10 Construction Errors Architects Commonly Find / by S. Joshua Brincko

It is very common that I find errors on a job site. That is part of an architect's job, and it's a good thing because I propose remedies to problems before they develop into catastrophes. I often spot construction mistakes before they even happen. Although many people think a building inspector is checking the whole project for your best interest, the inspector is not required or legally obligated to thoroughly review and protect the biggest investment you will ever make (your house). They are mainly just checking in to see if the builder has a minimum level of competence to apply the standards. 

As an architect, I need your project to turn out awesome for two reasons: 1. I need the great photos of the finished project for my portfolio, and 2. I need my clients to love their project, so they refer their friends and family to me. Well another reason: 3. It's just really fun to design cool buildings! I really care about the success of my clients' biggest investments, I accept their trust very seriously, and I am an expert in my field because of my extensive experience and knowledge. 

My involvement during the construction process does cost the client money, but it is negligible when compared to fixing a construction mistake. Builders typically have all the best intentions, but sometimes things get missed or some errors are out of a builder's control. Some of the builder's errors are even the client's fault at times for not giving the builder enough direction (by simply NOT authorizing the architect to manage the construction process). Even if an error is the builder's fault, fixing problems could still take months (of your time) to remedy. The person building your project works on one project at a time while an architect works on dozens of projects at a time and therefor sees a plethora of different construction methodologies in action. Since architects are faced with so many varying construction situations, we have vast experience to foresee potential problems before they arise. Although a builder's experience is more practical, architects see the big picture which also includes coordinating the work of various sub-contractors to make sure it all fits together. I also happen to have years of practical experience doing construction labor, so I thrive on a job site. Paying an architect for an hour to do a weekly job site meeting saves clients loads of money down the road, and I've listed the most common mistakes I see below:

  1. Inadequate crawlspace venting. You would be surprised at how many people end up with moldy crawlspaces. Rain and construction do not mix well. Postponing (or forgetting) crawlspace venting inevitably results in mold. Construction materials should not be wet, and if they are, they NEED a way to dry out. I can often spot these errors through construction photos or by simply driving by a job site (without even exiting my truck).
  2. Inadequate attic venting. Drink a beer on a hot day...what happens? The bottle gets wet on the outside. It's not sweat from your palms. It's not magical free beer. It's science, and it's called condensation. Cold attic + hot house = condensation. Condensation on your construction materials = mold if it does not have a way to dry out. This is where soffit vents, ridge vents, and mechanical vents come into play. Based on the size of the attic, there's a specific amount of ventilation needed at specific areas of the attic to keep the air adequately flowing, so this condensation can be evaporated before mold develops. I can calculate this in my sleep - don't let your builder just slap up some random vent strips.
  3. Inadequate insulation. You can insulate all you want, but if you leave a gap here or there, it's like having a hole in your house. Would you expect a winter jacket to keep you warm if you don't zip it? Of course not. Your insulation around your house works the same exact way. It must be continuous and tight. I have learned some strategies that allow your insulation to actually do its job, and this saves you big time on heating bills.
  4. Improper installation of weatherproofing. This one really bothers me. We build with wood mostly, and we know that wood swells and rots when it's wet. It has become common practice for builders to frame houses in the rain and cover it with house wrap: it's a white tarp-like material that they staple to the plywood. Staples put holes in the house wrap. The house wrap blows off with a little bit of wind leaving the wood exposed until they do the labor of re-installing it again and again and again which leaves more and more and more staple holes in it. The sun's ultraviolet rays degrade the house wrap in as little as three days. And perhaps the worse thing is that the house wrap is often installed over wet plywood which actually prevents the wood from ever drying out. There's better products and methods out there that I'd be happy to share with you. Just ask. Installation of windows, doors, and integrating different materials into one another is another area where the help of an architect is essential in the of weatherproofing of your project. Nobody wants leaks to develop a year or two or ten down the road.
  5. Ceiling framing that prevents lighting where you want it to be. You want recessed lights in the middle of your hallway? You better make sure the framers don't put a joist or rafter down the center of your hall. This happens a lot. The framers often don't refer to the whole set of plans to coordinate with the lighting, speaker, or duct locations, and this causes unnecessary compromises or costly rework. I work hard to spot these problems before they arise so everything integrates properly. It is the responsibility of the builder to do this, but they are less familiar with the concept which causes things like this to be overlooked. 
  6. Door/window framing that will later cause awkward trim details. Have you seen a door trim in the corner of a hallway with a 1/4" strip of drywall next to it that is too skinny to paint? This comes down to careful planning, design detailing, and follow-through during construction to get these fine details to work well.
  7. Clients buying things that won't work. Clients get really excited about their projects - this is very understandable. Sometimes too excited though. Don't just buy a window or a refrigerator because it's a good deal. There's certain size requirements, insulation specifications, etc that must be followed for certain products to work. It's also not fun to move a refrigerator around from room to room during construction while trying not to damage the pretty stainless steel finish. Let it be your architect's fault or your builder's fault if something won't work by letting them buy it (at the appropriate time).  
  8. Wet building materials that should not get rained on. This goes along with #4 above, but I see builders storing lumber on a muddy job site in the rain. The lumber should really be kiln dried to a certain moisture percentage and kept dry to ensure it will not host mold, mildew, and shrink and swell in unpredictable ways. You wouldn't want to see tile popping off of your wall or hardwood floors buckling because the framing behind them are shrinking and swelling.
  9. Wrong materials installed. A simple job site meeting is so helpful when it comes time to install finish materials. There are so many unique construction details where one material integrates with another that it's not possible (or practical) to depict it all on drawings. Or sometimes there's so many drawings and changes to drawings that builders overlook something that was planned. Would you rather have a builder guessing at your design details, or would you rather have your trained architect spend 5 minutes to provide the necessary direction?
  10. Builders not reading or improperly reading drawings. A picture is worth a thousand words, so it's understandable that things can be missed on drawings. There is so much information packed into a drawing that certain things can be missed while trying to read the plans on a dark, cold, windy, rainy, dusty, noisy job site. There's also decisions that are made that are not illustrated on the drawings. A weekly job site meeting is crucial to review progress and upcoming work to ensure the builder is aware of everything necessary on the plans before building it. I've also common unfortunately that builders never bother to print the drawings and therefor never read them. Sigh.