By Ed McClure and Beau Brincefield
Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems, also called “EIFS” or “synthetic stucco”, are siding systems for exterior walls of buildings. They are promoted as providing effective, low-maintenance weather barriers and thermal insulation. Since they became popular in the 1990s, many homeowners with EIFS have reported serious problems with moisture penetrating and accumulating behind the EIFS.
What are they?
EIFS are layered systems that are attached to the exterior wall sheathing (see diagram). From inside out, they consist of (a) foam board insulation covered with (b) a mesh, and then (c) a base coat that provides more insulation and water resistance, which is covered by (d) a visible finish coat that provides the stucco-like texture.
There are two types of EIFS. The original type, and still common, are “barrier” EIFS. Barrier EIFS are designed to be impenetrable to moisture and are not designed to deal with any water infiltration behind the system. “Drainable” EIFS are designed with a small air gap between the insulating foam board and an additional weather-resistant barrier, so that moisture trapped behind the system can drain through a system of weep holes.
Why should we be worried about them?
Although barrier EIFS are advertised as impenetrable to moisture, moisture can get behind them either from an opening in the system (for example, a poorly caulked window) or condensation. If moisture finds its way between the EIFS and the sheathing, it has nowhere to go. The result can be separation of the EIFS from the wall, wood rot, and termites. The damage may not show up for several years after installation.
Barrier EIFS were hyped originally to builders and homebuyers as a beautiful, cost effective way to insulate and finish home exteriors, and they became quite popular. Unfortunately, EIFS require very precise and careful installation. The smallest crack or missed spot of caulk can lead to the deterioration of a large section of wall. Also, as the popularity of EIFS increased, experienced installers could not keep up with demand and the quality of installations suffered.
EIFS were advertised as low-maintenance, when in fact they require continuing care. In general, owners were not aware of these requirements, and did not take action until it was too late.
How do we know if we have a problem?
As with lead paint and asbestos, EIFS can be a hidden time bomb. They require professional inspection by a trained EIFS inspector to determine:
- What kind of EIFS is installed, barrier or drainable? You can be less concerned about drainable systems, but even they require careful, regular inspections.
- Who manufactured it? Installed it? Has your particular system or installer been subject to claims? Problems with the system or the installer increase the likelihood of defects in your system.
- Has the EIFS been routinely maintained? Owner maintenance requirements include stopping known leaks, care in attaching items to the wall, checking window and door frames, checking weeps to make sure they function, keeping gutters and downspouts clear, checking caulk every six months, and scheduling testing for moisture intrusion every year. These are significant and unexpected for most homeowners, especially when inexperienced homeowners take control of a community association after the developer control period ends.
- Are there any areas with moisture content more than 20%? If so, is there any damage to the system or the wall?
- For new construction, does it meet Code? In response to popular anger about EIFS problems, some Building Codes have been amended to provide some additional protections.
So what can we do about it?
First, consult with an attorney experienced in dealing with EIFS problems, someone with specific experience because of the complexity of these cases. Remedies vary from state to state. The various potential defendants, inevitably, will blame each other (and you, for poor maintenance), the legal defenses raised will be complicated, and each state has different time limits for asserting different types of claims. You need to know your rights and responsibilities early, and a knowledgeable attorney can guide you.
If you are on the Board of a community association, explain to the other owners the potential problem. The law is not always against the homeowners, but it can be an uphill – and expensive – struggle. The owners must “buy in” to this process, and be willing to absorb the expense, damage, and annoyance of inspecting for damage, repair or replacement of the EIFS, and potential litigation. Your attorney and your expert will be able to help present these issues.
Second, retain a technical expert. Your expert will inspect and evaluate your EIFS and any damage to your home, recommend remedial measures, and, ultimately, serve as a credible expert witness at trial. Your attorney can help you choose the right expert.
Third, stop further damage. Arrange for a qualified professional EIFS installer to make whatever immediate repairs may be possible to prevent further damage. Document your expenses.
Fourth, after you have documented what your EIFS problems are, notify the developer, architect, contractor, installer, manufacturer, and everyone else involved. Litigation against builders, installers, manufacturers, and sellers of EIFS has had a wide variety of results. If you put together a case that is solid on both the law and the facts, you may be able to resolve your claims without litigation.
Perhaps most important of all, don’t delay in investigating and asserting any claims you have. Delay is your worst enemy. Delay will impair your ability to gather information, allow further damage to your home, facilitate the ability of the responsible parties to blame other causes, give the impression that this is not really important, and, if you wait too long, destroy your claims altogether due to legal limits on the time in which you can bring them.
Ed McClure and Beau Brincefield are attorneys with the Alexandria law firm of Brincefield Hartnett Maloof & Paleos, P.C.
Reprinted from Quorum magazine, a publication of the Washington Metropolitan Chapter of the Community Associations Institute, September, 2001.