The Worst House I Ever Audited (Was Built in 2008) Part 2

by Erik North on March 1, 2013

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Last post I started reviewing possibly the worst house I ever audited. There have been others with a similar magnitude of issues. But this house had built in 2008, which some folks thinks signifies no worries. But to reiterate a buddy’s favorite saying, “a house built to code is the worst house you’re legally allowed to build.” It’s hard to make against dumb building.

To sum up: the house was a 2008 ranch built into a hillside. It had an attached garage with a centrally located chimney, framed in between the garage and main house. A open concept kitchen was just off a cathedral ceilinged great room that occupied a large chunk of the first floor plan. The master bedroom was over the garage. It was nice.

The Worst House I Ever Audited – The Problems

Moisture – The issues at hand were many … oh so many. First off, the moisture. The house had been built into a hill. Anyone who was done some landscaping can see where this is headed. The footprint was perpendicular to the foot of a long swale on the hillside, funneling massive amounts of spring thaw or rainwater down its three hundred foot long slope.

The hillside face of the house had a solid 40-foot-wide depression against the foot of the foundation. The owner confirmed that on rainy days that water pooled 4-6 inches deep against the building. Tens of thousands of pounds of water would flow downhill, where the inexorable pressure would force water through the porous concrete. The interior confirmed this, where in several places the concrete was damp to the touch.

This was causing huge problems in the house. The moisture was radiating from the foundation, condensing on windows and other cool surfaces. Bad, moldy news.

Foundation Heat Loss – The concrete foundation was a massive source of heat loss. The house, like I mentioned, was built into a hillside. In a past article, we talked about how concrete does a fantastic job holding a house up but a miserable job keeping heat in.

On the downhill face of the building, almost the entire foundation wall was exposed. Concrete has an R-value around 1 per 8 inches. So a 1-foot thick foundation wall would be around an R-1.5 (with variations for ash content, mixing in insulators like perlite, rocks, etc.) With a normal foundation, 18 or 24 inches may be over grade (above ground). The downhill facing of this house’s foundation was entirely exposed, it’s near 50 foot width showing from 4 to 8 feet above grade concrete. That R-1.5 mentioned earlier is close to that of a window. Imagine an almost 300 square foot window; that’s some serious heat loss.

Finished Room Over Garage – The finished room over the garage was something of a modern residential construction disaster. It was almost beautiful in it’s wrongness. A few years in hindsight, I still have trouble conceiving more things that could be wrong with a building built to code.

Where to begin? The master bedroom over the garage had a cathedral ceiling with tongue and groove finish. The cathedral ceiling extended to most of the first floor, and was perforated with recessed light cans.

The tongue and groove finish had no air barrier behind it. Between the tongue and groove finish boards and the leaky recessed light fixtures, stack effect driven air was flowing pretty unimpeded right out of the house.

Fiberglass batts were installed flush on the back of the T & G boards. When you lifted the batts, there were horizontal streaks were the glass fibers filtered out dust particles. The blower door test confirmed the visual evidence, registering 6200 CFM50 for a house a shade over 1600 square feet. For the non-blower door folks, that’s a monstrous number for a house that size.

The finish room over the garage was also compromised on most every side. This is easier to deal with as bullet points.

– The marriage wall was open and unsealed at the top, allowing warmed interior air to escape.
– The chimney was built into the house’s gable wall and framed in the finish room. The top was entirely open (like 2 or 3 square feet open), and I could see the garage floor down the shaft.
– The ceiling of the garage was thoroughly perforated and not remotely an intact air barrier. For example, the door opener brackets had been fastened to the garage ceiling joists and dry walled around. The holes were bad enough that you would see the underside of the finished room’s plywood flooring.
– Bonus time: the baseboard hot water pipes had been run through the garage ceiling.
– A pointless continuously perforated vented soffit ran along the garage ceiling/finished room floor edge. The contractor had tacked on an eave, a cosmetic detail added to create the impression of multiple floors. The soffit was open into the garage ceiling/finished room floor, venting air into the space. Awesome.
– The previously mentioned baseboard hot water pipes (now cool water pipes) are running right along this vented soffit. A hot water pipe less than 6 inches from an open soffit and cold winter air.

Needless to say, that was a pretty damn cold room.

Heating System – A brief bit on heating systems. Maine uses mostly oil. The rest of New England has a higher percentage of natural gas but Maine has oil. I’ve never heard a good reason why but I suspect it has to do with our strong rural population. It’s not terribly economical to run gas lines 15 miles to widely spaced towns of 1200.

In any case, oil. Oil heating means oil storage tanks and an exterior fill pipe and vent pipe for the tank. In every single house I’ve seen with a finished room over a garage, the oil pipes, tank and heating system are on the opposite side of the house. You can’t install them on the garage side; nowhere for the fill pipe.

The upshot is that the house’s boiler was installed on the far east side, opposite the garage. The heating system had one zone, covering the entire house. It ran clockwise, across the front, through the garage ceiling, past the open soffits and around the back side of the house before returning to the boiler.

So the hot water ran in uninsulated PEX pipes 6 inches from nearly 50 feet of uninsulated soffit and concrete foundation wall, 30 feet of soffits open to the outside air then another 50 feet of uninsulated concrete. Why were the north side rooms so cold? They had no sun and no heat was reaching them. Gah!

Next time…some solutions!

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