Construction quality varies widely
Builders balance demands of workmanship, speed, profit
By Craig Harris, Chris Fiscus and Catherine Reagor
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 20, 2001
Metro Phoenix is a hot spot for homes in a hurry.
Constructing affordable houses fast is key to success in this ultra-competitive market, builders say. But the demands of speed, affordability and quality aren’t always compatible.
Some builders skip simple, inexpensive steps that could produce better houses, according to industry analysts, buyers, and some builders themselves. For example, a $1,000 to $2,000 technique to make foundations less susceptible to cracking is used in only 20 percent of new homes.
Sometimes flaws occur because unskilled workers make mistakes that aren’t spotted or corrected. Sometimes shortcuts are taken in the name of speed.
Bob Dundas remembers when trucks arrived at the site of his new West Valley house with the prescribed mix of water, cement, sand and gravel for foundations. But the engineer videotaped extra water being added at the request of the finishing subcontractors. Added water makes the mix easier and faster to spread; it also makes foundations more subject to cracking.
“They just blow and go on these homes,” said Dundas, who showed his builder the tape and got out of the contract to buy the home.
Byron Van Buskirk, president of residential foundation contractor Mesa Verde Concrete, said there’s a huge disparity in the quality of construction in the Valley.
Some companies emphasize the latest in computer-assisted design and just-in-time scheduling, develop zero-defect strategies and aggressively train workers.
Others cut corners with workers, materials and time.
Construction superintendent Bill Harris, who has been building in the Valley for the past two decades, did work at a North Valley community last year and remembers how concrete was poured for foundations a day after the dirt had been dug up, leaving no time for the ground to settle or an inspector to look it over.
“They were pouring three to five foundations a day,” Harris said. “You can’t build that fast. There’s no time for the ground to settle, so the foundation is going to crack.”
The building pace is still hectic, but construction times have slowed a bit. The average time it takes to construct a mid-range Valley home has stretched out to five months, a 30-day increase over the four-month completion rate of a few years ago, analysts say.
And home builders stand by their work. With intense industry competition and more lawsuits, it’s not worth it to cut steps, builders say.
However, a six-month investigation of home construction by The Arizona Republic showed room to improve.
Key preventive techniques, such as post-tensioning to strengthen foundations, have been used in only a fraction of new homes, even in areas with the potential for shifting soil.
In some cases, simple safeguards, such as putting black waterproofing paper around windows to prevent leaks, are not executed properly.
Ironically, the most common problems often involve the most basic of elements: water.
“It’s all about water and all the problems it can cause, even in the Arizona desert,” said Tony Brueneman, a national housing inspector who teaches classes in Scottsdale.
Too much or not enough water in soil or concrete can result in poor foundations. Unstable foundations can create cracks throughout a house, which can lead to leaks that slowly erode roofs and walls. Those water-damaged spots can become a feeding ground for mold.
Volume and profit
Home builders say that their margins are tight, 5 percent to 7 percent annually, but say they don’t sacrifice quality for cost. Instead, they try to make their money by selling a lot of houses. The typical new Valley house costs $162,000, which means an $11,000 profit for an efficient home builder. If a company completes 50 houses in a neighborhood during a month, it can make more than a half-million dollars.
Orion Goff, a former custom-home builder who now supervises inspections for Mesa, said buyers need to be aware of the situation. “A lot of the builders go absolutely minimum, bare-bones minimum, because they’re trying to make money,” he said. “Some are worse than others. The homeowners just have the hardest time understanding that.”
Many construction problems appear to stem from efforts to put up houses fast.
Inspectors in Mesa say they have caught framing crews skipping studs to save time and wood. In Goodyear, an inspector caught workers leaving out anchor bolts in a foundation. In Phoenix, an inspector said one contractor left out several feet of required ventilation ducts.
Builders say buyers should feel secure about quality.
“We build simpler houses here than other parts of the country,” said Ron French, president of Richmond American’s Phoenix division. “Houses here have no basements and not a lot of finish materials.”
As a result, there’s less of a chance of making big mistakes, he said.
“There are little design features that look bad but aren’t defects,” says Greg Balen, senior vice president of Ryland Homes. “But they shake a buyer’s confidence and can cause problems later on.”
It’s important for the builder superintendent to be there every day, he said. Balen has learned his lessons: On one house he worked on, it took six tries to center a light.
In recent years, some of the Valley’s largest builders, Del Webb and Shea, have developed more elaborate programs to measure their subcontractors’ work and to push for higher quality.
To cut down on costly errors, some large Phoenix plumbing and framing contractors are moving to computer-assisted design programs.
Technology helps take human error out of construction,” said Gerry Riggs, president of AMPAM Riggs Plumbing, which did work on 6,000 new Valley houses in the past year. His firm uses CAD programs to design plumbing layouts. It also recently bought special digital cameras that it snakes through new sewer lines to make sure they are clear.
As they watch their houses go up, buyers should be aware of foundations, the soil beneath, stucco applications and the paper under tile roofs. Flaws in those areas are often cited in complaints and suits.
Central Arizona is prime for expansive soils, clay soils that contract when dry and expand when wet. This soil can wreak havoc with foundations, and problems frequently emerge when monsoon rains soak the ground in the summer.
But as crews poured about 35,000 home foundations across metro Phoenix last year, only about one-fifth used a technology that can help offset expansive soils. Post-tensioned slabs are used by almost all builders in Dallas and many in Las Vegas.
The process includes having plastic-coated steel cables placed into the concrete foundation. A hydraulic jack then pulls on the cables with about 25,000 pounds of force, making the concrete stronger because it’s compressed.
Soil experts, such as Carl Josephson of Josephson-Werdowatz & Associates Inc. in Scottsdale, said the approach could prevent major damage and stave off lawsuits.
About 6,500 metro Phoenix homes were built last year using post-tensioned slabs, according to the Post-Tensioning Institute, a worldwide trade association based in Phoenix. That figure is about double the number from five years ago.
KB Home now puts post-tensioned slabs in all of its Valley houses. The extra foundation support “is worth every penny,” said Steve Davis, president of KB Home in Phoenix.
If new owners find cracks in stucco, the faulty stucco can be more than an eyesore.
Homeowners in the exclusive Terravita golf community in Scottsdale filed a suit earlier this year, alleging stucco and roof problems. The community’s builder, Del Webb, sued the subcontractors that did the work in the mid-1990s.
Thin stucco can crack excessively, letting water seep into the wall. But thin applications can save time and about $1,500 per house.
Many builders will patch and repaint cracks for the first year. After that, it’s usually up to the homeowners. “The stucco keeps cracking even after they patch it,” said Arthur Scott, whose northeast Phoenix house was built in 1999. “I am worried there is a bigger problem that I won’t find out about until my warranty is up.”
Water in the desert
Leaking roofs, windows, decks and chimneys are major woes. Attorneys have collected millions of dollars in recent settlements over them.
One lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court alleged that a builder skipped flashing, the installation of a water-resistant protective layer around windows, doors and decks. Flashing isn’t expensive, though it is time-consuming for work crews.
One of the industry’s biggest problems is not using water-resistant building paper correctly, said Stan Luhr, president of San Diego-based Pacific Property Consultants.
Untrained workers don’t know how to tuck the paper around sills and roofs.
Marilyn Wineman, who lives in Scottsdale’s Vistana community of $250,000 to $400,000 homes, knows about leaks.
She was among the 31 homeowners who sued UDC and won a $2 million settlement in March. Flaws in their homes included leaking windows and roofs and stucco cracking and falling off. Repairs were estimated at as much as $118,000 a home, according to the homeowners’ lawyer.
In a court deposition, Wineman recalled one heavy rainstorm when she came downstairs to see sheets of water flowing inside her house.
One of the homeowners’ attorneys contended that UDC deleted certain materials to cut costs, including black paper, which is installed between the stucco and the walls to repel water.
When a subcontractor was told to skip black paper, he said to UDC in a 1993 memo: ”The average cost to UDC would be $150 per house. You have indicated that you do not want to add black paper because of the cost involved.”
Shea, which acquired UDC in 1998, said it settled the case because it didn’t have adequate records from UDC.
Water leaks also can lead to problems with mold.
Mold can sprout within 24 hours of moisture hitting drywall or wood, construction experts say. It can be a harmless cosmetic issue or deadly if it’s Stachybotrys mold.
Former Oregonians Dona and Daniel Jensen sued their builder, Monterey Homes, after experiencing a series of problems with their north Scottsdale home, purchased in August 1996.
The Jensens said that their home had cracked tiles, paint bubbles in the stucco, mismatched paint and a cracked bathtub. They said the builder tried to fix the problems, but some recurred.
In June 2000, the family found Stachybotrys mold in a bathroom shower and decided to flee the house.
“It’s not just about mold and window leaks,” Daniel said. “It’s about a breach of contract of what was delivered.”
Their lawsuit is scheduled for trial Jan. 15.
Dennis Wilenchik, an attorney for Monterey, acknowledges that Stachybotrys mold was found. He blamed a subcontractor for not properly closing off a condensation pipe inside a bathroom wall.
Wilenchik said Monterey offered five times to repair the problem and pay for an allergist for the children.
“They are just out to get a windfall now,” Wilenchik said. “We have an obligation to fix the home, but we don’t have an obligation to buy it.”