Welcome to Mildew Manor (And you think your house needs work.)
by Cherie Winner | © Washington State University
Check out the new building at Washington State University's Extension campus in Puyallup. The foundation is cracked. The front stoop tilts toward the house. Window flashing was installed wrong or not at all, the attic insulation runs right up against ventilation holes, and there's a persistent leak around the toilet.
Contrary to what you might think, the designers and builders of the 1,152-square-foot house made it that way on purpose.
"We were told the other morning that we were good at doing things wrong," says construction maintenance mechanic Ron Froemke, who helped build the house. "It felt like a low blow to me, but I guess if everyone's happy..."
"Everyone" in this case includes pesticide educator Carrie Foss and the advisory committee for WSU's structural pest integrated pest management (IPM) program. A few years ago the committee suggested building the house as a teaching aid for structural pest managers and inspectors. The "Structural Pest IPM Facility," as it is formally called, will give students a chance to see for themselves a variety of poor building techniques and the pest problems they help create.
"Conducive conditions" is a key concept, says Foss. Poor construction doesn't always lead to pest problems, but it does create conditions, such as excess moisture, that encourage pests and give them a foothold within the home. Subterranean termites, carpenter ants, and the fungus that causes wood rot are just a few of the pestiferous guests Foss expects to see in the house eventually.
Foss says many of the problems that plague homeowners aren't easy to find. They sprout behind walls, under floors, in cracks and corners. In their early stages they can be hard even for experienced inspectors and pest pros to detect. How-to books, diagrams, and checklists can help, but there's no substitute for the real thing.
"What's of value here is being able to see where the problems—that might not be obvious—are going to be," says Foss. "To know where to look, and what clues to see."
Foss and her crew will monitor the house over the next few years, and when they find damage in out-of-sight places, they'll make it easier to view by replacing portions of walls or flooring with Plexiglas panels.
The house will be officially dedicated this spring, but it made its instructional debut last October. In a weekend workshop for 25 pest managers from six western states, the house was a hit. Until now, students in this region haven't had the chance to see many of these problems before they get out into "the real world." Similar facilities have been built in the eastern half of the country, but Puyallup's "mildew manor" is the only such structure in the western U.S. That distinction might not last long. After the first class, two California attendees, a student and an instructor, went home convinced that their state should have such a facility, too.
In addition to being built wrong, the house incorporates a variety of different materials—several kinds of siding, roofing materials, flooring, attic and subfloor structures—that aren't necessarily bad, but may not be appropriate for conditions in the Pacific Northwest.
It might reassure prospective homebuyers to know that Foss had a tough time getting building permits for the house. When county authorities saw the plans-which obviously included several major no-nos-they balked.
"This is out of the context of what they normally do," says Foss. "This is a training facility. It's not like a house that they would normally permit."
The logic of using poor construction techniques as a teaching tool finally won out, and the project went forward. It was a challenge for mechanic Froemke and carpenter Curt Bod to do so much of it so wrong. In fact, other than the parts that were deliberately done wrong, the building is solid.
"For a house that's built to fail," says Bod, "it's pretty well built."
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