Home Work

Home Work

‘Why Is My Home Rotting Away?’

"Mike, why is my house rotting away!?" This is the kind of question brimming with alarm and horror that builders and remodelers often hear.

"How old is your house?" I asked.

"It’s only 15 years old."

"Ray, your house is not rotting away, but the skin of your house might be."

"Well, it’s creeping me out. My window trim, some of the siding, and my cedar roof have cancer."


Mike Denker, left, and Todd McPhee of Hopkins & Porter.

I had to explain to my distressed acquaintance that we were at the end of an era, that the period when wood was the preferred exterior finish on new homes and additions was over. It’s like the period before the fluoridation of water. Before fluoridation, dentists were spending a lot of their time filling cavities. In our case, every day our employees face having to repair wood rot.

In the building industry today, there is a definite trend away from using wood for the trim and siding on the outside of houses being built. Houses are still being roofed with cedar, but those days are numbered as are those roofs. This trend began 20 years ago and has accelerated recently.

When I first became a builder remodeling and repairing homes 35 years ago, wood was still king. Windows were made of wood, doors were made of wood. The outside skin of the house, unless it was covered with brick or stucco, was wood siding or wood shingles. The trim around doors and windows was wood. The boards that trimmed the edges of the roof were wood.

What has happened, and why? The world has changed. From the 1600s until the mid-20th century Americans were awash in wood, and it was special wood. This wood had grown slowly in the primeval forests. We cut down the forests, but there was always another untouched forest to the west. The last of our ancient forests was on our northwest coast, and we began to cut into those in the late 19th century. By the late 20th century, a cry arose nationally to save what was left of this unique environment in the great Northwest. The environmental and conservation movement helped to limit cutting trees in what was left of those old growth forests. The products from the forests: "old growth" redwood, cedar, and Douglas Fir are no longer available in the generous quantities of the past, and the prices have skyrocketed. Trees that are now grown in plantations grow much more rapidly — and these same species might as well be completely different species.

The knotless giant trees of the great Northwest (and the South for that matter) that fueled the building industry since the late 19th century grew slowly over hundreds of years adding tiny growth rings. If you look at old growth redwood, for example, there could be 20 to 50 years or more per inch. Today’s fast grown redwood have four rings (or four years) to the inch and can, under certain conditions, begin to rot immediately.

I WILL NEVER FORGET the time a client of mine called to ask me to look at his porch railing materials which we had installed only six months before. Much of the wood had turned black and there were mushrooms growing out of the wood. That was a wake up call for me.

Our old trustworthy materials were not working any more. The wood we were buying through the lumber yard was the new stuff, and, to quote one of our carpenters, it was just like marshmallow. Rot and creatures ate it up.

In typical fashion, American ingenuity rushed to replace this missing resource, and, like any change, there has been a period of confusion, some success, but a lot of failure. Along with change in any industry, there are always baby steps that fail, unintended consequences, and companies that go out of business as their new products fail. Even today, none of the new products have been around long enough for us to really know how long they will last under the sun and weather. Many homeowners are familiar with the paper-based siding called Masonite which was only marginally successful, and today we are still tearing it off homes. We now replace Masonite with another new material: cement siding.

Builders and remodelers all over the country are facing the same dilemma I did: the wood that they depended upon is letting them down. As responsible professionals, we have to go back and tear out these defective wood products and replace them, spending thousands of dollars of our own money in the process.

It begs the question: what sort of longevity can any of us expect when it comes to home construction? I like to think 50 years for exterior materials, but, when you compare that to the longevity of the mature wood we used to build with, a 50-year lifespan doesn’t seem very long at all. In the next column we will discuss the new materials, their pros and cons, their costs and what kind of life expectancy they might have.

We welcome your questions and comments: mike@hopkinsandporter.com .

"Home Work" is a monthly column devoted to the mundane but critical issues of looking after one’s home, protecting that investment, and at the same time maintaining one’s sanity.