In this episode, Reuben Saltzman and Tessa Murry interview Jim Katen, a seasoned home inspector from the marine climate zone in Portland, Oregon. Jim offers valuable insights into the region’s unique housing characteristics and challenges. Notably, he highlights the relatively young housing stock in Oregon, with few homes predating 1890, and the desirability of Craftsman-style houses from the 1920s. Basements, common in older homes, pose occasional water intrusion issues due to the rainy season.
Jim discusses the evolution of home construction quality and the shift towards electrification in heating systems, causing challenges in homes with limited electrical capacity. The conversation touches on the home energy score system, climate-specific considerations like rain and wind, roofing materials, and vapor barrier placement. Overall, it provides a comprehensive look into the distinctive features and challenges of home inspections in the Pacific Northwest’s marine climate zone, shaping the future of home construction in the region.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Reuben Saltzman: Welcome to my house. Welcome to the Structure Talk podcast, a production of Structure Tech Home Inspections. My name is Reuben Saltzman. I’m your host alongside building science geek, Tessa Murry. We help home inspectors up their game through education, and we help homeowners to be better stewards of their houses. We’ve been keeping it real on this podcast since 2019, and we are also the number one home inspection podcast in the world, according to my mom. Welcome back. Welcome to another episode of the Structure Talk podcast. Tessa, always great to see you. How are you doing? What’s new in your world?
Tessa Murry: Hey, Reuben. It’s good to see you too. You know, things have been pretty busy here, but I don’t want to talk about me. And I do want to talk about you, but we’ll save that for later because we have a special guest on today. Do you want to introduce him?
RS: Yes, I’m super excited to get Jim Katen or James Katen. We’re calling you Jim today. Is that cool, Jim?
Jim Katen: That’s just fine.
RS: All right. We got Jim Katen on the show. I have known Jim for… It’s really close to 20 years now. And I met Jim through the ASHI Discussion Forum. This is back before there was Facebook and a bunch of these other discussion forums. It was like, if you’re a home inspector and you want to get information from other home inspectors in other parts of the country, there were very few platforms to have good discussions. And the ASHI Forum was fantastic. It was very active. There would be people talking on there all day, every day about every topic you could imagine. And I would find myself going down rabbit holes. And this is before I was even a dad. So I feel like I had a lot more time back then, 20 years ago, to participate in all these conversations. And I learned so much from Jim. I mean, he will go down as one of the most knowledgeable home inspectors I have ever met. And he would be just selfless with his time. He’d provide so much information. I’ve learned so much from him. So he’s definitely one of the biggest mentors that I have ever had the pleasure of being in contact with. And unfortunately, Jim’s not on the Facebook, are you, Jim?
JK: I have abandoned the Facebook because I’ve had many bad experiences with the Facebook.
RS: Yeah. Yeah. I hear you. So unfortunately, the world doesn’t get to see, hear, experience all of your knowledge, but definitely one of the most knowledgeable guys I know. And Tessa, when you were saying you wanted to have this series on inspecting different parts of the country, and you talked about the Northwest, immediately Jim came to mind. I thought, boy, if we could get him on the podcast, that would be fantastic. And not only is he knowledgeable, but… Maybe it’s not going to come across with the spoken word, but with the written word, I think Jim has got to be one of the funniest guys [laughter] I have ever read. He’s got a way of putting things so succinctly and just putting such a point on things. I don’t know if it’s going to translate to the spoken word again, but I’m delighted to have you on the show, Jim.
JK: Well, thank you for the kind words. I have to correct you though. I don’t think I’m particularly knowledgeable about a lot of that stuff. What I am is a very good reference librarian. I’m good at hunting down the answers to things. And I think most of the time people confuse that by thinking that I have all this knowledge in my head when I really don’t. But I do know where to find the knowledge when I need it. So I…
RS: Okay. So maybe it’s not going to come through on the podcast where it’s going to be too fast. [laughter] Well, I’ll bet with all that you’ve come up with, you’ve probably retained at least some of it. So I’m excited to get you on the show here, Jim. And I’m wondering, can you just tell us a little bit about your background? How long you’ve been at this home inspection thing and what’s your company? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
JK: Sure. I started my home inspection business in 1992 and I’ve been doing it ever since. But in the early 2000s, a group of local home inspectors, all of whom owned their own companies, decided to join together to form a collaboration, a collaborative company as partners. And they eventually convinced me to join them as well, about 2008. So what I now do is my company, Benchmark Inspection Services, is a partner in a larger group called Associated Master Inspectors. And this group of inspectors, we were all competitors before and we joined together to form what I describe as a co-op, an inspection co-op, where we share an office manager, we share insurance, we share a whole bunch of costs, and we share our knowledge with each other. Although each of us still works as an independent home inspector. We cover for each other when we go on vacation. It’s a great way to do business. I’ve never seen it duplicated anywhere else. There are lots of multi-inspector companies out there that have an owner and employees, but we are all equal partners.
TM: Did you guys start that co-op?
JK: The original founders started it in 2000 or shortly after 2000. They had just come back from an ASHI inspection world at which there was a big bunch of… I think there were a bunch of meetings and a bunch of discussion about the future of home inspections and how it was moving toward multi-inspector firms. They even had special meetings just for multi-inspector firms. I think… What was his name? Pete Rindfleisch. Do you remember him?
RS: I never met Pete.
JK: He was a big part of it. And this group of inspectors came back from that and they said, that makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of advantages to being a multi-inspector firm. But we don’t want to have employees. We like being individuals. So they came up with the idea of simply forming a partnership. It took a lot of convincing to get me to join them because I didn’t want to give up what I had founded. I didn’t want that to go away. I finally realized it just didn’t have to.
TM: That’s really cool.
JK: I haven’t looked back since. I wouldn’t want to do it any other way at this point.
TM: That’s great.
RS: Yeah. I haven’t heard of anybody doing that same platform that you’re doing anywhere. I’ve kept my eyes open for it ever since you first told me about it a long time ago. It’s definitely unique.
TM: Seems very wise. Yeah. Pool your resources. So, just to back up for a second, I want to give our listeners some context to this episode. We’ve got Jim on as a special guest and he’s representing the marine climate zone today. Jim, you live out in Portland, right? Portland?
JK: I live a little bit west of Portland. But yeah, Portland is the main city where I do most of my inspections.
RS: We better get the pronunciation right. I ended… Our last podcast I said, Portland, Oregon. And Tessa goes, [laughter] “Is it Oregon or Oregon?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s one of the two.”
TM: Jim, how do you pronounce it?
JK: You pronounce it Oregon.
TM: Oregon. Okay. Oregon. Thank you for correcting us Midwestern folks on that.
RS: Just me. Tessa knew I was wrong. She has a very nice way of correcting me.
TM: So many people say it Oregon.
JK: If you pronounce it that way in this area, you will immediately be identified as an outsider.
RS: I will never say that again. [laughter]
TM: Okay. So, Jim, you’re out in Oregon. What we’re using as a reference here for anyone listening is this Building America Climate Zone map. It has the United States broken down into different climate zones with cold, very cold, and then marine, hot, dry, mixed dry. We also have hot, humid, and then mixed humid. And so last week, for anybody listening, we had on Dusty Jameson from the mixed humid climate zone. And this week we’ve got on Jim from the marine climate zone. So take a listen if you haven’t heard the last podcast we did last week. That was really fun. But the whole point of this series is to talk to inspectors from all over the country to hear about the challenges that they face based on their climate zone, building science issues, the types of construction materials they see, the styles of houses, the different heating systems, the roofing, cladding, all of that. And to just get a little bit more perspective because we talk about Minnesota all the time, but we want to hear about the challenges you face in other parts of the country. So thanks for coming on, Jim, and representing the marine climate zone, which for anyone else listening, I think is that climate zone four too, Jim? Are you…
JK: In terms of USDA zones, you mean?
TM: Or the… Let’s see, ASHRAE has the IECC climate zone map, breaks the United States down into different climate zones too. So not every state uses that either, I don’t think but…
JK: Yeah, I’m not familiar with that particular classification.
TM: Okay, so for the marine climate zone, it covers the western coast of Washington, Oregon, and then parts of California, mostly. That’s what we’re talking about today. So Jim, let’s start off by hearing a little bit about the typical houses that you see out in Oregon. Oregon. [laughter]
JK: I guess the first thing is that Oregon really wasn’t settled until the mid 1800s. And we have very little housing stock that predates about 1890. It’s very, very unusual to find anything before 1890, ’95. We had a big building boom right around then. I believe there was some kind of World Fair exposition or something out here that caused a large building boom. So we have a big swell in houses at the very early 1900s and then there was a huge building boom in the 1920s. So from about 1920 to 1929, when the Depression hit, Portland was a hotbed of construction. We had tons and tons of houses built, and they were built very well, very nicely. That housing stock almost uniformly had basements. It’s interesting how we do our basements at that period in the City of Portland. We didn’t dig down very deep. We dug down maybe half the distance of the basement, constructed the perimeter walls, and then backfilled with the stuff that we excavated. So the streets have these little hills that run up from the street to the houses that are basically the excavation fill that forms the yard around all the houses. So the houses are sort of elevated, but they still have basements under them.
TM: Very interesting. What’s the type of material in the basements usually? Is it stacked stone or is it concrete, or?
JK: Cast concrete. Almost no stone foundations here. I’m not sure we have a good source of stone.
JK: And bricks. There is brick here, but not nearly as much as you find back east. I don’t think our soils were conducive to making the brick. So a lot of concrete. Plus in the ’20s, that was kind of the age of concrete. Concrete was really coming into its own.
RS: It seems like that design would be really good for water management. I mean, it seems like you’re not going to have a lot of wet basements.
JK: You would think so.
RS: But no. [chuckle]
JK: However, we have a challenging environment with regard to water. As is typical of much of the West Coast, it starts raining here around November, right around Halloween, and then it rains until about June. When it stops raining and we don’t see any rain again until about November.
JK: That isn’t to say there aren’t clear days here and there, but in general, it rains pretty consistently throughout the winter. It’s not the same kind of rain that you get back east. It’s sort of a drizzle, piddling rain. Real Portlanders don’t even own umbrellas. Very few people wear raincoats just because it’s not enough rain to worry about. But it does saturate our soils to quite a degree. So with that type of construction, when it rains, not necessarily hard, but incessantly, the water tends to percolate through that fill until it hits the harder undisturbed soil below, and then it moves laterally. So our basements from that period almost always have occasional water entry. It depends on how hard it rains and how long it rains for in any given couple of weeks, but it’s unusual to find the basement that doesn’t take on water sometimes.
TM: Do typical homeowners want to finish their basements or do they finish them? Because that’s the problem we have here in the Midwest.
JK: It’s one of the biggest discussions that I have with people who are buying homes from that period. Particularly if they come from somewhere else, they have this expectation that the basement should be a dry space. And a large part of what I do during a home inspection is to sort of smash that illusion. [laughter]
TM: Gently. Not so much.
JK: Dashing their hopes against the rocks of despair, as it were. [laughter] It’s really important as a homeowner that you understand that. Because when the soil becomes fully saturated, when the soil on the other side of that basement wall becomes fully saturated, it’s going to leak into the basement. It has to. It can’t not. And in the 1920s when these houses were built, everyone understood that. Builders knew that, the buyers knew that, people who lived in the houses just understood that. And the only thing that’s changed since then is people’s expectations. So I try and manage those expectations and tell them, sure, you can do stuff with the basement, but don’t put wall-to-wall carpet down there. Try polishing the concrete and then using throw rugs or use some kind of floor covering that is not susceptible to water damage. Don’t have this expectation that you can keep your Shakespeare first folio editions sitting on the basement floor because they’re going to be destroyed.
TM: Yeah. Yeah.
RS: That’s good.
TM: That’s so important.
JK: After explaining that enough times, I get to recognize the looks in people’s faces as they start to accept that reality.
TM: Yeah. Process it. Yeah, change your expectations.
JK: And I know when to stop pushing after a while. [laughter] Once they sort of have absorbed the reality.
TM: You gave us some great context on kind of the age of housing stock and the earliest houses that you see, but can you take us up through from the 1920s till today what you see too?
JK: Sure. Sure. After the depression started, after the crash, there was a big drop in construction, which I imagine is true all over the country. They continued building houses through the ’30s. We pretty much stopped building houses during World War II. There was very little construction because all the people who did the construction were off to fight the war.
TM: Were gone.
JK: And then there was a big uptick in construction after the war. The 1950s saw lots and lots of post-war homes, mid-century homes going in. We have a large stock of those. And that construction boom lasted right through the ’60s. And then for some reason, and I’m going to blame it on the building codes, which started to be adopted, housing construction quality took a huge dive in the ’70s and into the ’80s. And it seems to coincide exactly with the adoption of residential building codes.
TM: I have never heard anyone put those two things together before.
RS: I haven’t either.
TM: In that way.
JK: Have you ever looked at a building code from the ’70s?
RS: Yeah, but I can’t figure it out. [laughter] It’s the IBC and I have a tough time understanding the IBC.
JK: Yeah, well, the cable codes came out in the ’70s, but the IBC wasn’t for residential. Cable came out in the ’70s and it was specifically geared toward home building. And before this, builders built homes according to their conscience and according to what they had been taught and what they had been trained by the guy before them. And some of them did a good job and some of them did a crappy job. And the good homes lasted and those builders got more work and the bad homes fell apart, we don’t see them anymore and those builders went away. When the code was introduced, the builders looked at that and they thought, “Is that all I have to do?” It was intended to be a minimum standard but just like with home inspections, people viewed it as though it were the goal to be achieved.
JK: And they started doing… They started building homes to just meet the minimum standard of those early codes, which were quite brief. And the story of building codes since then has been about addressing the deficiencies that result from people treating the code as a blueprint for how to build a home. And that’s why our codes have quadrupled more, more than quadrupled in size and detail because every time a builder says, “I don’t have to do this, it’s not in the code,” it gets added in the next code edition until we have what we have now. So it took a while from the 1970s to sort of recover from that. And at least in my area, the very lowest point was 1981. I’m not sure why.
TM: It’s very specific.
JK: It’s very specific, but every time I inspect a 1981 built house, I know that it will have been built by cynics who are only doing it to get the job done. And I don’t know if that’s because of the building code, I don’t know if it’s because of things that were going on politically in the country at that time, or if it was just cocaine [laughter] which was also really big at that time. But I see just terrible construction from that time period. And then since then, it’s started to get better, a little better, a little better, a little better. There was a hiccup in the ’90s when we forgot why we need flashing, and we sort of just started omitting it for no particular reason. Just we don’t need that old stuff anymore. And it’s gotten better since, and the stuff that they’re building now I think is pretty darn good.
TM: You know what’s interesting, Jim? I kind of always in my mind, like seen this delineation also kind of at the ’70s of a change in just the quality of construction. And anything prior to that is in… Typically what we see in the Twin Cities metro area, it’s gonna be solid construction and have less problems. But I always thought that that had to do with the fact that like the energy code started becoming a thing and we were trying to build houses more energy efficiently, and we were also using more composite wood products starting in the ’70s and ’80s. So you see more like buffalo board or just wood chip materials that are a lot less durable and resistant to moisture issues. And then you pair that with adding more insulation in the wall and you have a less drying potential if something does get wet. And so it’s just kind of the perfect storm of all of those things combined, but then you add in this other layer of the fact that maybe the code had builders taking a step back as well. It’s kind of an interesting perspective.
JK: I think the better builders probably didn’t take too much of a step back. The better builders probably looked at it and scoffed and said, “Well, I’m just gonna keep doing what I do because it’s way better than this.”
TM: Yeah, we can do that in our sleep. Yeah.
JK: But like anything else, when you give them the opportunity to do less, there will always be a good crowd of people climbing to do as little as possible. I’d forgotten the energy issue. 1973 was the Arab oil embargo. And that was a huge… Had a huge effect on lots of things in this country and not the least of which was construction where we tried to make things more energy efficient, but we forgot how to do that without harming the building. We added insulation, but we didn’t think about vapor barriers, we didn’t think about dew point, we didn’t think about condensation, so we went through a rough period there.
TM: Yeah, I think it… Yeah. We’ve learned from our mistakes, as you said, with the code, how the code has just gotten longer and longer and more detailed and detailed from learning from our mistakes. It’s the same thing with just the energy efficiency world and our move to try and make houses that are more airtight, better insulated. We’ve made mistakes along the way and we’ve learned from that. And now we think about things like ventilation and moisture management and all of that. And in that first round we didn’t. Yeah.
RS: Before we go away from this topic about difference in era of houses, Jim, I wanna ask you if you were gonna buy a house, any age, all things being equal, what age of house would you buy?
JK: If it were in the City of Portland, I would be searching for something in the 1920s.
JK: I just love those houses. They were almost all craftsman style, they have a great deal of character, a lot of soul. They were very well built by people who really knew how to build houses. And the stuff built in the ’50s and early ’60s was also very well built, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way. It probably doesn’t help that I grew up in a house that was built in the ’50s and just doesn’t seem all that charming to me.
JK: I prefer the stuff from the ’20s. They really are attractive houses, very livable houses, and built with beautiful materials. We had forests full of old growth Douglas fir…
TM: Oh, yeah.
JK: We could use for construction here. Sometimes when I look under a house at the floor joists, and I see this perfectly clear old growth Douglas fir with grains that’s so fine it looks like a deck of playing cards, I wanna just weep because [laughter] that wood is worth so much money right now as finished lumber, and they were just using it as joists and ripping it up into two by fours.
RS: Wow. Yeah.
TM: That’s so interesting. Do a lot of the houses from the 1920s, are they two story? Are they one story? Do you have story and a halfs out there where you are?
JK: Almost all story and a half. Typically, there are lots and lots of bungalows with a large first floor, a somewhat smaller second floor where the bedrooms are. There’s usually a big, either a front porch or even a wraparound porch, little porch in the back, and then a full basement. Great houses. I would love to own one of those.
TM: So do you see a lot of HVAC equipment located in attic spaces, or since you’ve got basements, it sounds like where you’re at, do you find it there?
JK: In the older houses, it’s almost always located in the basement. We shoehorn it into the attic spaces in newer construction, particularly in condos. I just hate having HVAC equipment in attics because it’s difficult to get to. And that means that anytime anyone has to do anything to that equipment, it’s not gonna be done particularly well because they’re not gonna be physically comfortable balancing on a little board, hunched over with nails poking the back of your head as you try and work on something. And it’s also, at least the way we have been constructing attics, it’s an unconditioned space, so it’s hot in the summer, it’s cold in the winter, it’s rough on the equipment. It’s not efficient.
TM: Yeah. Anytime you’ve got that duct work and that air handler located outside the thermal boundary, you’re losing energy efficiency and comfort that way. Do you… Normally, do you see forced air furnaces where you’re at? Or what are the types of heating systems that you see?
JK: We had oil furnaces as our standard heating systems right up through the ’70s, maybe into the ’80s. Gas, of course, came on the scene in the ’50s and it was used in a lot of newer construction after that, and it has of course, became the defacto standard right up until the present day. But now of course, we’re seeing a move away from that, a desire to get away from that in favor of electricity and heat pumps mostly.
JK: Which is the brave new world.
TM: Yeah. Electrification of homes, yeah. And especially, I know California’s moving that direction. And do you know anything about Oregon and in Washington, if they have any new standards that’ll be coming into play for moving towards electrification by a certain date?
JK: There are pushes for it. It really hasn’t come to fruition yet. Typically, California adopts that stuff first and then it floats up to us.
TM: They pave the way. [laughter] Okay. But it’s coming.
JK: I think that’s the future. That’s what’s coming.
TM: Yeah, yeah. Very interesting.
JK: The problem is a lot of our older houses don’t have the electrical capacity to do that. There’s still a whole lot of older houses that just have 100 amp services, which is fine if you don’t have large loads. It’s fine if you have a gas cook stove and a gas furnace and a gas water heater, no problem. But if you’re gonna go to an electric furnace, an electric water heater, an electric dryer, an electric cook stove that is really…
TM: And have solar panels and a Tesla and all those things.
JK: Yeah, yeah.
TM: Yeah, yeah.
JK: Yeah, the car chargers are a big draw on the electrical system too. So there are a lot of electrical upgrades in the future for Portland.
RS: Okay. Yeah. Now, James or Jim, I remember a while ago hearing about this change, and I wanna say it was Portland where they started mandating these energy audits on houses before they could even go up for sale. Was that a thing?
JK: Yeah. Oh, yeah, it still is.
RS: Okay. All right. What is that all about?
JK: Yeah, you’re supposed to have this energy audit… Before you list your house for sale, you’re supposed to call in some person who comes in and does an energy audit, and they give a home energy score. And that home energy score is a single piece of paper with information on the front and information on the back. And what it boils down to is something equivalent to a miles per gallon rating on a car. So it tells you this home’s home energy score is five out of 10. And if you make this particular set of improvements, you can get it up to an eight out of 10.
JK: And the idea was that home buyers would see this and they would demand to have changes made, or they would buy the house and then make changes to make the home more energy efficient. But what really happened is nobody cared. The home buyers came in, they said, “Oh, this has a home energy score of two. Yeah, but look at those quartz countertops and look at this wood trim. I love it. I can’t see myself living anywhere else.” And they have good intentions, but they say, “Yeah, I’ll add some insulation or maybe upgrade the windows at some point.” And then they buy the house and they forget all about it until they go to sell the house and they have to have the home energy score done again. I’ve never had a client in the several years we’ve had this that has not bought a house because it had a low home energy score.
TM: That has not been a deterring factor for them.
JK: The human mind doesn’t seem to work that way. The things that they like about the home are not its energy efficiency rating.
RS: Okay. All right.
TM: Well, and also too, I guess if they want to… It’s good to have that information going in, buying the house of, okay, this house is not gonna be as energy efficient as my neighbors or as it could be, or new construction, but I could do things to improve it. And then they make that decision going into it just knowing. But so is this home energy score, is this part of… Is this a HERS score that you’re talking about, like through the… Is this through the Department of Energy that created this home energy score?
JK: Yeah, I believe it’s the same thing.
TM: Yeah. Okay. Yeah.
JK: Yeah, there’s a bit of software that they use that’s uniform across all the vendors.
JK: Which is interesting because I’ve seen occasionally different vendors do home energy scores of the same home and they come out vastly different.
TM: Have you?
JK: In fact…
TM: Data in equals data out, and I guess depending on what they’re putting in there.
JK: Yeah. In fact, when I’m inspecting the home, that home energy score will often be sitting on the countertop and I’ll look at it and it’ll show the inputs that they added in. And after I’m done with the inspection, I’ll realize that the home energy score person just got things wrong. They made assumptions.
TM: Give us an example. Can you give us a specific example? Like the amount of insulation they calculated in the attic, or?
JK: Oh, yeah. They’d say that the attic had eight inches of insulation. Well, no one had 20 inches of insulation. Or they’ll say that the ducting had been professionally sealed and insulated when there wasn’t a scrap of sealing or insulating anywhere on the ducts. They just don’t seem to be particularly… They don’t seem to be able to recognize some of these things to be able to report them properly.
TM: Yeah. I think in theory, I like the idea of having this rating system that can tell you the energy efficiency of a house and give you some sort of comparison, like a miles per gallon rating for a car. I think every house, it’d be nice to have that. And the HERS score is one system, one rating system that’s out there that can do that. But it is… I mean, there’s a breakdown if the people that are putting in the data don’t know how to identify these things, or they’re not trained well enough that there can be inaccuracies. [laughter] So yeah. That’s interesting.
JK: The other thing is a lot of the people doing these scores are people who are in the energy retrofit business. So there is a conflict, an inherent conflict there. If you work for a company, you can do the home energy score and then at the same time give them a bid to tell them what it would cost for them to come in and make these improvements to the house. It seems like very few home inspectors got into doing the energy scores. It was mostly energy retrofit companies.
RS: Sure. Yeah.
TM: Or utility companies maybe? No, I guess they’re probably not doing anything.
JK: I don’t think so. Not that I’ve seen, no.
JK: It’s mostly the companies who specialize in doing insulation or HVAC work.
RS: Well, we’ve got a really similar program here, and I know about Portland’s because there was a lot of talk about what you guys were doing before we rolled ours out. So there was a lot of, well, they’re doing it this way, so we can do this. So that’s how I know about this. But so far with a lot of what we talked to you about, it feels like there’s a ton of overlap between our houses here in the Twin Cities and Portland. And I guess we’re both kind of weird cities too. [laughter] But I wanna find out what do you think is unique to the way you inspect houses or problems that you see to your area, Jim?
JK: I’m not sure that there is anything that’s too unique. I’ve been a…
RS: What about water coming down all the time? Is there special stuff you gotta do for that?
JK: Yeah, we don’t even think about that anymore. I mean, you’re inspecting in the rain in the winter so even though most Portlanders don’t own a raincoat, I do so I’m gonna have to be dressed for rain and if it’s a particularly nasty day, I’m gonna be soaked to the bone by the time I’m done with the exterior of the house. You’ve gotta get used to walking on a roof in the rain. If you’re in the east part of town, which gets a lot of weather that comes in through the Columbia River Gorge, the winds can be quite strong. So you have to be careful about wind, which is pretty much a constant on that part of town. And the ground is always gonna be sort of saturated and wet throughout most of the winter. But I imagine you have to deal with that back east too, don’t you? I mean, if it’s wet time of year.
RS: Yeah. In the Twin Cities, I mean, yeah, when it’s wet, it’s wet, we deal with it. And for the winter time, for us, it’s frozen. I mean, you gotta trudge through snow, that’s our challenge.
TM: And you probably will slip on the ice at least once, so. [laughter] Jim, I’m just curious with all of this rain in your climate, do houses where you’re at, do they have ventilation systems? I mean, do you see a lot of houses with bath fans? Do you see any balanced ventilation systems like HRVs or ERV systems? Because people can’t open their windows necessarily and just get that fresh air exchange if it’s always raining outside.
JK: Yeah. They still open the windows. We generally… Our houses generally have wide overhangs to protect from rain. So if you open your window, you’re not necessarily gonna get a wet window sill. The idea of balanced insulation is really new to our area. Last maybe five or six years, new construction often includes some kind of balanced ventilation. There’ll often be an HRV or an ERV that comes on automatically when certain exhaust fans are initiated. And there are smart systems that balance the indoor air and they work really well. Those houses invariably feel great inside in the winter. Older houses, the really older ones worked well too, just because through trial and error they discovered what they needed to do, which was to build everything really loosely. So air moved freely through the walls and the ceilings and around the edges of the windows. And so we got our ventilation that way. Although I can’t recommend doing that in a newer house, it just doesn’t work as well.
TM: Yeah. And I mean, you hit the nail on the head with the problems with building science is that if you have an old leaky house, it worked because it was leaky. So if things were wet, they could dry out. But then if you try to change that house and make it more energy efficient, and you get someone who gets the HERS score back and it’s a two and they wanna improve it, and they add a bunch of insulation and they do air sealing, and all of a sudden you’ve got ventilation problems, moisture problems. So it sounds like you deal with the same problems in your area as what we have here in the Midwest.
JK: Yeah. Although I have to say, I don’t think our problems are as severe as yours are because we don’t get the real cold. It rarely gets… We get temperatures down into the teens occasionally, but most of the time it’s 42 degrees and drizzling. That’s normal.
TM: Yeah. It never really freezes. Yeah. It never freezes.
JK: Yeah. Occasionally if it gets into freezing weather, we know it ’cause all the cars get into accidents. And we might once or twice a year, we might get some snow. We might get 4, 5, 6 inches of snow. And it goes away within a few days. So it’s enough for us to enjoy the snow but not enough for us to get sick of it.
RS: Yeah. 42 and drizzly all the time, that sounds miserable.
TM: Pretty miserable.
JK: No, it’s great. [laughter] My skin stays hydrated. It’s…
TM: You probably don’t have whole house humidifiers attached to your duct work where you are, do you?
JK: Oh, no.
JK: There are… In fact, I see them occasionally and I always tell people to just disconnect them or get rid of them because they… Even in a climate that needs them, those are troublesome products that can really get messed up easily.
JK: They can be festering pools of slime and in a climate where you don’t need it, there’s just no sense in it.
TM: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely.
TM: You know, you mentioned walking on wet roofs a lot. I’m just curious, what type of roofing materials do you most commonly have?
JK: Asphalt roofing rules here. For a long time, cedar shakes were very, very popular, but we ran out of decent cedar. We used it all up. And the only cedar that’s really available to us now from the United States isn’t very good. And a new shake roof, you’ll be lucky to get 15 years out of. And given the cost of a new shake roof, that doesn’t make any financial sense. So shake roofs, which were a defining feature of our housing stock for many years, are just gone. Nobody puts on new shake roofs anymore. And asphalt shingles have gotten much better. On high end houses, the CertainTeed presidential shingle is kind of the gold standard.
JK: And it works pretty well in our climate. I know that they warranty them for 50 years. I don’t know that I believe that they’ll be here in 50 years, but they last 30 years without much trouble. In fact, I was inspecting a house that had… They had just built an addition and the house was 20 years old and the addition was two years old. And I could not tell the difference between the CertainTeed presidential shingles on the old house and on the new addition in terms of their malleability, their brittleness, their granule adhesion, shrinkage, all these benchmarks that I used, they looked essentially the same.
RS: Wow. That’s impressive.
TM: Well, it sounds like you don’t have a lot of sun beating down on those roofs for most of the year which probably helps.
JK: Well, we get it in the summer.
JK: Because in the summer it’s nothing but sun and our days are pretty long, which we’re a little above the 45th parallel. Are you up there as well?
TM: Yeah, that’s similar to where we are, I think.
JK: Yeah. So we get a lot of sun. Sunset isn’t until like 9:30 or so in the summer.
JK: And that does… Cumulatively that does wear on things, but with a good gravel, a good ceramic granule cover that can really protect the shingles from that damage.
TM: And you said one thing that was interesting to me, you said most of the houses have pretty large roof overhangs, it sounds like, where you are, which, thank you that makes sense. Let’s design houses that shed…
RS: That’s fantastic.
TM: Water far away from the structure. Here in the Twin Cities area, there’s a lot of houses that don’t really have overhangs and so we have to really be careful about water intrusion in exterior walls here.
JK: You have this thing called… I think they’re called, is it ice dams? [laughter]
JK: Is that a thing there?
TM: Damn those ice dams, they can be bad. Yeah, yeah.
JK: Yeah. So a two foot overhang could be a real problem in your climate.
RS: You know, I’ll tell you, we get ice dams…
TM: You can’t win.
RS: Whether we get overhangs or not.
RS: If I were to build my perfect house, I would have massive overhangs. And the bigger the overhang, the more you have to build your roof up from the top wall line and the more airspace you have, and actually the less potential you have for ice dams. So the overhangs don’t make those ice dams worse.
TM: Yeah. As long as you’ve got… You’re keeping your heat in the house with air sealing and insulation and and you’ve got ventilation to help with solar heat gain, then you can have large overhangs and not have ice dams. But I thought that’s interesting. So do you have to deal with a lot of water intrusion, potential water intrusion issues on exterior walls where you are looking for that?
JK: Yeah. And the houses from the ’90s are the worst in that regard. Because we just gave up using flashing for a decade or so there. And I’m not sure why, the building code didn’t change. It’s required the flashing in those areas, the builders just stopped using it and yeah we get… When water dribbles long enough, particularly if it’s windy, it gets into places it shouldn’t get and then it can’t get out again and things start to go south.
RS: What type of wall coverings are the worst?
JK: Oh, we went through a love affair with LP siding in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Thousands and thousands and thousands of homes were covered with it. And it was a disaster.
JK: A complete disaster. And of course there was a class action settlement, and LP to their credit, stood behind their class action and they paid out a lot of money to fix those homes, which were resided with HardiePlank. And that stuff is mostly gone now. It’s pretty much all gone. It’s very rare that I’ll see any remaining LP siding from those homes, but that was a real disaster and it hit the building community very hard.
TM: We have a lot of LP here, but it must be… I mean, it’s a different generation of LP, they’ve learned from their mistakes and that’s primarily what we see a lot in new construction out here.
RS: Yeah. We’re seeing SmartSide.
TM: Yeah. Yeah.
RS: Yeah, we see a ton of that stuff. Yep. That’s a popular product.
JK: I know out here anyway, they came out with that, I think it was about ’98 and it really works. It’s a good product, but no one will touch it because of the reputation of what came before. It was such a thing, it was headlines on the front page of the newspaper. Remember newspapers? [laughter]
RS: I remember those things.
JK: And it’s in the psyche of everyone here. So nobody wanted to hear about SmartSide when it finally came out.
RS: How about James Hardie? You got a lot of that?
JK: Hardie is the new… The defacto siding product that we use now.
JK: It goes on everything.
RS: What about stucco? Did you have problems with stucco houses too?
JK: The old stucco houses, again from the ’20s and ’30s are still doing fine. Occasionally you’ll get some water entry… Even though they did them all wrong, they ran them into the ground. They ran them tied up against wood trim, they still, they perform really well and if something goes wrong, they’re pretty easy to chip them out, fix anything and plaster them back up. Of course then we had the EIFS stucco in the late ’90s, which the synthetic stucco, which was very popular in high-end houses here… The LP siding went down the low end tract homes, the EIFS went on the high-end houses and some of those experienced really spectacular failures. I remember one that had a porte cochere that was all stuccoed, top sides, bottom, everything. And I saw a big bulge in the stucco and I poked it with my little inspection poker thingy and a stream of water started coming out of it.
TM: Oh, no. [laughter]
JK: Four hours later when I was finishing my inspection, there was still a stream of water coming out of it.
JK: And I heard from the seller that it had continued for eight hours.
RS: Holy cow.
JK: Needless to say, they had to scrape that one off and redo it.
TM: We have…
JK: There are a few houses here that have…
TM: We have here too.
JK: Have you had those kind of failures?
TM: Well, yes. I mean, when we’re talking about the exterior insulation finishing systems, like a stucco product and yeah, same problem as we’ve seen with the new stucco where it really conceals damage well, but the moisture will move through that system and then the wood wall sheathing and framing will get wet and stay wet and rot.
JK: Yep. [laughter]
TM: Yeah. So we see that too. Yeah.
JK: So they changed the specifications for that stuff back in the early 2000s. So that, at least here you’re not allowed to install barrier style EIFS anymore. You can only install Exterior Insulation Finish System that has some kind of drain plane behind it. Do you have that as well?
RS: No. On commercial buildings we do, but it’s rare that we have anything like that residential. If we’re doing something that looks like stucco, it’s more traditional three coat stucco and you need to have all the drainage planes behind all of that stuff.
TM: Yeah. Yep. Real quick, ’cause I know we probably need to wrap up soon, but one question we asked Dusty Jameson on the first podcast of this series was, we were talking about crawl spaces. They have a lot of crawl spaces where he is and challenges with mold and we were talking about vapor barriers and the proper location of vapor barriers. [laughter] And we were trying to rack our brain around where the vapor barriers should go in a mixed humid climate crawl space area. But talking about Portland, it’s climate zone four. It’s not as severe as like a climate zone five, like we’re in up here, but it’s not really a… It’s not a hot climate zone. So do you guys, do you have vapor barriers? Are they required by code and then what side of the wall are they located on?
JK: So if… Well, you mentioned crawl spaces… Walls or crawl spaces or ceilings?
TM: Okay. Tell us…
JK: Because they’re all different.
TM: The location of all of them, walls, ceiling, and crawl spaces.
JK: So the crawl space has to have a vapor barrier covering the soil. In terms of the floor construction, we don’t use a vapor barrier. It doesn’t seem to be necessary and the homes work just fine without it because the crawl space never gets that cold. There’s enough heat lost into the crawl space even if it’s ventilated, it doesn’t get that cold. So the dew point isn’t in the middle of the insulation somewhere. So in our climate, we can get away without any vapor barrier in the floor at all.
TM: Okay. Just, do you put insulation in the floor joist…
JK: Oh, yeah.
TM: Of the crawl spaces?
JK: Yeah. Nowadays it’s R38.
JK: For a long time it was R30 and before that R19. And for a while there was a requirement to put a vapor barrier at the top of the insulation. And that wasn’t a problem. It just didn’t seem to have been necessary. And time has proven that out. In the walls we put our vapor barrier on the inside of the joists, behind the drywall.
TM: Okay. Okay.
JK: And that seems to work pretty well in our climate. There are very few times when that causes a problem. We do have air conditioning here. It does get hot here in the summer, but it doesn’t seem to be enough… It doesn’t seem to be a problem because when it’s hot, it’s not humid. And that’s different from back east where I think your most humid times of year are in the summer.
RS: Oh, yeah.
TM: When we’ve got our air conditioning running and we’re pulling in that humidity through the walls. Yeah.
JK: Yeah. I used to live in Washington DC and I remember every winter or every summer they used to have the annual humidity festival [laughter] where everything would just become saturated with water and be about 99 degrees.
TM: That sounds awful. Yeah. [laughter] Miserable.
JK: Here, it gets quite hot in the summer here, particularly in recent years, but it’s always dry when that happens. So we can put our vapor barrier on the inside of the wall. Any moisture moving in from the outside is so insignificant that it’s not gonna cause a problem when it hits that cold vapor barrier in an air conditioned house. And the ceiling, we put the vapor barrier the same way, above the drywall, but below the ceiling joist…
TM: The insulation.
JK: Of the trusses and the insulation.
TM: Yeah. Okay. So you put the vapor barrier on the warm side of the wall if we’re talking about heating the house?
JK: On the conditioned side.
TM: Yeah. The conditioned side.
JK: Yeah. And that works fine for us. I know that it’s a real problem in some other climates where it gets humid enough that an air conditioned house would get condensation going on in there. Not a problem for us. That’s one area where we’re fortunate.
TM: Yeah. Wow. Jim, you are a wealth of knowledge and information. I’m sure we could keep going on and on and we could ask you a million more questions, but for the sake of our listeners, [laughter] I think this podcast has been… We’ve covered a lot of good info and, so thanks for coming on Jim. And…
RS: I really appreciate it.
JK: Lot of fun.
TM: Yeah. Reuben, do you have anything you wanna say to wrap up? Or Jim, do you have anything?
RS: No. Jim? [laughter]
JK: I had a fun… I had a good time. It’s refreshing to be able to have a conversation about which side of the wall to put vapor barriers on. ‘Cause if I try that with my family, it just doesn’t go anywhere. [laughter]
RS: They don’t care as much, do they?
JK: No. Remarkably they don’t.
RS: Yeah. Yeah.
TM: Oh, that’s good.
RS: Really appreciate you coming on, Jim. And oh, you know…
TM: Where can people find you, Jim?
RS: Yeah, yeah. You wanna throw out a link, a website, something?
JK: You can find me by simply googling my name or my company, Associated Master Inspectors or even just AMI. Go to amipdx.com. You can find us, you can call our wonderful office manager, Lisa, and she’ll be happy to schedule me for whatever you need me to do.
TM: And you spell your last name K-A-T-E-N, Jim Katen?
JK: That’s right.
RS: Alright, well Jim, thanks again so much for coming on the show. To all our listeners out there, if you’d like to reach out to us, you can email us, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org and next week we’re gonna be… We’re gonna have a guest on from Florida. We got Jon Bolton with Inspectagator coming on the show. Can’t wait to hear from him. He’s from the other corner of the country. And we get to hear about alligators I guess.
TM: Hopefully he’s got some good alligator stories.
RS: I’m sure he’s got some good stories.
RS: Alright, thanks everyone. Take care.
TM: Thanks for listening. Bye.
JK: Thank you.