Stucco, stone, and stucco-like exterior finishes cover buildings and facades all over the world. And why not? It’s attractive, colorful, sometimes even spectacular—and relatively cost-effective to boot. Stucco’s bastard nephew, E.I.F.S. (Exterior Insulation and Finish System) has been a popular subject of litigation for decades. The most recognizable manufacturer of E.I.F.S. is Drivit®. Like Kleenex® or Trex®, Drivit®, while a brand name, is often used as the catchall name of the system. While properly applied stucco and E.I.F.S. can enhance your curb appeal and last for decades, all too often, however, it is not applied according to manufacturer’s instructions or even according to common sense. The improper installation of these materials can prove disastrous to a building, especially on wood-framed buildings—like most homes. This is mostly because the problems may not become apparent for years. Thankfully, a slow moving change is taking place, wherein municipal building inspectors are requiring a separate inspection prior to the application of masonry finishes. This is a welcome change for consumers, as countless homes are slowly rotting beneath their beautiful facades.
Moisture is the primary enemy of all buildings. In fact, most construction operations on exteriors involve steps that are designed to keep water out of a building. Of these steps, nearly all are beneath what you can see on the finished product. It’s usually some level of negligence beneath the surface that’s at the root of a moisture issue. If there’s a way for water to get in—it will. Special attention has to be paid to openings in a building like windows, doors, and plumbing and exhaust vents, and also at transitions between roofs and walls, cornice and walls, or roofs and other roofs.
Because all masonry is permeable to some degree, a clue that moisture is making it through the masonry surface of your home is after a rain, when the house is drying, there are areas that take significantly longer to dry than the rest. These areas are often beneath windows or around pent roofs. An area remaining wet after the rest is dry is where moisture is trapped behind the surface. That’s if you’re lucky. Because of the permeability of masonry, the membrane behind the surface has to be what keeps the water out. When it fails to do so, these types of moisture infiltration issues often don’t manifest symptoms until there is a great deal of damage. Moisture on the wrong side of a wall or roof also can entice wood-munching insects to infest the home, as well as provide an optimum climate for molds and fungi galore.
If you are considering the purchase of a home with a masonry exterior, do some homework. If you don’t get an independent home inspection report, buy a moisture meter (you can get one at your local home center for less than $30), check the moisture content outside on the masonry, any exposed wood surfaces around doors or windows, and on exposed wood framing in the basement, closest to the masonry area as possible. If these readings show excessive moisture—keep looking. If you are considering buying a newly constructed home with this kind of exterior, ask questions—find out about the installation methodology, and see if you have any legal recourse if there is a moisture envelope failure in the future.
Photos: The damage shown below is from a home built 8 years prior. While the damage was mostly isolated to around windows and doors, the entire stucco facade had to be removed, as well as the windows, doors and quite a bit of sheathing. In this case, the client opted to replace the stucco with vinyl siding (bottom photo). The top photo shows the home before the work.