Published in The New York Times
July 1, 1999
Fakle stucco, real problems
Some Users of Artificial Stucco Find Headaches Are Real
By FRED A. BERNSTEIN (NYT) 2322 words
Published: July 1, 1999
IT'S not just athletes who are on steroids -- American houses are using chemicals to bulk up. In the last two decades, home exteriors have undergone a stylistic shift with flat facades giving way to columns, pediments and bulging 3-D details like quoins, keystones and dentil cornices. How can people afford to build houses with such opulent facades?
The answer, in many cases, is a polystyrene foam covered by a synthetic spray-on stucco -- a construction method that allows builders to do more for less. But some experts contend that this approach may cause serious problems down the road.
The method, known generically as EIFS, for exterior insulation and finish systems, is associated with the fanciful, and often gaudy, buildings that critics love to hate. Picture Tara and Versailles in the same subdivision, and you have the idea.
Still, the real problem with EIFS (pronounced eefs) isn't rotten architecture, but rotting architecture: this type of construction has led to water damage in thousands of wood-frame homes, mostly in Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.
Now this construction method is gaining in popularity in the Northeast, from a chic hotel in TriBeCa, to country houses in the Catskills to suburban developments in New Jersey and on Long Island. While no serious problems have been reported here, there are still unanswered questions about the material and its effects.
The trouble is that the artificial stucco -- unlike the real thing -- is too waterproof. Water that gets trapped behind it has nowhere to go and begins soaking into studs or plywood sheathing. Repair bills have run to the tens of thousands of dollars.
Lawsuits against manufacturers are pending in at least half a dozen states, with a class-action suit in North Carolina scheduled to go to trial this fall against seven industry leaders. One defendant, Senergy, of Tallahassee, Fla., settled with the plaintiffs for $20 million; the remaining defendants are the W. R. Bonsal Company, Continental Stucco Products, Dryvit Systems, United States Gypsum, Thomas Waterproof Coatings, and two European manufacturers, Parex and Sto.
The manufacturers' responses are uniform. Dryvit, for instance, states that the problems were due not to a faulty product but to ''poor construction practices, lack of proper supervision by builders and local building inspectors, and the use of sub-standard windows and doors.''
ABOUT 4 percent of new homes and 13 percent of new commercial buildings used EIFS in 1997, according to The Appraisal Journal, a trade publication in Chicago. The problems afflict mainly wood-frame houses in warm, wet climates.
In Merrick, N.Y., on the South Shore of Long Island, where dozens of homes have been renovated with EIFS, some residents aren't even aware that it's synthetic stucco, rather than the porous, cement-based type, that's covering their houses. At Port Liberte, a waterfront development in Jersey City, the installation of the artificial stucco is one issue in a lawsuit that has been wending its way through the courts. Homeowners have instituted an ambitious inspection schedule to make sure none of the synthetic stucco panels crack or slip.
In interviews with architects, engineers and construction scientists, a consensus emerged: the problems are not likely to appear -- at least not in large numbers -- in the Northeast. In the South, driving rains in coastal areas, the absence of a heating season in some areas (heating a house in winter can help dry out wet walls) and shoddy construction in areas where many large homes were being built simultaneously all contributed to the widespread failures, experts say. Still, no one can say for sure that problems won't arise.
Scott Clements of Inspectech, a multi-state home inspection service, says owners of affected houses should make spring and fall inspections, examining exteriors for cracks or separations that could admit moisture, and interiors (particularly baseboards) for stains or warping.
Charles Graham, an associate professor of construction science at Texas A & M University, has studied hundreds of buildings with the artificial stucco system and is pessimistic about their prospects. ''The material in and of itself is fine,'' he said. ''But it's a statistical probability that every building is going to leak at some point in its life. With the EIFS systems we've seen, at least until now, there hasn't been proper provision for that leakage.''
Colleen Kenney, an administrator at R. J. Kenney Associates, a building-materials lab in Plainville, Mass., pointed out that ''EIFS is an unforgiving system.'' But she added, ''In the Northeast, we turn the heat on in the winter, which gives buildings a chance to dry out.'' If the material is properly installed, she said, ''an EIFS home isn't likely to fail.''
''Properly installed'' means insuring that every door or window has been carefully fitted with flashing. But it helps to make sure that water that does get behind the panels has a way out. Dryvit and its competitors now offer products in which the back of the foam insulation is ridged, so that water can drip down the grooves. To assuage the fears of consumers -- many of whom saw a ''Dateline NBC'' report in March on the dangers of EIFS -- the company sells its ''moisture drainage'' product with a 10-year guarantee.
''It's made for a much better system,'' said Mark Topham, a Dryvit distributor in New England, who quickly added that installed properly, ''there was no problem with the old system.''
Gary Shipman, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the North Carolina class action, disagrees. ''The industry has known since the 1980's about problems with the material,'' he said, ''and yet it failed to warn consumers.''
Measured in terms of dollars lost, ''the controversy probably represents the largest consumer problem ever to hit North Carolina,'' David Kirkman, an assistant attorney general, wrote in a report last year. North Carolina (with an estimated 30,000 EIFS homes) and Georgia have banned EIFS that can trap water.
At Dryvit Systems, in West Warwick, R.I., Barbara Catlow, the company's manager for marketing services, said, ''What we've found is not an EIFS problem; it's a construction problem.''
John Campagna, the Dryvit distributor for much of New York and New Jersey (his company is based in Edison, N.J.), says that difficulties arose when inexperienced builders installed the system sloppily.
In the New York area, EIFS seems to be gaining in popularity largely because of its plastic qualities, which allow homeowners (whether building or renovating) to create bold, integrally colored exteriors and high insulation value. When Arthur Williams, a communications executive, built his weekend home in Stone Ridge, N.Y., he wanted a stucco look. Plus, ''the house is incredibly cool in the summer,'' he said.
On some blocks in Merrick, as many as a quarter of the homeowners have added columns or elaborate window surrounds of the synthetic stucco. ''I wanted something modern, and I liked this look,'' said Myra Wittlin, who two years ago added pillars on both sides of her entry.
Building inspectors are less concerned about EIFS on buildings with steel and masonry frame, because those materials don't rot. ''Even when there's leakage, as there often is, the response is not so profound as in a wood-frame structure,'' Professor Graham of Texas A & M said.
In Manhattan, the material can be seen on the upper reaches of the Doral Hotel and on the Alexandria apartment building on West 72 Street. The TriBeCa Grand Hotel, now under construction, will have precast panels made partly of Dryvit.
New York City's Buildings Department has no rules about EIFS. But Alex Herrera, the director of technical services for the Landmarks Conservancy, said he has forbidden its use in projects the conservancy finances. ''Esthetically, it's a disaster, and you don't know how long it will last,'' he said. ''I feel it's asking for trouble.''
The artificial stucco is generally brittle and thus susceptible to chipping. ''You ding it with your car, or hit it with a baseball bat, and you've got a repair job on your hands,'' said Joe Carter, a senior editor of This Old House magazine, who has worked with the material.
The building method was first developed in Sweden in the 1940's, and was popularized in Germany in the 1950's. (Dryvit means ''quick dry'' in German.) It is credited with helping to speed postwar reconstruction of Europe. EIFS was introduced into residential use in this country in the 70's, when its extra insulation value appealed to homeowners during a period of skyrocketing fuel prices.
Paradoxically, it was 90's affluence that ushered in the age of EIFS. Consumers today demand houses with expensive-looking details. Clapboard walls and aluminum sliders are out.
''People want deep sills, they want cornices, they want keystones, they want quoins,'' said Larry Landes, the president of Garden State Brickface, Windows and Siding, which installs traditional stucco throughout the Northeast. ''Well, that's very easy to do in foam.''
Companies like Dryvit make the contractor's job easy, cutting foam according to the architect's specifications and shipping it to the site. The foam is glued right to the shell of the house, and then the artificial stucco surface is sprayed or troweled on. The result can be so exuberant that Dryvit has become synonymous with flamboyant architecture. (The fake Manhattan skyline at the New York, New York casino in Las Vegas, Nev., is made largely of Dryvit; so are parts of Celebration, the town Disney built in Florida).
According to a report in The Appraisal Journal, problems began to appear in 1985, when a study financed by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Communities and Development found that a number of EIFS-covered public buildings had cracks that permitted water penetration and internal damage.
The journal also noted that in a later study by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development of commercial and multifamily buildings with EIFS siding in Missouri, Massachusetts and Illinois, nearly three-quarters of the buildings had cracks. The HUD report suggested third-party inspections of such buildings.
As for esthetics, Mr. Carter, the editor, said that although the foam-and-artificial-stucco combination brought back traditional details, ''there's not even a hint of authenticity -- it's architecture l-i-t-e.''
And yet the effects can be striking. At Paolucci's restaurant in lower Manhattan, Mr. Campagna, the Dryvit distributor, proudly pointed to the restaurant's Dryvit resurfacing, which replicated the 200-year-old building's limestone details. ''In Italy, they let the base coat cure for a year, so all the cracking is out of it,'' Mr. Campagna said, referring to traditional stucco. ''This stuff,'' he said, pointing to the Dryvit wall, ''goes up in minutes.''
Cake Dressing Redux, With a 90's Frosting
THE new apartment building on East 11th Street at Avenue B stops you in your tracks. Atop its brick facade is a dentil cornice, an ornament that seemed as unlikely to make a comeback as the milkman or the double feature.
This cornice isn't masonry or terra cotta, like those on older buildings. It's polystyrene foam that has then been covered with a synthetic stucco known as Dryvit. Donald Capoccia, the developer of the condominium, part of the New York City Housing Partnership's Del Este Village, said that the Dryvit system allowed him to create a substantial-looking cornice on a budget. ''You can have any kind of cornice you can cut from foam,'' he said. The Dryvit topper cost about $30,000 -- much less than metal or masonry, or even a convincing fiberglass fake.
So, is the foam-and-artificial-stucco cornice good news or bad news? It depends on how badly you think Manhattan buildings need this kind of detail. The function of a cornice is almost entirely esthetic, the equivalent of a capital atop a Corinthian column. In the 1898 Bayard-Condict Building, at 65 Bleecker Street, Louis Sullivan used a cornice as a canvas for a riot of Art Nouveau detailing. Like tail fins in the 50's, late 19th- and early 20th-century cornices competed to outdo each other.
But with the advent of modernist architecture, cornices went out of style. Buildings like Black Rock, Eero Saarinen's CBS headquarters on 52d Street, were conceived as extruded sections (think architecture squeezed from a tube), with no differentiation between base, shaft and top. In the 1970's and 80's, owners removed vintage cornices -- especially after falling terra cotta killed a pedestrian on the Upper West Side.
Since then, New Yorkers have become accustomed to headless buildings. Which is why the East Village building comes as a shock. Designed by Leslie Feder, a New York architect, it features a bright green cornice that, in combination with quoins -- corner stones -- verges on kitsch.
Why not metal? ''You couldn't afford to do it nowadays,'' Mr. Capoccia said, citing the initial cost plus the upkeep. ''They're totally vulnerable to water,'' he added.
Robert Silman, an engineer who has consulted on restoration projects, says that plenty of old metal cornices are in good condition and will stay that way ''as long as you keep the water off them'' through proper roof maintenance. He also pointed out that many landmark buildings now have molded fiberglass cornices that are practically impossible to distinguish from their metal forebears.
How do you know if what you're seeing is a turn-of-the-century original or Dryvit? Bring binoculars. The Dryvit cornice on Avenue B has a sandy texture that's visible even from the street.