Leaking Manufactured Stone on New Construction Home
I’ve been waiting a year to write this story, as this home has been the center of a legal battle with the builder. That is now over, and the builder has agreed to step up and do the right thing.
He is buying this home back from the homeowners after significant problems were discovered during my inspection.
I will not share the names of those involved for legal reasons. I’m not here to sling mud at any builder or his sub-contractors. Really, this is a teachable moment for all. No one is infallible, and I think it’s important that we share our failures so others are not doomed to repeat them.
These homeowners, who may be the nicest folks you’ve ever met, reached out to me about their leaking new home after many calls to the builder, multiple construction experts, and even a structural engineer all left them with more questions than answers. No one had a clue as to why their basement walls were leaking and growing mold.
The problems with the home ran the gambit from multiple examples of messed-up exterior cladding, to the concrete steps and porch being poured over wood framing. It seemed like everything was wrong, and all of this added up to create the perfect storm for these poor people. Let’s dive into the details, and I’ll explain what went wrong.
It is important to note that this home was about 10 months old when I got called in. It had been leaking since DAY ONE. That means it was passed by the local building inspectors, even though multiple problems were already in existence.
Understand that the local inspectors (commonly known as the AHJ, the Authority Having Jurisdiction) are sent by the county building code office. They are likely not looking at any of the details I’ll bring to your attention in this post, as they mainly concentrate on things that may get someone hurt or killed. Detailing of wall cladding or improper flashing is usually not on their radar. Because they have so many houses to inspect, they simply do not have the time to spend a whole day on one house like I do.
My adventure with this house will be told in two parts. Part one is how you would think a house should look. Just a glimpse into this home’s regular, everyday existence, with a festering, rotting secret just a few inches under the surface. Part two will unfold once the walls have been opened up, and the manufactured stone veneer removed. Oh, and we cut a bunch of brick out of this house as well.
Part 1: The Inspection
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’ve done so many of these manufactured stone inspections over the years that sometimes I have to fight the urge to not go on autopilot. I take pictures of the same messed-up details on every house: missing weep screed, missing kick-out flashing, missing casing bead, etc., and I give the same explanations as to why these homeowners are in the pickle they now currently find themselves. Click here for a detailed post about missing kickout flashing.
This house was different. Yes, the usual details were botched with the manufactured stone, and it was leaking and trapping water, but that wasn’t its only problem. There was a larger, more expensive list of defects that I was about to uncover on this day that I was not expecting.
Since we all live in different climates, many of the rules (or building codes) are different and adjusted for our location. However, there are some rules that always remain the same, no matter what part of the planet you call home. One such rule is that we NEVER place wood behind anything made of concrete or masonry. Actually, we never put anything behind concrete or masonry…except more concrete or masonry. No wood, no cement siding, no vinyl siding. Nothing.
This rule was ignored on the wall of the house and garage, as well as along the front porch cap. The builder installed a concrete stem wall that was too short, and supplemented the height of that wall with wood. This wooden wall, which separates the front porch steps and the garage, was buried behind the manufactured stone and concrete steps. Bulk water started to leak into the garage through the wall not long after the family moved in. The builder tried all he could to stop the water, but nothing worked. The fact is that there is no “magic goo” that will stop water from getting in. It will get in. And when it gets trapped, well…then your wall rots. And that is exactly what happened here.
What should have been done? The stem wall (which separates the steps and garage) should have been made entirely of concrete. And it should have been poured to a higher level so that it protruded past the point of the steps and porch on the other side. This would likely have prevented the migration of water through the assembly.
I’ve outlined the steps on the images below so you can understand what is happening here. Once I cut the drywall open in the garage wall, the water damage was visible across the bottom of the wall. It’s amazing to see that just inches away from the water-damaged OSB, the wall sheathing is showing no signs of water damage. I suspect the moisture was wicking down to the base of the wall, and the upper portions of the wall were drying out quickly enough.
Manufactured Stone Leaking Bulk Liquid Water
The tricky thing with failed manufactured stone siding is that most people don’t experience what I call “bulk water infiltration.” Most of the time, it takes years for homes to show signs of a problem with manufactured stone siding because it’s a very small amount of water that gets through the cladding. Sometimes, it’s not liquid water at all, but water vapor that is driven into the wall assembly and gets trapped. (I’ll do a standalone post on vapor drive soon to explain that in more detail.)
This house however, did have a rare find: a bulk water leak that could be reproduced with a light spraying from a garden hose. Let me be clear–you have to be sensible when water testing a house in this way. A high-pressure nozzle will almost always cause everything to leak. But a gentle watering hitting the wall above, and allowing gravity to bring the water down the surface is a good way to test for leaks. If water gets in during a scenario like this, odds are that it will leak in a wind-driven rainstorm.
The green area in the picture below is there to act as a guide so you know where the sill plate of the wall lands. This is the point where the concrete foundation stops, and the wood framing of the wall starts. That is the weakest link in the wall assembly (in terms of air and water infiltration), and if things are going to leak, it will likely be at that seam.
This wall also had a weird step-back that the installer did a poor job of covering up with a large 3″ lip of flat manufactured stone. There was no way this wasn’t going to leak. When the water ran down the wall, it hit that flat section and soaked right in.
Yep. It took about five minutes for the water to come through the assembly and run down the wall in the basement. To be fair, I think this was mostly because of that ridiculous flat lip that was put into the wall. It acted as a funnel to drive the water back to the house. I’m not 100% sure it would have leaked this badly if that wasn’t present.
The water was coming in between the base of the sill plate and the top of the concrete wall. Luckily, the builder didn’t seal that seam with caulk (which is sometimes done to prevent airflow). Had he sealed it, most of this bulk water would have gotten trapped between the OSB sheathing and the back of the manufactured stone assembly. It wouldn’t have leaked in, but, boy, it would have rotted the wall in a hurry.
Failed Brick Veneer Leaking Water, too…
By now you should be feeling sorry for these people (remember, they are really, really nice people). But their nightmare is just getting started. We know the manufactured stone is botched, and so are the front steps and porch cap, but what if I told you the brick veneer was also failing from installation errors?
Keep this in mind: None of this damage was caused by material failure. All of these problems stemmed from human error. If the readily-available instructions are followed with manufactured stone veneer, brick veneer, cement siding, etc., you should not have these problems. It is when installers do it ‘how we’ve always done it’ that failures occur.
If you have read any of my other posts about manufactured stone,you know that most homes don’t have problems with their brick wall assemblies because there is a gap between the wood and brick called an ‘air gap’ (creative titling, huh?). This decoupling of the two materials is used as a capillary break so that water can’t flow through the brick and into the wood, and it also creates a space for fresh air to get in and help dry things out. But what if none of those things are done? What if the brick and wood are one thick sandwich? Yep. Walls leak, and things rot. Remember, brick walls are NOT waterproof. They absorb water.
Let’s back up a moment. Around my area, most builders form what is known as a ‘drop ledge,’ or a ‘brick drop’ in the foundation wall. You see, bricks are really heavy, and they are stacked on top of the foundation wall when the house is built. This is why when your bricks crack and shift around, it usually means your foundation (which is holding everything up) has moved. Note: Manufactured stone is not stacked on top of the foundation, but instead is stuck to the wall with mortar, hence the name ACMV (Adhered Concrete Masonry Veneer).
Below is a picture I took at a new development (not the house this article is about) that shows what a brick drop looks like. I highlighted the two areas that are important to this story. The blue ledge on top of the foundation is where all the wood framing of the house will start. The red ledge at the bottom of the wall is where the bricks will start. It’s done this way so that water has a place to run down the air gap between the two layers and it should never reach the wood. The black painted part of the concrete foundation is the air gap.
Now, back to our current situation.
The homeowners had noticed some wet carpet down the side wall of the house, and I checked the wall to find high levels of moisture almost a foot off the floor. The strange part was that this was the side of the home covered in brick veneer. There was no manufactured stone siding along this wall. Where was the water coming from a foot up the wall? Sure, lots of homes have basements that leak, but not like this. It was puzzling to see moisture so high off the concrete floor. Once we cut the walls open outside, it was clear what had happened…
If you refer back to the foundation image just above, you’ll notice the distance between where the brick starts and where the wood starts is a couple feet, maybe a bit more. This gives a much greater margin of error for the brick masons so they don’t need to worry about a build-up of mortar along the back of the brick wall as it is being put together. It also allows for the concrete foundation to be hidden around the house at the base of the ground. However, you still need the through-wall flashing and weep holes a few inches above grade to be properly detailed to guarantee you won’t have water problems around the base of your walls. I’ve seen exactly zero houses detailed correctly. So….yeah.
This house didn’t have a deep brick drop. In fact, it had one that was only a few inches tall. The issue with this is that the brick masons did a poor job and let lots of mortar squeeze out the back of the bricks when laying them. All that extra sloppy, wet mortar started to pile up little by little along the back of the brick, and the result was NO AIR GAP between the brick and the wood. As the brick soaks in the water, it gets pulled right back to the wood. Since most builders use OSB for their wall sheathing (which loves to soak in moisture), it doesn’t take long for the water to make it inside the wall cavity. The red line I have highlighted shows you the anatomy of the wall, and you can clearly see the shallow brick drop (blue color) and the filled air gap assembly (red color).
This is why the walls in the basement were wet along the sides where no manufactured stone was installed.
This is a good teachable moment for home inspectors, home owners, and even builders. You’ll notice in the image above the rope wick hanging out of the chunk of bricks that were cut out of the wall. That is the wick that was installed by the brick masons to draw the moisture out of the wall’s air gap. Sometimes you see these ropes, sometimes there is just a void between bricks every few feet, and sometimes there is nothing at all and the weep system has been omitted all together.
The other part of this equation is the through-wall flashing that should be present at the base of the wall. Nearly every brick veneer house I look at is missing the through-wall flashing that should be present…even if the ropes and weep holes are installed. And to be honest, most of the time it doesn’t seem to cause any problems. I can’t tell you why it doesn’t–it just doesn’t. My own home is a brick ranch with not one weep hole or rope wick to be found. I also don’t have the through-wall flashing. My assembly seems to perform fine.
Sometimes things can be wrong, and not cause any problems.
And that doesn’t mean your brick home should have these details skipped either. This is not a blanket statement saying it is OK to do things incorrectly. It’s not. Below is a great detail showing how every brick veneer wall should look. But the reality is that very few do.
Part 2: Removing the failed manufactured stone
After my initial inspection uncovered the botched manufactured stone and the filled air gap of the brick veneer, the builder agreed to remove all the manufactured stone veneer around the house to inspect for water damage. I knew what we would find, but I think everyone else was holding out hope it wouldn’t be that bad.
It was actually worse that I suspected.
Let’s take a look at some of the pictures from my second trip to the house, and what removing the manufactured stone uncovered.
As you can see above, most of the manufactured stone was removed to give us a clear view of the home’s structure, including behind the brick on the sides of the house.
I had hopes that it was only the right side of the home that was leaking with the brick veneer, but once the manufactured stone was removed (image below), it was clear that the air gaps on both sides had been filled with mortar and were rendered useless. We never opened up the back wall, but one would have to assume it was the same way.
The area around the front porch steps and garage wall showed the worst damage of all. The trapped water really did a number on things and caused the OSB to fall apart.
These walls were less than one year old.
That ‘lip’ at the basement where the water leaked in during my water test was soft and rotted, too. The surrounding area of the OBS was starting to rot and mold, but not nearly as badly as the other areas.
Which brings up another good point to hammer home: The really serious problems occur when there is a change or interruption in the wall plane. Most installs of manufactured stone actually perform OK in large flat wall planes. But when a window, door, or foundation wall comes into play, it changes things dramatically.
By the time I worked my way around to the right side of the wall, I had to take a double-take, because I could not believe my eyes. The air gap was completely missing between the brick and wood framing.
I’m not sure how this could happen unless the concrete foundation pour was off a few inches and the masons just went ahead and installed the brick on the available brick ledge. I suppose it also could have been the carpenters who mis-measured, and the wood framing was over a bit too much as well. Maybe it was a combination of both. At this point though, it doesn’t really matter. We are left with a wall that will constantly have water problems where the wood and brick are touching.
I suppose it is possible that the framing is twisted, and the brick is only touching the wood at this point…and that it’s not touching as you work your way back from the corner. As bad as it sounds, I hope that is the case.
How do we repair all this?
That is the million-dollar question.
The manufactured stone is an easy but extremely expensive repair. Just tear out all the moisture-damaged materials and start over, making certain you incorporate a drainage mat/weep screed into the wall assembly. Before you jump into something like this, though, make sure you have the budget for it. Most repairs in this area run between $80-$100 per square foot…so a 10×10 wall section would cost around $10,000.
The garage wall and the brick veneer are a totally different arena altogether. Leaving the wood products buried behind concrete is a surefire way to develop more problems down the road, and having a brick veneer wall with no air gap won’t work, either. It’s a bad spot to be in, and fixing problems like this could easily cost six figures.
Thankfully, these homeowners didn’t have to face that reality. With the problems that I uncovered, my clients were able to get out of this messy situation, and find a different “happily ever after.”