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October 21, 1999
By ANNU MANGAT
Journal A/E editor
Considered the bogeyman of the construction industry, a controversial cladding system may be getting a second lease on life -- though some are taking a wait-and-see approach towards reintroducing the material.
Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems, or EIFS, are made from sand, polymer and modified cement to resemble stucco. The cladding system has been the basis of recent class action lawsuits around the country by people who contend EIFS is responsible for severe water damage to their homes. EIFS also picked up some bad publicity last year when a report on Vancouver, B.C.'s leaky condos was released. The cladding material was said to be a factor in the estimated $1 billion (Canadian) of water damage to condos there.
What some view as EIFS' dubious reputation hasn't discouraged the Northwest Wall and Ceiling Bureau, a trade group of manufacturers, dealers, labor groups and builders, from recommending it.
Mark Fowler, an architectural consultant for the Northwest Wall and Ceiling Bureau, said a new drainage system that EIFS manufacturers recently added is a"step in the right direction." The new drainable EIFS has "restored confidence" in the building community, said Fowler, referring to changing perceptions about its use.
Manufacturers, such as Dryvit and Sto, added the new drainage system, in part, in response to new building codes on the West Coast where the material is commonly used.
The newer EIFS system adds a drainage channel between the substrate and the back of the EIFS panel, allowing water that trickles in behind walls to escape through "weep holes" or drainage tracks.
Despite its checkered past, EIFS still remain the single most common cladding system on the West Coast. That popularity has to do, in part, with the relative affordability of the material compared to stucco and brick and its flexible design potential.
According to an industry association, about 285 million square feet of EIFS is applied annually in the United States, and the market continues to grow about 12 percent a year.
Fowler maintains that the original "product was fine," saying the real problem was not with EIFS but with its misuse and improper installation -- issues that may resurface even with the newer system, he warned. Fowler said architects "pushed the envelope" with the material, sometimes even using it as roofing material, for which it was not designed.
He said that regardless of improvements in building materials, all structures have to be regularly maintained. "Sealants don't last forever," he said. He recommends removing and replacing sealants periodically; in the Pacific Northwest's mild and rainy climate, that means once every five to eight years, he said.
A critical aspect to avoiding leaks is proper installation, he said, describing EIFS as "application sensitive." The system, he said, should be installed by trained professionals and according to manufacturer's instructions.
Fowler said that such skilled workers are in scarce supply due to the region's booming building trade.
And the area's economic growth, has been a mixed blessing, said one former employee of an EIFS manufacturer. Like a Gold Rush of development, everyone out to make a buck has arrived on the scene, he said, and many of the new arrivals lack the experience to take on such complicated construction projects.
Fowler recommended that homeowners interested in using the EIFS cladding system hire an independent inspector to review building plans and monitor construction. The cost to hire EIFS inspectors is about 2 to 3 percent of the total EIFS contract, he said. Considering the exorbitant cost of water damage, hiring an inspector is "cheap insurance," he said.
The Northwest Wall and Ceiling Bureau trains inspectors and provides referrals, as well as maintains a list of several EIFS manufacturers it regards as reputable. For more information about the organization, go to the Web site: http://www.nwcb.org.
The National Association of Home Builders, a consumer-oriented federation of more than 800 state and local builders associations throughout the United States, is less sanguine about the prospects of using EIFS. Bill Young, director of consumer affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based group, said
traditional or barrier EIFS can develop moisture intrusion problems -- even when properly constructed and installed according to industry standards.
Young said the association's goal is "not fingerpointing" but merely recognizing that "these systems have had widespread failures across the country." According to Young, builders with previous "spotless records" have run into trouble using the EIFS system.
And regular monitoring of caulks and flashing, as industry groups advise, is "really beyond what it is reasonable to ask a consumer to do," he said.
Regarding the new drainable EIFS, Young said the association is reserving its judgement until use of these systems is more widespread. The National Association of Home Builders is conducting research on EIFS. For more information go to: http://www.nahbrc.org or call 1 (800) 898-2842.
Also wary of EIFS is Don Severide, vice president of the McCarthy construction company, who said, "We try to discourage building owners and architects from using it, except in limited circumstances." McCarthy is building the new Harbor Steps apartments, which are clad in an exposed concrete frame.
Severide said he's had "so many problems," with EIFS, noting his firms $3 million repair job of Elliott Bay Apartments, in which EIFS was removed and the entire siding replaced.
But, said Severide, he's not out to "bash the product," noting that, "If it's properly installed, I think it's OK."
Like others in the building industry, he said finding people skilled to install EIFS correctly is a problem, and some building owners don't bother, in an effort to cut costs.
Asked about the new drainable EIFS, he said he's heard about it, but doesn't want his company to be the "guinea pig for it."