Failed banks and foreclosed homes aren't the only fallout from the burst housing bubble.
Just a few years after the most manic building spree ever, some hastily built homes are announcing with a variety of rattles, bounces, buckles, squeaks, and worse that they weren't assembled very carefully.
You could have predicted it.
While mold and rot caused by poor moisture management garner the most press (see "Who's All Wet?" in February's ProSales), attention is now turning to sloppy framing. Representatives from APA-The Engineered Wood Association have been giving talks to builder groups around the country, including the last two International Builders' Shows, called "The Top 10 Framing Errors," based on hundreds of field inspections. Leading trade magazines like The Journal of Light Construction, a sister magazine to ProSales, have also carried recent articles on the subject.
The consequences of framing errors rarely are catastrophic–unless you define catastrophe as a trail of unhappy customers. If so, you will want to know what these mistakes are and how to prevent them.
The answers to both questions depend on whom you ask.
APA's presentations focus mostly on engineered products, which is not surprising since the association wants to make sure those products get installed correctly. Its list varies slightly, depending on which field rep is giving the presentation, but the most oft-cited items include the following:
No Gap. Panels need a 1/8-inch space between them, or they can swell enough to buckle along the edges, causing waves to telegraph through roofing and flooring. APA inspectors see this more than any other mistake.
Poor Panel Supports. A plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) panel needs to span at least three framing members. If it spans only two, it will lose strength and likely will buckle. Similarly, a panel less than 24 inches wide needs support along all four edges no matter how many supports it spans. APA says a lot of framers miss this.
Inattention to Grain. Some framers assume a multi-ply panel performs equally well in all directions. Not so. Like solid lumber, it's strongest with the grain: that is, in the long direction of the top ply.
Overdriven Nails. This is a big problem with shear panels. Nail heads are supposed to be flush with the panel surface, and will weaken the assembly if driven further. For instance, driving nails to 1/8 inch below the surface of a half-inch shear panel will reduce its shear resistance to that of a 3/8-inch panel.
Not Enough Glue. Construction adhesive prevents annoying squeaks by keeping subflooring from rubbing against nails. If you're a builder who skimps on adhesive, every one of those squeaks will remind the customer of you.
Upside-Down Beams. Some glu-lams come with a slight camber and will only perform to their span rating when properly oriented. When you see TOP at the bottom, it means "Turn over, please."
Inconsistent Joist Spacing. This will cause an inconsistent feeling in the floor.
Improperly Notching and Cutting Framing Members. This is one of the most common rough-frame code violations. While many of these cuts are made by careless framers, many others are made by plumbers or HVAC contractors.
According to Tom Kositzky, APA's director of field services, errors like inconsistent joist spacing or improper notching and hole cutting betray a misunderstanding of how structural frames handle loads. They're less prevalent than panel errors, according to Kositzky, but are common enough.
Other pros see different errors than those reported by APA. "The industry has done a good job convincing framers that you can't do anything to engineered wood besides cutting it to length," says Chris DeBlois, an Atlanta-based structural engineer who specializes in wood-frame buildings. "On the other hand, I see a lot of mistakes with dimensional lumber." The most common errors he sees are missing joist hangars or blocking, undersized headers, and splices made between supports rather than over them. Like Kositzky, he says that framers often misunderstand load paths, but he thinks the problem is more prevalent than APA does.
Either way, there's plenty of room for improvement. The question is how to get it.
Systems to the Rescue
A lot of builders blame framing errors on poorly trained crews, but those errors are really a management problem.
In fact there have always been companies that demand defect-free construction and that have put systems in place to make sure they get it.
One person who designed such a system is Carl Seville, a former vice president at SawHorse, a large Atlanta-area remodeling company. In 2001, he helped launch an effort to eliminate the final punch list on all jobs by eliminating construction defects. The program he designed was built around a series of one-page checklists that listed the items each trade needed to complete on all jobs, including the quality specs. Project managers had to sign off on the list before a sub got paid, and errors caused by not following the specs were the financial responsibility of the subs.
"The system started to pay for itself almost immediately. We were spending less time chasing subs and didn't have to explain our expectations on every job," says Seville. He says that, over time, subs with the fewest errors became the company's first choice on any job. "It raised the quality bar for everyone." He now sells the checklist to other contractors via his website, www.seville consulting.com.
This level of oversight has also worked for some production builders. Veridian Homes in Madison, Wis., put a quality program in place five years ago that includes detailed scopes of work with quality specs. "One key to getting good work lies in setting proper expectations," says Gary Zajicek, the company's vice president of construction.
Another is making sure those expectations are workable.
Veridian also holds monthly sit-downs between project managers and framing subs to review jobs and identify problems. It's a two-way conversation, where framers are encouraged to offer suggestions for improving quality and efficiency.
"If they have an issue with a plan, we want them to tell us," Zajicek says. "We're always looking for feedback on what we could do better."
The results have been impressive: Zajicek says the system has brought a ten-fold decrease in overall construction defects, and a four-fold decrease in framing problems. "Five years ago we were getting one defect per 300 square feet of floor area; now we're seeing defects, on average, only every 3,600 square feet," he says. "We went from one framing defect per home to four homes without a framing defect."
Zajicek says that while APA and others have done a great job of pointing out what framers are doing wrong, the responsibility for correcting these problems lies squarely with the builder. "Skill levels in the average framing crew are probably a bit lower than they were 20 years ago," he says. "It's up to management to raise the bar."
–Charles Wardell is a freelance writer based in Tisbury, Mass.