Hurricanes, Wildfires, Recessions and some Thoughts on Boom and Bust Construction
Questions from a Curious Home Inspector
The days of showing up to inspect empty, cold, foreclosed homes where the water and power had been shut off by the bank now seem a distant memory here in Seattle, as the housing market is once again in full boom. But one legacy of the housing recession that began in 2008 can still be felt. We lost a lot of experienced contractors during that recession. The best and the youngest ones, I am sure, were able to survive, but those were lean times for even quality builders and subcontractors. Fast forward to today’s booming housing construction and one severe limitation on the pace of growth is available labor to physically build houses.
An arresting example of this is my record of inspecting newly installed composition roofs in the last few years. I have lost track, but I think I am up to 8 brand new composition roofs that had to be either completely or partially stripped off and replaced due to poor installation and workmanship. The reality is, our construction economy does not provide for very good training. I know, because I paid my way through college doing residential construction and I was one of those poorly trained kids.
“Hey kid, here’s a nail gun and some shingles, go put on that roof.”
“But, but, I have a question,” I would stammer.
“Hurry up kid. We don’t have all day.”
Well, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad but it was close. Many subcontractors do not have provisions in their estimates and budgets to train new workers well. Maybe things have changed since my days behind a nail gun but the evidence in the construction I see would suggest otherwise. At least in some of the larger tract developments I worked in, speed was the name of the game while only passing effort was paid to maintaining a minimum standard of quality.
In the Seattle area, the two trades with which we have historically done a pretty good job are plumbing and electric. These are the subcontractors who hold professional licenses and they have a training and apprentice system in place and continuing education requirements to renew their licenses and their work tends to be scrutinized by city building officials more than many other parts of a new building. The same cannot be said for roofing and siding, for example. And even with electricians, when labor is short, end runs are made to get the job done. Here is a link to a story about how Washington State has issued an emergency rule to allow electricians from other states to work in Washington due to a shortage of electricians. http://www.ecmweb.com/contractor/washington-issues-emergency-rule-due-journey-level-electrician-shortage
As hurricanes ravage the south and southeast and wildfires sweep the west, it makes me wonder how we will rebuild? Will we build to the same construction standards and use the same materials? I know that in Florida, we learned that the more stringent construction codes helped. We adopted stricter standards in the wake of the devastating hurricane Andrew roughly 20 years before. This now seems like keen foresight on behalf of the building officials in this region. I would imagine that new construction in rural wildfire-prone regions now require more preventative landscape work and more fire-resistant building materials than was required in the past, but are these stricter standards enough?
And what if this is the new normal? What if storms of this size start to come every 10 years? Our building codes and standards have been based in part on regional weather norms. If these conditions start to change rapidly, how will the construction industry respond? Should we improve our construction standards more? Can we re-engineer our residential construction to withstand category 5 hurricanes along the eastern seashore? Fire-proof bunkers in the west? What would this re-imagining of our dwellings even look like?
On a larger level, it would seem difficult to engineer anything to survive a 15-foot storm surge, which leads to the question: should we even rebuild in the same places? Can we afford to re-build in the same places? Who will insure these buildings? Will parts of the country become uninhabitable? Or, will we usher in another construction boom and truck in fly-by-night contractors from around the country, and build it back, just as it was, as quickly as we can?
These are large questions, surely much too large for me to answer in a blog. But as a home inspector, I lay awake at night worrying about people and their houses. I try my best everyday to keep people safe in their homes as I look for both active present problems and even try and predict what problems might arise with a given house. These years of training my brain to think this way has me wondering how, logistically, to proceed in rebuilding as we enter an era when changes in climate could be happening faster than our ability to train new workers and adapt our regional building codes, zoning and construction standards, especially in a political climate that seems increasingly scornful of government regulations.