Water.

This simple molecule composed of two hydrogen atoms affixed atop a single oxygen atom forms the very basis of life as we know it. In fact, all known life forms depend on it. Astronomers get breathlessly excited at the mere hint of water on any extraterrestrial body precisely because where there is water, there can be life. Unfortunately, that is also precisely why homeowners get breathlessly nervous when water turns up in unexpected places in their homes. Where there is water, there is life. When it comes to homes, that means termites, mold, mildew, and other nasties, not to mention the ill effects water can have on the building materials themselves, such as unexpected warping, discoloration, or even structural failure.

When it comes to homes the enemy is, without a doubt, water. Not termites. Not mold. Not even raging hurricanes. It is H2O – the giver of life, and the bane of homeowners everywhere.

The Problem With Water

Water damage accounts for a quarter of all US homeowners insurance claims. The average cost of water damage claims nearly top seven thousand dollars per case. However, much of that damage isn’t caused by dramatic floods or rampaging superstorms. Rather, most damage to homes is simply the result of a slow accumulation of water vapor and moisture that slowly but surely degrades a home from the inside out. The slow, sometimes invisible nature of moisture buildup could explain why it is so expensive a problem to tackle – it is often discovered way too late, usually after being overlooked for far too long. According to an articlereleased by Clemson University, spending an extra $500 on moisture management at the time of construction will save nearly $5000 dollars over the life of a building. Yet for all intents and purposes, most turnkey home builders continue to rely on outdated building construction techniques and technologies that do not acknowledge one very critical reality: water is everywhere, all the time.

Therefore managing where it goes (and where it doesn’t) is a critical concern of any good home builder. Green eco-builders, particularly noted for their attention to these types of things, are well known for employing the best moisture management techniques and technologies on the market. This is partly because managing water appropriately, such as with rainwater collection systems, is a great way to conserve, but mostly because reducing moisture damage prolongs the longevity of the home itself – massively reducing waste. From an ecological perspective, it is far better, as well as economically sensible in the long term, to build a home that will last for generations as opposed to having to demolish and build a new one every couple of decades.
Remember, spending $500 dollars more on water protection could very well save you ten-fold that amount or more over the life of a home.

Mold, Mildew, and Termites Oh My!

Perhaps even more critically, managing moisture is a key aspect of maintaining good indoor air quality – a missional mandate for most green builders in the industry. While the walls, roof, floor, doors, and other components of a house may not seem very edible to homeowners, they are highly nutritious foodstuffs for all manner of insects, fungi, and other microbes. Throw in a little extra moisture and conditions become perfect for the likes of Stachybotrys, a pernicious black mold well known for effectively, and forcibly, evicting unsuspecting homeowners with spores so toxic it can cause bleeding in the lungsTermites, another perennial problem that plagues homeowners across the nation, also happen to be highly attracted to moist conditions and, unfortunately, the cellulose-rich building materials most homes are made of these days. Of course, treating either of these destructive infestations directly does little to actually address the root of both problems: excessive water infiltration. A report released by the Home Ventilating Institute, points out that, like it or not, mold spores are already everywhere. They are just waiting for the right conditions to trigger growth and infestation. However, if moisture is controlled, mold is controlled. The same goes for termites – which makes waterproofing a key concern for any building.

Remember the Membrane

95 percent of the moisture entering homes comes through infiltration. That means that it was outside at one point, but whether thanks to ambient air pressure, capillary action, or just a simple leakage, it is now inside the home. In other words, it has infiltrated through the building envelope. The solution, then, seems obvious – plug up all the gaps. While this is indeed a viable solution, in practice, no building is perfectly airtight, and no building membrane will completely block air and moisture infiltration – nor should it. In fact, many building experts recommend that membranes not be completely waterproof and airtight lest they trap moisture inside. Buildings, it seems, need to able to breath too. This delicate balance between blocking exterior infiltration while removing interior moisture build-up, from dishwashers and steamy showers in particular, is typically achieved through mechanical ventilation, such as air conditioning and ventilation fans, and vapor barriers. The vapor barriers reduce moisture infiltration to manageable levels, and the mechanical systems ensure that the building can literally exhale any excess.

Practical Design Remedies

If water is the enemy, the practical solution it seems would be to both block it’s entrance and expedite it’s removal. To that effect, there are several proactive and smart design choices affecting every aspect of the building enclosure that can be pursued before a home is even constructed.

Reduce Thermal Bridging, Reduce Infiltration, Reduce Condensation, Reduce Mold
Many ecobuilders maximize spacing between wall studs in order to minimize thermal bridging, and potentially, mold-inspiring condensation within the wall itself. To that effect, spray foam insulation can be an effective way to both reduce infiltration while denying mold a foothold.

Keep Water at Arms Length From the Building
Sometimes the best way to deal with water, is to simply keep it physically away from the building. Sloping metal roofs with long, overhanging eaves are often a simple, cost effective way to do just that. Metal roofs tend to be impermeable to water seepage and long overhanging eaves keep rainwater runoff away from the building foundation. This reduces water infiltration at the slab and denies termites the conditions they need to thrive.

Breathe In, Breathe Out
Moisture accumulation, typically through water vapor and condensation, is the primary problem. Ventilation is the key to excising that problem. With proper HVAC sizing, combined with well-designed passive and active ventilation systems, the healthy home can regulate interior air quality conditions that inhibit infestation.

Many of these moisture basics can be dealt with in the design and construction phases. Remember, by nipping the issue of water damage in the bud through preemptive measures, homeowners can avoid a massive, possibly mold-induced, headache down the road. In the end however, a home, like a person, is very much a product of it’s environment. It must respond to it. Proper design for moisture mitigation and the reduction of water incursion will depend on a variety of factors highly specific to local climates and conditions. That means that your best friend for combating your home’s worst enemy is quite simply: knowhow.

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