Why Is My House Falling Apart?

Houses are the most wonderful things (if you don’t feel either a.- I love my house, or b.- I wish I loved my house, you can stop reading now). The problem with houses and house love is maintenance, there is always something that needs to be repaired, painted, replaced. Because of this, we speak to many people in search of a “maintenance free” house”. Wouldn’t that be nice. If anyone ever tells you that they can design you one, run for the hills! There’s no such thing. The closet thing you’ll find is “differed maintenance” or “reduced maintenance”. Even then, there’s a catch…

It’s expensive! Well, not really expensive, because for something to be expensive, there has to be an alternative that meets the same criteria for less money. It takes more money to construct a house that will result in differed or reduced maintenance and for many, the extra cost isn’t worth it. One reason, is that “comparables”, the standard by which banks determine whether or not your house is a “good value” (translation: they’ll loan you money to build or buy it) has warped peoples perception of value.

A bank will willingly make a loan on a cheap house that will start to fall apart before it’s completed but will not loan money on a house that will last for 50 years with minimal maintenance because that house is “too expensive”. No banker will willingly admit it until you ask the question point blank. This problem really can’t be avoided, but the impact can be lessened by insisting that your appraiser factor in your upgrades (we’ll address those later) in his appraisal.

Unfortunately, the least expensive (and therefore usually the lowest quality) house sets the standard and as much as you probably don’t want to hear this, if you try to build a house for a similar amount of money, you will not be  (for the most part) including the materials you’ll want if you’re trying to reduce your maintenance cost and effort. In our market (Hilton Head Island) the only items a typical house will include that I’d consider to reduce or differ maintenance are the siding if it’s a cementitious board or stucco properly installed (not a given) and wood windows with vinyl or aluminum cladding.

If you asked me to recommend materials for the lowest maintenance over the next 15 years, here’s what I’d tell you:

1. Use aerated autoclaved concrete (AAC) for the exterior walls and cover it with a stucco formulated specifically for the product. AAC is a solid, lightweight material that has reasonable insulating properties. The fact that it’s SOLID is one of the reasons I think it works so well here. Nothing can get in the walls and with proper roof design, flashing, stucco and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) design, it’s ideal for our climate.

2. Use a grade 1 tile, like Ludowici or a metal roof like copper, lead-coated copper or terne (Follansbee). Pre-painted metal roofs, whether steel or aluminum are not equals here. Most houses on Hilton Head have asphalt shingles, also referred to as fiberglass shingles and even “50 year” roofs will not generally give you more than 25 years in our climate before they become brittle and need to be replaced. All shingles of this type also support the growth of a black fungus that needs to be regularly cleaned unless you like those black patches and streaks.

3. Only use kiln dried pressure treated pine (Cox Lumber) or hardwoods like teak on the exterior of your house. PVC (Azek) will work where a more finished look is desired, but it must be properly installed and it expands and contracts much more than wood.

4. Carved stone is a forever material, “cast stone” is concrete and of varying quality. Haddonstone is a top quality cast stone,  poor quality cast stone may last for many years but I’ve also seen problems start to show up within a few years.

5. Top quality flashing and other waterproofing (16 oz. copper or lead-coated copper is my personal favorite) properly installed is a must.

6. Exterior windows and doors are often overlooked, but clad windows need yearly maintenance. Inspect the caulk joint around the windows yearly and replace as necessary. Some manufacturers recommend a yearly coat of wax on the cladding. Take care of your windows! We’ve done many renovations of houses with clad windows that were less than 20 years old and the windows needed to be replaced. Brannen Millwork makes an excellent all wood window and we frequently use their wood entry and french doors.

7. Use good quality interior millwork (doors and trim). Finger-jointed trim is less expensive and looks great… at first. Before long, certainly within 5 or 6 years, you’ll start to see the finger-joints through the paint. It’s going to happen. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Use good doors, solid MDF doors take paint well and are pleasantly heavy. For stained doors, there are some good quality veneer doors, but we prefer solid mahogany. Along with your millwork, invest in solid brass or bronze door hardware- knobs AND hinges. Most doors come with hinges already attached to the door frame and door. They are generally steel with a brass or bronze finish. They will not look good once they start to rust. If you’re not close to the beach you may see rust within a few years. If you’re close to the beach, you’ll probably see rust before you can get your furniture through the door.

8. I only recommend solid wood floors that are finished on site, natural stone or good quality carpet. You may get a long life out of other materials but they will tend to look dated and they just don’t wear as well.

9. Invest in a good quality heating, venting, air conditioning, humidity control system installed by people who understand how important it is to bring fresh air into the system, maintain a positive pressure for the interior and keep the pressure balanced between rooms.  Use spray foam insulation at the underside of the rafters. Seal your attic and control the humidity mechanically. Moisture is a home’s worst enemy and a properly designed system is critical.

10. Make your selections carefully. I know you’re saying, “what does that have to do with maintenance?” Why I’m so glad you asked! If you select your interior finishes like most people do, you’ll be selecting many things that are currently trendy. That’s going to date your house, you’ll wake up one morning and say “this house is sooooo 2011, it looks like every other house built then, we need a change!” (If you don’t say it, a potential buyer certainly will.) My advice here is to get expert advice (did I mention that we’re architects and interior designers?) and work with your expert to avoid current trends where you can.

11. An annual inspection of your home, inside and out, can identify small issues before they become big ones. At the very least, have a competent professional inspect the caulking and exterior painted surfaces, re-caulking or re-painting as required.

Since I’m pretending that you asked my opinion, I’ll pretend that you’ve also asked, “how can I afford all of this?” First, please don’t ask for a house that is overly elaborate. Buy quality first and add the extras if you can. Charleston, The Holy City, is filled with “Charleston singles houses” that are basically the same height and width and have the same number of windows that are the same size. Some of them are elaborately detailed and some are elegantly simple. Since I’m doing the advising here, I’ll advise you to get the proportions right, use good quality materials and add the detail as your budget allows.

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About More Than Architects

I’m Rick Clanton. Michael Ruegamer and I are architects and the principals of Group 3 Design on Hilton Head Island, SC. We provide architecture and interior design services for homes in the US and the Caribbean Islands.
This entry was posted in design, home design, what not to build. Bookmark the permalink.

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