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Does Flawed Stucco Plague New City Buildings?

Tuesday February 03, 2004

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a letter sent to Berkeley Chief Building Official Joan MacQuarrie, Mayor Tom Bates, Planning Director Dan Marks, Housing Director Steve Barton and Mark Rhoades for submission to the Members of the Zoning Adjustments Board. 


The Berkeleyan building at Oxford Street and Berkeley Way, completed in 1998, appears to be the third of the new breed of mixed-use buildings to require major stucco repair at a youthful age—scaffolding now covers the courtyard area on the west side of the building. 

The east side of University Lofts (University Avenue and Grant Streets, completed in 1997) was replaced in Summer, 2002. The south side of this building now shows many ominous, discolored cracks from which water oozes during wet weather.  

The south side of the Gaia building (completed in 2001) required replacement of several layers of material (even the insulation) over a 10-month period starting just 16 months after completion. Were all of the removed materials recycled? Will the other three sides of the building need the same protracted repair? 

I have been puzzled and amazed at the rapid deterioration of these lauded examples of “smart growth” and “sustainable development.” They have, after all, won awards from the Downtown Berkeley Association, the Pacific Builders Conference and the Berkeley Design Advocates for innovative mixed-use development. Perhaps old-fashioned workmanship beats innovation in mundane and practical matters such as water-proofing. 

I consulted my contractor friends about the technicalities of stucco construction. Each thought that the building standards with respect to exterior cladding had been lowered in the last two decades—probably due to pressure from the building industry—and that many of the materials used now are experimental. 

While investigating stucco failure, I became interested in a product called oriented strand board (OSB), often used instead of plywood. It can be seen out in the elements at job sites, such as the shockingly large project at Shattuck Avenue and Haste Street. OSB is composed of wood strands and glue. The manufacturers claim it is equivalent to plywood, but it is known to absorb moisture with enthusiasm and is particularly susceptible to the growth of mold.  

I don’t know whether it’s the OSB or other “innovative” cost-cutting measures which have caused the rapid failure of the largest new buildings in Berkeley, but there are many handsome 1920s buildings in town still wearing their original stucco cladding. 

After reading every article I could find about water intrusion and envelope failure in new construction, I learned that leaking stucco is a nationwide problem in post-1980 buildings in both the U.S. and Canada. One article discussing the national debate about the cause of these failures concludes: “Unfortunately, this indicates that stucco may not be compatible with the wall systems being built today.” 

In another article written by an engineer about leaky condominiums, he explains the problem to be that designers, builders and regulators are unaware of the consequences of failing to achieve moisture control. He concludes: “What appears to be called for is a return to more traditional practices, in which the building has a drainage system and, therefore, can breathe.” 

I ask each of you to use your respective positions to bring the permitting process for multi-story stucco-clad buildings to a halt until the cause of these failures has been determined. Ms. MacQuarrie, please launch an investigation into the building practices currently used, and the reasons for the dramatic stucco failures in new construction of the last seven years. Mr. Marks, please do what you can to rein in a planning staff who never met a colossal edifice they didn’t love. Finally, Mayor Bates, do you want to be remembered forever for encouraging a rash of flawed, leaking and ultimately hated construction projects disfiguring this once beautiful town? The choice is yours. 


Gale Garcia describes herself as one of those pesky Berkeley natives who thinks “smart growth” is just developer propaganda.