If you’re like one of the many Corvallis residents renting an apartment, especially in a complex or development, you’ve likely got the same problem I do – mold. In the bathroom and the garage and the kitchen and maybe even around the carpets of your living room or bedroom. Many of the apartments built in Corvallis before 2007, and even some more recent ones, share this obnoxious problem. While we as tenants are partly responsible for moisture build-up in our homes due to every day practices like washing our clothing and even simply breathing, we’re not the only culprits. Poorly-constructed apartments, especially those built with cheap materials such as OSB (oriented strand board) left in the rain for weeks before a building is sealed, collect moisture like it’s their job. After a building is given a certificate of occupancy, rain may still penetrate wall materials and cause rot, leading to a growth of black mold. Poorly-designed landscaping and irrigation may channel water toward a building and increase its ground-level moisture content. And in our ever-increasing desire to build “energy efficient” apartments and homes, contractors are constructing buildings tighter and tighter, leading to a lack of ventilation, increased moisture content, and inevitably mold and rot.
A Steep Learning Curve
While there will always be good and bad contractors, we’ve learned at least a little from the construction experiences of the last 40-odd years. Litigation here and elsewhere prompted the formation of Oregon’s Construction Claims Taskforce, “to address increasing construction claims and rising contractor liability insurance premiums. The task force was directed to study and evaluate the causes and extent of construction defects in Oregon, the need for consumer protection, and the availability and affordability of liability insurance for contractors.” Their 2007 report is available online.
Newer versions of OSB are generally more water-resistant than the 1970s OSB that’s rotting behind the drywall of my apartment, although quality varies greatly between manufacturers. It’s not illegal to build in the rain, but Oregon building codes now emphasize allowing wood structures to dry to a maximum permitted moisture content (around 18-19%) prior to sealing a building. Contractors are more aware of the problems caused by excessive moisture, and usually take better precautions to avoid encasing moist wood in new buildings. Still, in Oregon’s climate it becomes nearly impossible to build without absorbing moisture from rain at some point during construction.
Ed Stanton of E & M Constructors, currently assembling the 215-bed Tyler Street Townhomes on 29th Street, uses industrial dehumidifiers and fans to help reduce moisture in his buildings prior to sealing them. Stanton also builds with kiln-dried wood rather than commonly used green wood, which has a considerably higher initial moisture content. Carlson, who reminds us that May was the International Code Council’s (ICC) Building Safety Month, commented on the improvements and increased stringency of Oregon building codes, although he also acknowledges that they set minimum requirements.
“Contractors and design professionals now have a much increased awareness of what excessive moisture does to buildings, particularly during the rainy season in this climate where it can prove difficult to get things dried out. I would say we’ve made a lot of good progress in the last several years to that end,” Carlson said.
The building codes do control how much moisture is allowable in wood structures before they’re sealed inside a building, but they don’t yet regulate methods to reduce moisture content once a building is issued a certificate of occupancy. Even homes that are built quite dry build up moisture over time from rain, plumbing, and tenant practices.
Rinse and Repeat
Although the most recent bundle of apartment complexes are arguably an improvement over my own sad dwelling, most new complexes are not built to be durable in the long run. Managers expect that apartments will be run down by heavy wear and tear from multiple and varied tenants anyway. But we’re going to need student (and community) housing for as long as Corvallis is home to OSU, and periodically tearing down developments to rebuild will only make them unavailable for long periods of time. In most cases, it’s cheaper to replace structures like these after 30-60 years than it is to renovate, even though they can certainly be built with greater staying power. As it now stands these apartment complexes are all still likely to subject future tenants to nearly unavoidable mold issues before they’re inevitably torn down and re-built, and rebuilding tends to waste more structural materials than renovation. Rinse and repeat.
But I can’t conclude that this pattern isn’t just a necessary evil. Will we need more and larger apartment complexes to house even more students and community members in the future? It simply makes no sense economically for contractors to build larger even for the relatively near future if the number of living units in a building will exceed current demand. Under these circumstances, isn’t it reasonable to re-build bigger in the future over spaces already used for apartments rather than continually annexing new land? But if we’re likely to have to re-build bigger later, there’s no incentive to build for superior quality now.
A Glimmer of Light
Dive deep, and Corvallis’ housing issues are noticeably complex and dynamic, and will be for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean there are no happy endings. Amidst this barrage of admittedly improving but still transient apartment construction projects, there is a glimmer of light; one development in particular stands apart from the rest. Project Ecological Development (Project^), based in Portland, is working with Samaritan Health to convert the site of the former Heart of the Valley Care Center into the 91-unit Harrison Apartments building; the bricks of the old building will be recycled. Although there are questions about potential parking problems, as there are with most new complexes, it would be the first housing development in Corvallis to achieve a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating – and they’re going for gold. And the apartments will have a dedicated WeCar for use by residents, along with ample bike parking spaces. The Harrison Apartments will be open to all members of the community, but given the convenient location, it will likely house mostly students. It will also include professional on-site management teams that will help reduce potential behavioral problems like those faced by unmanaged housing complexes. These apartments will be built to last.
“It’s a different approach to development, it’s a higher level of care,” asserts Anyeley Hallova, a partner and professional urban designer with Project Ecological Development. And right now, that’s just what Corvallis needs.
Extra: Energy Efficiency = Moisture Problems?
In an age of “energy efficient” building styles, even cheaply-made homes are often built air-tight in order to be better insulated, and who would argue with reduced utility bills? But in temperate regions like Corvallis, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner by wanting homes that are both warm and energy efficient. With cheap, common building technology (OSB and untreated 2x4s), we can’t have both and still avoid condensation on one or the other side of the OSB. When there is a large enough temperature differential between the inside and outside walls, water will condense on the warmest side of the house: inside in the winter, outside in the summer. Well-sealed “energy efficient” homes can’t breathe well, and as a result OSB tends to stay damp for longer periods, rot, and become a breeding ground for molds. This also means that the water-resistant housewrap coating exterior OSB walls in apartment complexes and newer homes may minimally protect one side of the wall for a while, as long as it’s installed properly, but will have no effect whatsoever on the other.
Older wooden homes don’t have mold and moisture problems to nearly the same extent as newer homes because the buildings were constructed to breathe. The use of longer roofs can also help protect exterior walls from rain. We also tend to build taller now, which means buildings have more unprotected surface area to be subjected to rain. Many newer buildings are built on concrete slabs with no basement for ventilation, and the cold concrete contacting the wood causes another temperature differential followed by additional condensation. Sprinklers and improper landscaping that allows water to flow toward the house adds extra water exposure that renters and homebuyers may not think about. Indoor plumbing is a natural condensation point, so unless it’s installed with that in mind, cold pipes will drip on surrounding wooden structures as they transport water, and the wood will inevitably rot.
By Genevieve Weber