The worst brickwork we’ve ever seen?: A new contender.

Declining Standards in New Build Highlighted by the worst brickwork we’ve ever seen.

Norwich New Build

Norwich New Build

Back in July we were called to carry out a snagging inspection to a David Wilson Homes site in Norwich, which had the worst brickwork we’ve ever seen. Our clients had signed up to buy a new build ‘off plan’ but started to have grave concerns relating to the quality of their potential new home as they watched the build progress. Our initial discussion related to the fact that the brickwork colour was mismatched and that the developer had employed someone to tint the bricks to match; when I arrived on site to carry out the snagging inspection the specialist was at work  painting individual bricks with a pot of red tint solution and a paint brush, a quite laborious task as you can imagine.

We’d agreed to inspect before the build was complete because our discussions with the client, and indeed pictures sent to us, gave enough cause for concern that this was necessary.  The following image slider will give you a feel for the quality of the work and the sheer volume of defects we encountered. Please view the slider on full screen to fully appreciate the illustrated defects.

Would you have bought this house?

Norwich new build
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Bridged polyethylene DPC
Oversailing brickwork
Cracked bricks
Failed mortar joint
Poor pointing
Cracked bed joint
Poor standard of pointing
Protruding perp weeps
Poor setting out
Perps out of alignment
Overly wide mortar perp
Inconsistent mortar joints
walls out of plumb
Smeared pointing work
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Significant Defects

As you can see the defects were significant and we commented in our report that we found it difficult to believe that this brickwork was completed by a fully qualified brick layer. Of particular concern was the incredibly poor setting out, failed mortar bed joints, inconsistency in width and depth of mortar joints and last but not least, walls that were significantly out of plumb, well beyond the 8mm maximum allowable NHBC tolerance. As often happens in these cases it was relayed back to us from our client that the developer didn’t agree with our report and that a site manager of 20 years experience knows more than us and his view is that the brickwork was perfectly acceptable. I thought it may be useful to balance the Chartered professionals view with a second opinion  from a master bricklayer and obtained the following commentary from an acquaintance who is also a master bricklayer…

The master bricklayers view

“My name is Bill XXXXXX and I have been a brick layer for the last 30 years.  I have City and Guilds  NVQ level 3 in brick laying  and NVQ level  6  in site management. I’ve been asked by Joe Malone  for my opinion  about the workmanship of Plot XXX in Norwich.

There seems to be wide and inconsistent perpendiculars and significant variation in bed joints.

The pointing is of a very low and poor standard i.e. holes and not perps not ’top and tailed correctly’

Weep holes are protruding out of the brick work and should be flush.

Also bricks have been laid upside down allowing moisture to catch on the face leading to premature failure through ‘spalling’ aka frost damage.

The walls are significantly out of plumb. Variation in plumb should on good brick work be a maximum of 4l mm out of plumb one way or another. Brick courses seem to wander. Chipped bricks have been used rather than discarded. The Brick work is over sailing be 10mm in places below the DPC

There are large gaps around some windows which implies poor setting out.

Some bricks are cracked and should have been discarded. Two failed bed joints are apparent.

The brick work has not been washed or cleaned down.

The mortar colour varies implying it has not been ‘gauged’ and makes the building look patchy.

The damp course is protruding through the mortar.

Back straps for the garage have been missed. Roof ridge work is poorly finished and there appears to be no mechanical fixings

The brick work does not appear to be ‘fair faced’

In all a very poor standard of work has been delivered with a significant amount of snagging already required.

On a site managed by our company this work would be condemned and the brick layers replaced or forced to do the work again to our own companies’ standard.”

The only point on which we don’t agree with on this second opinion is with regard to the DPC being pointed over. DPC’s should not be pointed over, they should be exposed and clearly visible and if they are not then they are bridged.

The worst Brickwork

Our clients reached something of stalemate with their developer, because they were insisting that sections of the building were taken down and rebuilt, whilst the developer was offering minor remedial works that fell well short of dealing with the significant defects in this build. Their complaint was ultimately elevated to the managing director of David Wilson Homes and our client eventually informed us of the following outcome, “We have decided not to proceed with the purchase of the house. I think we always knew this was the outcome deep down. I have received a reply letter from the MD of David Wilson East division offering to rescind the contract and contribute towards ‘reasonable’ conveyance costs.”

When we last spoke our clients were looking to purchase an old traditional property and we completely understand why, moreover, we believe that they made absolutely the right decision to withdraw from this contract. A brave and sensible decision, especially when you consider that many clients purchase with their heart rather than their head.

 

 

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The Hidden Dangers in Buying a New Home

The Hidden Dangers in Buying a New Home

New homes are a risky proposition

New homes are a risky proposition

Why would you consider buying a new home, is it simply because you want that feeling of owning something new? Perhaps you want cutting edge design and modern standards of thermal comfort with low energy bills, or perhaps you simply feel that buying a new home gives you peace of mind that nothing could possibly go wrong? You may even have reasonable expectations that nothing is perfect and perhaps you may find one or two snags but so what, your constructor will willingly correct defects in the first two years and after that you have NHBC insurance to cover further eventualities.  Moreover, even your solicitor has advised you not to bother getting a full survey because its a new property and you’re covered by the construction guarantee and NHBC warranty. Well a qualified solicitor must know what he’s talking about and given the expense in moving home you’re predisposed to taking this advice because you’re trying to manage a budget. Of course your solicitor is absolutely right in principle but in practice he is very very wrong because there are many hidden dangers in buying a new home

 

An old traditional property is surely a greater risk to the home buyer than a new build isn't it?

An old traditional property is surely a riskier proposition tor the home buyer than a new build…  Isn’t it?

I write this blog very conscious of the fact that I’m in a ‘well you would say that wouldn’t you’ position since I’m advising a course of action that I may potentially profit from, but to be frank this information is only going to come from a surveyor dealing with these issues at the sharp end.  I’ve carried out many detailed snagging surveys on new build properties and I can not remember ever signing off on a property that only had reasonably minor defects. So what is going wrong?

The Decline in Quality Standards

Firstly there has been a gradual and systematic decline in quality control linked to a number of fundamental issues:

  1. Developers self manage their  quality control pprocess. The Site managers primary focus is on managing productivity and site efficiencies and you will rarely see them employ a Clerk of Works anymore to oversee quality control.
  2. A mistaken belief that either building control or the NHBC are responsible for managing the quality control process. They aren’t.
  3. Big developers deliver the larger portion of their works through a wide range of sub-contractors and often very little of the work is completed by in-house staff. Developers then expect sub-contractors to self manage their own quality control process but they’re under the same commercial pressures as the developer and time is money.
  4. The lack of time served tradesmen and their subsequent replacement with multi-skilled, jack of all trade, operatives.

 

Delamination of solid floor in 6 year old new build.

Delamination of solid floor in 6 year old new build.

5.  British workers are increasingly refusing to carry out works on a price and this has resulted in an influx of Eastern European workers on the large development sites and even fundamental  communication problems on site. I often find myself on development sites where I genuinely struggle to encounter staff that speak English.

6.  The advent of MMC (Modern Methods of Construction) and ‘Lean’ construction principles has resulted in the development of some truly terrible composite products. For example, there are some really shocking composite I-beams on the market that are both cheap and nasty. This has resulted in a marked increase in the number of floors that are flexing under load, something that was rarely a problem when standard timber floor joists were used. MMC is actually the modern version of non-traditional construction and will have a significantly reduced life span when compared to traditional construction erected during the Georgian or Victorian era. It is being optimistic to expect a 100 year life span from MMC construction and I believe that most will have a significantly shorter lifespan due to poor  quality materials and low architectural merit.

7. The move away from traditional skilled building and plumbing techniques. Most central heating is plumbed in on cheap plastic push fit pipework and soldered copper pipes are in decline, you’d be amazed at the number of flooded properties we see due to poor plumbing. Roof leadwork is also being severely de-skilled on new build sites with leadwork sealed in place with mastic rather than being properly installed. Push fit pipework relies on a rubber o-ring to make a seal but how long do you think this o-ring lasts when compared to soldered copper pipework. I’ve always held a view that plastic push fit pipework is OK for Portacabins or other temporary installations but it is now in common use.

8. The lack of a site benchmark test wall. There was a time when a standard test wall was constructed on every site and used to benchmark the site build standard. You rarely see this anymore, though we’d advise that you should use the site show home as your benchmark build standard. They are generally significantly better than anything else constructed on site.

9. New home buyers rarely have a detailed snagging survey carried because why would you need to check build quality on a new home? Possibly even your solicitor informed you that a full survey was not required.  This is yet another missed opportunity  to challenge the developer on quality control and another factor for increased  levels of complacency on site. Incredibly we have even been refused access to site to carry out a quality inspection until the buyer had signed the contract.

10. Many defects are ‘patent’ or immediately obvious, but many are ‘latent’, which means they are hidden. If not picked up during key stages of construction inspection then often they’ll remain hidden until failure occurs. Key construction stages are simply not being checked and signed off as they once were. It has been said that this ‘removal of red tape’ facilitates the construction process but in reality it has meant further erosion of the quality control process, which has facilitated poor quality development.

So what can be done? 

No provision made for surface drainage and rainwater breaching door threshold and entering lounge. The property was 7 years old.

No provision made for surface drainage and rainwater breaching door threshold and entering lounge. The property was 7 years old.

Firstly accept that there is nothing that you can do as a potential purchaser of a new home to deal directly with site related issues. There is a National housing shortage and developers generally sell new homes as quickly as they are being built. New housing is what economists call a highly elastic product with demand often exceeding supply. Despite this, it was  reported in December 2015 that Britain’s nine biggest housebuilders have land banked 615,152 housing plots that have not yet been developed – four times the total number of homes built in the past year. The top four firms – Berkeley, Barratt, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey – also hold £947million of cash, according to an investigation by The Guardian. Developers generally like to see a 25% gross profit on development, which compares very favourably to the wider construction industry. Land banking brings to mind a very interesting fact about the diamond trade… Did you know that diamonds are not actually that rare. In fact the market is carefully controlled by DeBeers who hold a massive stock of diamonds and carefully control their limited release into the market place. If Debeers chose to flood the market with their vast stockpile then diamond prices would collapse.  It is to my mind a thought provoking comparison.

We  speak from experience when we say that we have formed a firm opinion that buying a new home is a far riskier proposition than buying an old traditionally constructed property.  Of course many buyers of older properties would not consider signing off on what could potentially be their biggest ever purchase without investing in the surety that comes with a detailed home buyers survey. Very few new home buyers make that same investment because they have been lulled into a very false sense of security. Despite this, very few want to go through a process of suing their developer for breach of contract when things go badly wrong and why should they? They expect developers to remedy defects in the first two years and the NHBC Guarantee to cover the remaining 8 years. In fact very little is covered by these guarantees and claimants often realise that they are dealing with building guarantee companies with a general predisposition towards claim refusal. I recently enquired about buying a new home from a large National developer and I rang their sales office to discuss my requirements. Hello I said, I’m interested in buying a new home but I have no interest in the NHBC guarantee and  in fact I would insist that my contractual arrangement remains with you, the developer. I explained why I had no interest in the NHBC warranty but the sales person was stumped by my enquiry and promised to call me back once they’d looked into the matter. As expected, I never heard from them again. Far too risky for them to assume full responsibility for their own products.

Shocking standard of lead flashings and lead soakers on Durham new build

Shocking standard of lead flashings and lead soakers on Durham new build

 

In terms of dealing with what developers call ‘legacy’ issues, some are far better than others and again we speak from pragmatic experience. Some developers do have legacy people who will genuinely try to deal with customer complaints and correct your defects. Then there are some who simply ignore customer complaints and hope the customer goes away and sadly many customers do just that out of sheer frustration.

Be Objective Enough to Walk Away

As new home buyers we have to learn to be far more careful and far more discerning because development standards have been in decline for quite some time. I recently had a potential client who emailed me a number of pictures of his potential new home, which was under construction. He had numerous concerns about the build quality and asked me for my thoughts on correcting the issues. I agreed that it was shocking and my advice was “since you’ve not signed the contract then walk away now.” I never heard from the chap again because I suspect he did not get the answer he wanted; he was committed to buying it no matter what! Sadly the heart often rules the head when buying a new home.  If new home buyers consistently appoint a Chartered professional to carry out a detail snagging survey ahead of signing the contract then build quality would increase dramatically but as potential purchasers we also have to be prepared to put head before heart. Once you have signed the contract, all is not necessarily lost because you have up to 12 years to pursue a claim against the developer for breach of contract. Developers may like to think that risk transfers to insurers like NHBC after two years but this is not necessarily the case. If you have notified your developer of a defect within the first two years then you have between 6 or 12 years to pursue a claim from the date of cause of action. The NHBC would simply to refuse to pay out on any claim which had been notified to the developer within the first two years anyway and would likely refer it back to the developer for resolution. Insurers will not insure against pre-existing defects and why should they.

Whatever assumed level of protection you think you have in buying a new home please be forewarned that everything is geared towards providing very little protection. I recently read that you have more consumer rights when buying a tin of baked beans and I have far too many clients for whom we have discovered major defects on their new homes to believe otherwise. If ever there was a case of Caveat Emptor then purchasing a new home is it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dealing with Construction Moisture

Why Construction Moisture Can Severely Delay a Development Programme.

Multi-Million Pound RC Framed Residential Development

We dealt with two issues this week relating to problems caused by construction moisture. A plaster beetle infestation and an investigation into the reasons why anhydrite floor screeds were not drying out within a multi-million pound residential development block in London. More on the plaster beetle infestation in a separate blog to follow quite soon.

Our client, was understandably concerned that pumped anhydrite floor screeds, which on some floors had been pumped in 6 weeks earlier, had failed to dry. The installation process for this particular screed required that the laitance be sanded from the surface of the floor once dry, this usually occurs at 3-7 days after installation, however any attempt at sanding the floor immediately resulted in a clogged rotary sanding pad.

Laitance occurs on the surface during settlement/compaction. During this compaction process, bleed water migrates to the screed surface. This brings with it fine particulates within the screed. Laitance is subsequently formed as a result of the evaporation of the bleed water, and once hardened can impede the drying process .

The advantages of laying a pumped anhydrite screed, as opposed to laying concrete is that you can generate quite significant savings on labour and time but only if optimum environmental conditions for drying the screed are present.

Other benefits of using  pumped calcium sulfate screeds are that they are self compacting, have very little shrinkage and rarely require movement joints. They are particularly suited to underfloor heating systems because they dissipate heat far better than a concrete floor slab would.

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Wall channel between anhydrite screeds to each room.

Pumped anhydrite screeds do not provide a wearing surface so are overlaid with a suitable wearing course; this may be a compatible smoothing compound, carpets, floor tiles or any other finished flooring. Many floor screed failures that we investigate concern buildings with underfloor heating systems and a latex wearing screed. There can be a number of complex issues involved relating to material compatibility and poor commissioning of the UFH system but this particular issue was far simpler to identify. The developer had long since overrun the usual 3-7 day drying and six weeks later some floors were still soft on the surface and therefore unsuitable for sanding to remove the surface laitance. In anhydrite screeds, the binder reacts with the water in order to produce gypsum crystals. Around 80% of the anhydrite is converted to gypsum and this reaction uses a large proportion of the mixing water but the remaining moisture is lost by evaporation.

The block, containing around 56 flats over 4 floors, had almost all windows and doors installed but no heating or MVHR system, which would be installed too late in the programme to be of any help. What we consistently found is incredibly high internal relative humidity of around 87% and therefore very little difference between ambient temperature (15 degrees centigrade)  and dew point temperature (13.6 degrees centigrade).

Floor temps below dew point temperature

Scanning for relative moisture content across slab.

Floor temperatures were consistently recorded as being below dew point temperature, therefore proving that condensation damp was constantly rewetting the anhydrite floor screeds. To rule out any other potential moisture sources we like to scan the whole floor for relative readings, which shows up any unusually high peaks in moisture that may suggest another source of moisture, but we found consistent levels of moisture across all floor slabs on each storey. We tested the floor slabs for total moisture content (TMC) over all levels using calcium carbide and found readings ranging from 0.2% TMC at first floor level to 2% TMC on other floors. You would ideally look for a TMC of 0.3%, but no more than 0.5%.

Interestingly, we were able to prove that the simple action of opening windows made very little difference to this problem by recording internal relative humidity two hours after opening windows in the block. This did nothing to reduce relative humidity and of course there was no difference between external and external temperatures so even ambient temperature remained the same.

There may sometimes be a case for installing dehumidifiers and maybe even supplementary heating but in this particular case we do not think that was the right strategy, since no internal doors or partitions had been installed and doors were often wedged open for trade activities. You need a sealed environment to stand any chance of success with a dehumidifier otherwise you are attempting to dry the world. In this particular case we recommended both positive pressure and negative pressure ventilation. We calculated the cubic volume of the block and recommended fan that would give us 12 air changes in the building over a 24 hour period. Fans would set up to force air in at one end of the building and extract air from the opposite end of the building. As a general principal, we do not believe that you should expect these high levels of construction moisture to take take care of themselves and a supplementary airflow is often needed if you are to keep your development programme on target. We make precise recommendations based on construction progress, material testing and environmental conditions found on site.

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Poor brickwork or overly high expectations?

When carrying out new build inspections you will inevitably venture into areas of subjectivity when it comes to judging whether building aesthetics meet a reasonable standard. 

With regard to brickwork it is reasonable to expect that  bricks are of a consistent batch, that brickwork is clean and free from major chips or cracks, that bed joints are level and perp joints are plumb. Mortar joints should be evenly spaced, neatly pointed and mortar should have been carefully gauged to ensure a consistent colour match. The physical damp proof course should also be visible where it overlaps the bed joint by around 5-10mm, if it is not then it has not been installed or it has been bridged.

Interestingly masonry walls are generally stronger when built with thin joints and as a general rule of thumb we expect to see mortar joints of around 10mm thickness in the UK and even less for thin joint construction. Overly wide mortar joints are susceptible to cracking and weaken the structure.

The title of this blog came from a conversation I overheard whilst I was inspecting the brickwork on a Bovis site in Long Buckby, Northamptonshire.  An employee of this particular large National developer was explaining to the resident how the problem with surveyors like me was that we often  had overly high expectations and these expectations needed to be tempered.  The brickwork on this particular property was possibly the worst new construction I’ve seen in 20 years and I’d describe the build standard as careless  and amateurish, but perhaps my expectations are too high, which is why I’ve posted a series of images detailing what I see as an unacceptable standard of construction.  I’d be interested to know if readers of this blog would accept this standard of construction on their new property?

Quality Construction?

Poor pointing to canted soldier course
overly wide mortar perps
Mortar stained masonry
Cracked brick
Mismatched mortar
Oversailing brickwork
Misaligned mortar perps
Poor pointing
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