Horror stories about poor construction standards in many new homes have dominated the news in recent years. Popularly known as “leaky-building- syndrome “, this phenomenon has sent shock waves through the New Zealand building industry and shivers down the spines of many potential new home buyers. These events have brought into question the advisability of purchasing or building a new home at all.
Many prospective home buyers are left wondering —” is it worth the risk?” and, “if things go wrong, who’s to blame?”
Buildings around the world have always been subject to leaks as they age, sometimes because maintenance has been inadequate, and often during severe weather conditions. However, here in New Zealand and overseas there has been a significant increase in leak problems that can’t be explained this way.
Various groups have been blamed — builders, building materials manufacturers, city councils, the government, architects and other designers, and even homeowners themselves. In reality, most problems have arisen due to a number of factors and cannot be attributed exclusively to one agent or authority. If we are aware of these factors and take them into account during a new home’s design and construction, leaky-building-syndrome is entirely avoidable. As always, good professional design and advice ahead of time is the best insurance against potentially serious problems – now, and into the future.
How Leaky-Building-Syndrome happens
The vast majority of New Zealand “leaky building” problems have emerged in the north of the North Island – where high rainfall & high humidity have exposed problems that would not arise as quickly (or at all) elsewhere. Local climatic conditions need to be factored into the design of homes built in any region, and while experienced designers and builders are able to properly achieve the standards required, it seems that an overheated property market in the North, particularly in the Auckland area, had fostered a “cowboy” culture in which builders, owners and developers have taken short cuts to build more quickly and cheaply in recent years.
Certain materials used in buildings are blamed more often than others. Particularly strong criticism has been made of the use of plaster on polystyrene wall linings in combination with untreated timber wall framing. If this construction technique is employed, only the outer painted surface provides for weather tightness. This weakness is compounded by the fact that if water does get through the surface, there is no easy way for it to get out again, so it can remain locked in the interior of the wall.
As a result of prolonged exposure to dampness, untreated timber framing quickly develops mould and rots – often without any visible sign from the outside until it is too late. Better construction techniques exist that ensure that weather tightness is not just dependent on a layer of paint!, and that allow drainage back out of any water that does penetrate the surface as result of extreme weather conditions.
Bad design details
All too often the quickest, easiest and lowest cost “standard” methods of construction in recent years have been the most leak prone. Over-reliance on sealants and poorly designed or installed window flashings are common faults, made worse on buildings without wide eaves to shelter the walls and windows from rain, or on complex buildings where there are more joints that can develop leaks. Good techniques exist to prevent leaking on any building, but these can cost a little more to design and build properly and may not be well understood by some designers & builders.
Lack of ventilation
Older New Zealand houses have always leaked – often more than the new “leaky buildings” we hear about!
However, in order to save on heating bills, newer buildings are usually much better sealed against draughts. Ironically, this means they can be less able to ventilate away any moisture that forms within walls and roof spaces and consequently, any trapped water is more likely to sit for long periods and cause rot and other damage.
The New Zealand Building Code is “performance-based”. It is flexible enough to allow for the use of new technology and innovation within a framework of generalised safety and durability requirements. However, while the code does offer guidance for many specific situations, it cannot hope to cover all of the huge range of situations, and all of the construction materials and systems that are available in any detail – this is left to the skill and experience of the designer and builder selected. The code also only sets minimum standards. Builders and owners who opt to build just to the minimum standards required by law allow themselves less margin for error. Mistakes do happen and purely price-driven decisions frequently do result in problems for home-owners – and not just from leaks!
Lack of oversight by local authorities
The checking of building consent applications by local authorities provides only minimal protection for home-owners. Under current legislation, the owner still bears final legal responsibility for meeting all building and planning regulations, or for engaging builders and designers as required to achieve this for them. As a result, and for some years before the crisis emerged, domestic building consents were often granted based on fairly minimal architectural drawings and details submitted.
This is perfectly fine where the owner delegates his or her responsibilities by engaging competent designers and builders who actually know the Building Code, understand the ramifications of each choice, and have the skills and judgment to select appropriate construction materials, details and methods in every situation – but in a price-driven market, the importance of such competence has often been overlooked.
As a result of “leaky building” publicity however local authorities now require much more thorough and detailed design information and drawings up-front, to catch more problems before they arise.
While some problems that emerge can be picked up later during construction on site, the reality is that Council building inspectors simply don’t have the time or funding to visit all building sites often enough to ensure that every problem is detected in time, so good drawings are essential!
Inadequate training and knowledge of builders
Some builders and tradespeople —often the cheapest ones— have limited training or little overall understanding outside their own trade. This means they are often only familiar with minimum standards of construction or have little detailed understanding of how all a building’s parts need to work together. This can be made worse when a homeowner or project manager or developer with even less training tries to coordinate all the different trades involved in the complex process of building a new home.
Inadequate training and knowledge of building designers
Price is usually a reflection of quality, and builders and designers who offer the lowest prices are often those least qualified to do the job. It’s the age-old rule—you get what you pay for.
This rule is particularly important in New Zealand, because until fairly recently there was no minimum legal level of competence required to design and build houses here. The Government has belatedly established a mandatory “Licensed Building Practitioner” regime covering a range of designers & tradespeople that was intended to address this, and exclude some of the worst cowboys operating in the Industry.
However the standards for LBP practitioners are not able to be set very high in this country (it turns out that too few would qualify), so the protection offered under this regime is realistically partial at best.
Cutting corners on design
The statistics show that problems are very much more likely to arise when homeowners choose a cheap design service or a DIY approach.
Building a home is not a project to be undertaken lightly and whatever your budget, the design is one area where saving money is not a good idea. An architect’s input is essential if design and detailing issues are to be well resolved ahead of time. An architect can also monitor the quality of work and building costs independently during construction to forestall any problems that do emerge.
Conclusion: Getting what you pay for
In a nutshell, it seems that much of the “Leaky Building Syndrome” has resulted from a combination of four main factors:
- The desire of homeowners and builders to save money and time.
- The availability of a wide range of new and cheaper building materials.
- The availability of a wide range of cheap tradespeople and designers in the construction industry.
- A tendency for owners to “do it themselves”, hiring and managing each trade separately during construction, foregoing the traditional single experienced head contractor who would otherwise be paid to take full responsibility for and manage all construction, and foregoing use of an independent architect who has the skill and experience to design-in the right quality from the outset.
The ever-increasing range of cost-cutting options available clearly carries with it an increased level of risk, and at the end of the day, while building practitioners must be held to account for what they do, home-owners must also take more responsibility for choosing wisely.
If the true long-term costs and benefits are considered rather than just the lowest short-term cost, most problems disappear. A new, well designed and well-built home will always give the very best protection against leaks – and other problems. It is also a wonderful lifestyle option that, in the long-term, provides many New Zealanders with a sound investment and lasting value for their money.