Contractors' Wake-Up Calls

Mold, mildew, faulty building performance, sick building syndrome, etc., are this generation's versions of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, wake-up calls announcing that we have to change how we build and fix most of what we have built.

November 30, 2003
Mike Gorman
As legend has it, the Great Chicago Fire started Oct. 8, 1871, when Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern. By the time the fire was extinguished three days later, 250 people had died and 100,000 were homeless. More freewheeling construction with little oversight followed before a building code was adopted. It often takes tragedy to stir reform and bring about regulations.

Mold, mildew, faulty building performance, sick building syndrome, etc., are this generation's versions of Mrs. O'Leary's cow, wake-up calls announcing that we have to change how we build and fix most of what we have built. More stringent energy and building codes are being put into place. Some arise from scientific studies; others are adopted only as another attempt to remedy what didn't work last time.

Thousands of cases of litigation related to home performance clog courtrooms in every state. Yet most contractors know little about the scientific evidence showing that we insulate incorrectly, install vapor barriers contrary to the laws of physics, apply exterior systems that don't shed water, and/or design and install oversized HVAC systems with faulty duct systems.

This might be the best opportunity remodelers have had to do the right thing while separating themselves from competitors and commanding higher prices.

At first contact with homeowners, a remodeler knowledgeable about building performance might ask if they have noisy ducts, a smoky fireplace, drafts, peeling paint, soot deposits, stuffy air, headaches, hot/cold rooms, allergy symptoms, respiratory disorders, lingering odors or dust. This plants the seed that certain conditions in a home affect the health and safety of its inhabitants.

On the first visit to the house, the remodeler follows up by educating the homeowners about how a home functions as a system and how the remodeler can solve the problems they have brooded over since the seed was planted. For example, unintentional depressurization, which can result from leaky ducts, exhaust fans and even closing a door or running a clothes dryer, can cause many hazardous situations. With training and the proper tools, you can demonstrate these conditions.

When the low bidder (your competition) fails to educate the homeowners about these conditions, you will have justified a higher price for your work in the clients' minds by displaying your mastery of the building as a system.

Smart remodelers also know how to prevent home performance problems that remodeling can cause. Let's say clients decide their new kitchen will include a downdraft cooktop so cooking odors will not rise. The cooktop manufacturer understands that a downdraft fan must move more air to capture those vapors, requiring higher fan capacity and larger ducting. Meantime, the remodeler, trying to build efficiently, plugs all outside leaks to make the home airtight, and the mechanical contractor installs the ducting per manufacturer directions.

In many jurisdictions, no code violation occurred. No one really did anything wrong. Or did everyone? Where will the downdraft fan find enough air to exhaust from this tight structure? The answer often startles: 1) down the flue of the naturally aspirated, gas-fired water heater, furnace or boiler, introducing untreated and unfiltered air carrying allergens and pollen, moisture, carbon monoxide and other combustion byproducts; 2) down the fireplace chimney (same problems, plus smoke, ash and odors); or even 3) out of the ground under and around the house (think radon, septic-system gases and chemical vapors from lawn treatments).

When problems arise, blame will fall. These problems become your problems. Will you be caught unaware?

If we don't take the lead, more onerous regulations will be imposed on us. Take building performance training such as that offered by Affordable Comfort ( and the Energy & Environmental Building Association (

Your company's brand then will rise above your competitors'. You will command more money by offering more than a remodeling project; you will offer to safeguard the health and safety of loved ones.

Mike Gorman teaches seminars and coaches individual contractors. E-mail him at, call 800/218-5149 or visit

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