windows, insulation, moisture, and more
On our first trip to the city, my wife and I had come across a jobsite where a group of “carpenters” were installing windows.
“Do you see that?” Kathy pointed at a couple of “carpenters.” I was so busy looking at all the devastation that for a minute I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Yet right in front of us, eager volunteers were installing “new” vinyl windows in place of wood doublehungs.
Initially I thought, “Now there’s some progress.” But then I started wondering why they were throwing away the old jambs and sash — the old windows were still operable, the wood was probably old-growth yellow pine or cypress, and the glass was still good, some of it the wavy historic type. On top of that, the new windows were smaller than the existing jambs and to solve that problem, the carpenters were installing wider trim, without any flashing — the walls had no housewrap, the weatherboards (beveled cypress siding) were the only protection.Finally, inside the house, I saw another group of volunteers installing insulation — fiberglass batts. Faced fiberglass batts at that.
That’s when the light came on — several of them: leaders in the rebuilding effort and government agencies were emphasizing energy efficiency and that meant dual-pane windows and insulation. But no one was thinking about the consequences.
The walls did not have a weather-resistant barrier. They had been stripped from the inside down to framing with only studs and weatherboards remaining. The average rainfall in New Orleans is about sixty inches. On top of that, the humidity in Louisiana averages around 80%+. Historically, all of that hot humid moisture has passed through the exterior cladding into the wall space, but since the walls are balloon framed, plastered and un-insulated, diffusion and air circulation have helped to dry out that moisture.
But once the walls are insulated and drywall installed, the moisture won’t be able to dry out. Excessive humidity and rainfall penetrating the siding will be absorbed by the insulation and condense against the Kraft paper, right against the paper-backed drywall — a perfect breeding ground for mold, especially because once wet, the insulation will never dry out. (The building code mandates the Kraft paper on fiberglass insulation go to the warm-in-winter side of the wall assembly — except in climate zones 1 & 2. New Orleans, and much of south Louisiana, is in climate zone 2. This is often overlooked by building officials and certainly by most contractors as well as rebuilders, especially the volunteer type.)
I noticed some jobsites were using spray foam, the two-part stuff that comes to the jobsite in a truck. The big benefit of this application is being able to quickly fill every nook and cranny with high R-value foam. It is quick and usually thorough — cheap it ain’t. However when this foam is applied directly to the backside of the weatherboards, the ability to drain and dry is drastically diminished.
Remember that for 70-100 years+ these walls have wetted and dried through the ventilated wall cavity behind the siding. The spray foam takes that option away. The least that happens is the paint begins to peel and the worst is the wood begins to succumb to the attacks by mold, mildew and decay. This is not hypothetical; I have seen it happen.
And mold is just one problem, Formosan termites are another. In fact, New Orleans is a case study on how these insects do their business. Since I’ve been working down here, every window I’ve examined that shows signs of water intrusion and not enough drying, also suffers from formidable Formosan termite damage.
But that’s not all. That new wider trim used to patch in the vinyl windows wasn’t like the original material — vertical-grain old-growth cypress of yellow pine.Oh no. The new trim was #2, unprimed, face-grain softwood. And no one was priming end cuts. The same material was used to trim doors, too, and planted right down on the concrete porches. If I could have pulled my hair out, I would have.
After my first visit to New Orleans, I struggled for a solution to these unique insulation/weather resistive barrier, and trim issues. With technical assistance from building product manufacturers, especially from Pactive, and with help from Julie on the JLC Forums, along with techniques developed by the LSU AgCenter Extension program, I came up with a simple modified rainscreen design to insulate the unprotected walls, one that would allow for air circulation and diffusion.
These homes are balloon framed — and I mean down to the foundation, if there is one! (see illustration above). We work on these homes after the interior is gutted and the walls stripped down to bare studs. There’s no housewrap and there’s no way to install it. We start by installing a bug screen. Because of high humidity, we don’t block the stud bays off but instead we encourage air circulation so that any moisture that penetrates the weatherboards and enters the “rainscreen cavity” will dry. The bug screen blocks little critters from climbing up inside the walls.
Big money isn’t always better
My real gig is window and weather barrier installation. Of course, I’m always watching how other folks do it, especially the large projects that have been getting most of the press attention down here, like Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right” campaign, and Global Green. Surprisingly, those folks aren’t getting it right either. I’ve watched their crews installing Marvin Integrity windows and getting it wrong:
- They’re still cutting the X to modify the building wrap.
- They’re not lifting the head flap up and flashing beneath it shingle-style.
- They’re sometimes using engineered wood adhesive to seal the windows to the wrap.
- They’re not always using self-adhesive flashing to seal the nailing fins to the weather resistive barrier — I’ve driven by homes where the nailing fins are still exposed.
- And when they do apply flashing on top of the nailing fin, they often flash over the bottom fin, too.
Our industry is slow to change — almost glacial. Anyone in our business knows that problems with windows and WRB integration aren’t limited to New Orleans. The fact is that every time a manufacturer introduces a new product, it takes almost twenty years for builders to adopt the proper installation procedures. Professional construction education is a national and urgent issue.
EDH: Efficient, Durable, & Healthy
As I see it, high-visibility programs and projects aren’t the answer to the problems faced by homeowners in New Orleans. Proper funding, supervision, and educational programs are the only way to save this city.
One faith-based group we worked with rejected using paperless drywall (Dens Armor Plus) in areas subject to wetting because of the additional cost for the material, approximately $500-$1,000 per home.The math was simple. They had a limited funding source and if even $500 was added to each home, they wouldn’t be able to rebuild as many homes. Now that’s a real problem.
The volunteer and non-profit organizations doing the bulk of the rebuilding are performing miracles — one home at a time, in some cases several homes at a time. It has been a long learning experience, but they have the process nailed down. They are getting people back in their homes. And while that’s one image I’ll never forget — watching a homeowner carrying insulation and drywall into his recently cleaned shotgun-style home — there is a serious storm on the horizon.
The focus of getting folks back into homes — on budgets that are often too tight, frequently sacrifices critical core issues that make a home efficient, durable, and healthy and avoids the most important issue: Should we rebuild more homes poorly or fewer homes well? To my knowledge, those folks are still installing regular drywall. In this climate, and with these porous homes, it’s just a matter of time before mold begins to grow on those walls, compromising the health of the occupants and the community.
Recently, while working with some organizations to launch minority contractors into mainstream weatherization, I have had an opportunity to work with a remarkable group of licensed contractors who really want to learn. Those folks have motivated me to start a “contractor’s club” with regular meetings. We’ll bring in guest speakers from the industry, and we’ll review proper building practices and new products, because the solution down here isn’t “one window at a time,” it’s “one contractor at a time.”
The time for the hordes of untrained volunteers is over down here. Like many parts of the country, New Orleans needs well-trained professionals to lead the rebuild; construction managers to supervise contractor, carpenters, and volunteers. If you’re wondering: “What can I do to help?” just come down for a week or so. But first, make sure you are going to be placed where you can do the most good. And if you can’t make the trip, find a local organization where you can lend a hand with funding.
One Community at a Time
One of the first people I met here is Ward McClendon, “Mack” to everyone. He owns and runs the Village. I met him at the first Historic Green event in ’08. Our first meeting was at the back of the Village. When we passed by each other, Mack’s response to my “How ya’ doin’?” was “Too blessed to be stressed.” Turns out that is a common greeting down here, and an exceptional attitude.
Another person I’ve met here in Louisiana is Ms. Shelia, the first homeowner I consulted with in New Orleans. In this region of the country, it is common to add a Ms. or a Mr. to everyone’s first name — it’s way of showing respect. Believe it or not, I’m called “Mr. Bill.” Once you get used to it it’s kinda’ nice being respected, and showing respect.
When I first visited Ms. Shelia’s home during the renovation process, I was more than disturbed. So much was wrong: the foundation was failing, the brick veneer was coming away from the soffit, windows were not installed correctly, signs of water intrusion where everywhere, and I’m not talking from the flood.
The group working on her home (lowernine.org) was pushing hard to get the home ready for Ms. Shelia and her family to move back in. It brings tears to my eyes to write this. Those folks wanted to come back home, to their house, to their neighborhood. I realized right then and right there my part was to help make their home as good as it could be so it would be a safe place for them to live.
I have been preparing for this all of my life and now I have my chance. My first reaction to seeing the damage in New Orleans was “What can I do to help?” Now I’m asking “What can we do to help?” Slowly and surely, I am becoming part of this community. That is the important component without which all of the rest is only mildly interesting and not very effective; and certainly not durable or sustainable. It is all about relationships; making connections. It’s not about rebuilding a city. The job we face is rebuilding a community.
I believe that, from an early age, we all start on a journey toward some kind of goal or destination. A few of us reach that place. Some of us keep on traveling toward it all our life. Some of us just wander around in circles. I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in that system.
I have lived in Indiana, California, Arkansas and Louisiana. I have done military time in California, Virginia, Washington, and Vietnam. I have worked in the North Sea, England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, all three coasts of the US, and both coasts of South America — Venezuela and Chile, plus New Zealand.
Through all of my jobs, all of my traveling, I’ve wanted to see what is on the other side.
These days, I’m training, consulting, and educating anyone who will listen on how to build efficient, durable and healthy homes. Sometimes I wonder what gives me the right or privilege to do this? Who died and made me king? But that’s just part of my journey.
When I started working construction in Santa Barbara (for a fraction of my previous pay as a diver), I worked on a framing crew building a 12,000 square foot home in Montecito. I was surprised at the hectic jobsite, the lack of organization, of leadership, of expertise. No one seemed “in the know;” no one seemed in charge. What a difference from diving, where for fifteen years I often worked 400-500 feet below the surface. Not much room for error down there; someone in the know was in charge all the time — or people died.
Not so in residential construction. People think that anyone with a circular saw, a hammer, and a hundred foot power cord can be a carpenter or a contractor. But what are the guidelines? Where can you learn more?
One day while working for a contractor on a basement remodel, everyone seemed to suddenly disappear and I found myself in the middle of the slab on knee-boards with a steel trowel in each hand. I didn’t have clue what to do.
At that moment I decided I was going to find out how all of this construction stuff worked — and share it with anyone else who would listen. I felt helpless out on that wet concrete and knew there was no reason to. No one should feel helpless in this industry.
I still do not know who is in charge (and I still don’t know a lot about construction, either), but I’ve helped a lot of folks in New Orleans. My greatest accomplishment has been as a father to three wonderful daughters, next to that, I’m working to make a difference in the rebuilding of a city.