Election Section

About the House: That 300-Year-Old House By MATT CANTOR

Friday December 16, 2005

One of my favorite comments to share with clients is that water isn’t all that damaging to wood. After all, they build boats out of it, don’t they? “Hmmm,” my client will say and make that light-bulb look. It’s so contrary to our typical thinking, but it’s true. Water facilitates wood damage but isn’t actually the perpetrator.  

I remember watching one of these marvelous TV science specials recently in which they had discovered the remains of a Viking ship. Somehow they managed to bring the thing up off the ocean floor where it had lain for the least 1,000 years and, lo and behold, it was in pretty good shape (at least the framework). 

There isn’t all that much oxygen in the water (OK, there’s some or fish couldn’t breath) so oxidation is fairly limited (oxidation is responsible for a lot of the destruction of material on the earth’s surface and our homes are no exception). Ultraviolet radiation, which facilitates oxidation by providing an energy source, also does plenty of damage by cooking materials apart. This, too, is very limited at the bottom of the ocean. 

If a Viking ship can remain under water and remain largely intact for a thousand years then water might not be the problem, at least not all by itself. The thing that water does, though, is provide an essential nutrient for organisms that do destroy wood. In fact, they eat it. And, as with us and our morning cereal, the right amount of milk helps wash it down. Just like funguses, we’re not going to make too much headway if we’re swimming in milk. We just need a little to make our cereal soft, and so it is with funguses and wood. They don’t do so well when they’re inundated with water, but if the moisture level in the food is about right, they do very nicely and proceed to eat your house a little at a time. 

This means that we have to be on the lookout for places where moderate dampness is generated and maintained. If water is getting into the wall behind the stucco and the wall is nicely sealed, this creates a persistently clammy environment and funguses have a field day. 

If water pours over the same wood lying in the sun, it dries fairly quickly when the rain stops and the growth is minimal. 

This is why lumber yards can leave lumber stacked outside for weeks on end with little or no damage. When wood comes home from the lumber yard you may notice greenish or blackish funguses on the surface but these do not grow if wood is kept at a low moisture level (less than 18-20 percent) and so remain as nothing more than discoloration. If you look in your attic or under your house, you’ll be able to see some of this even if many years have passed.  

This also illustrates how funguses get growing in the walls of homes when moisture becomes available. The dead spores of various funguses, which are essentially seeds, are present on most of the wood in our homes, and once wetted, they begin to grow and propagate. One of the reasons that I find mold issues so exasperating is that most people just don’t understand that mold is everywhere and that mold problems have to do with massive propagations or extreme sensitivities. 

The point of all this is not that you don’t have to be concerned about water, just that the time and conditions needed to damage significant amounts of a wooden structure are such that I don’t see as much of it as you might think. Also, when I do, it has to do more with the type of system that holds the water than the actual volume of water. To be sure, leaks damage plaster and sheetrock and make wooden floors warp, but much of the worry that people have about structural damage caused by leaks is unwarranted.  

All that said, keeping the water out of a house is a darned good idea, and if we were all just a little more attentive to this we might have houses that lasted for 300 years or more instead of the common longevity of 100 years or less. 

It might sound simplistic, but if the average house got a roof and a paint job when each was needed, this average house might well survive several centuries. The houses that I see that are beyond repair are mostly ones that didn’t get either roofing or paint when it was time. 

Once a roof or a paint job has failed and water begins to get inside, things start to warp, nails corrode, plaster, wires and interior details get damaged, and floor-boards discolor and shrink. If we can keep these things from occurring in the first place, a house can be kept looking youthful and fresh for a very long time. Every once in a while I get to inspect a house that has been adequately attended to over the long haul and there are no signs of leaks or superficial damage caused by paint failures. It makes me want to rent a film crew and use the place as a 1940s movie set. We actually have quite a few of them around here and many of them happen to have been owned by one family for most or all of its life.  

No matter what the tenant history may be, these houses share the lucky historical attribute of having been owned by people who always replaced the roof when it was time and had regular repainting (with lots of prep) as often as was needed. 

Paint jobs also need some amount of maintenance in the form of caulking and better paint jobs. Better, longer-lasting paint jobs lead to fewer failures simply because the periods of the house’s vulnerability are fewer. Therefore, if one is interested in the long-term value of a house, it is absolutely the best policy to hire really good painters and roofers and to replace these two shields as often as is advised by prudent experts. 

So, I guess you could say: Painting and roofing, like sunscreen and hats, help our abodes to defy all the stats.