Moisture Mayhem

The evolution of water-intrusion claims in construction

April 24, 2024 Photo

Just as water makes up the majority of our bodies, it also constitutes a large percentage of construction-defect claims and litigation. In the realm of construction defects, the terms “moisture intrusion” and “water-related damage” are listed frequently as consequential or resultant damage. When we think of water intrusion-based construction-defect claims, most people think of roof leaks and problematic window installations, but as we will discuss here, there are additional subcontractors having to address moisture-related allegations with increased regularity these days.

As construction litigation evolves, moisture is still expanding into all areas of construction-defect-related work, and that heightens the need to effectively diagnose these issues. By understanding the commonality of these claims, professionals can equip themselves to address moisture-related allegations.

Roof Systems

Roof systems are intended to protect the inhabitants against the weather, and often become the first line of defense against the elements. But when construction- and detailing-related flaws creep in, this crucial part of the building enclosure can become a source of major headaches in the form of moisture intrusion.

Gaps and unsealed openings in roof coverings are still prevalent causes for claims:

  • Flashing, including thin sheet metal components installed around roof penetrations (like chimneys and skylights), is intended to act as a waterproof barrier to redirect water. Improper installation, such as use of substandard materials or inadequate sealant applications, can create discontinuities that allow water to seep through the roof assembly and into the underlying structure. 
  • The underlayment, such as the water resistive barrier beneath shingled roof coverings, acts as a secondary layer of protection beneath a roof covering. Damaged, torn, or improperly installed underlayment can create a direct path for water to infiltrate the roof deck and framing. This can be a particularly critical issue in some roofing applications such as clay and concrete tile where moisture intrusion beneath the tile is more likely and expected to some degree due to the nature of the material. 
  • Undersized or inappropriately configured roof drainage provisions can lead to issues such as clogged roof drains or gutters, as well as downspouts that discharge too close to the foundation, which can lead to accumulation of water and eventually moisture intrusion. Similarly, insufficient slope on the roof surface itself can lead to water ponding on low-slope roofs, and has the potential to allow water to back up around flashings or underlayment on pitched (or “steep slope”) roofs, allowing for moisture intrusion.

While the roof covering, flashing, and sealants have been traditionally addressed in construction-defect claims, it has become more common to see moisture intrusion allegations against the structural or framing contractor. Sagging roof trusses and uneven roof sheathing have been cited in moisture intrusion cases, which could contribute to accumulation of water on the roof surface, and ultimately further progressive cycles of deflection and accumulation.

Due to the interrelated nature of roof drainage provisions and the designed capacity of the roof structure, good communication and coordination between the design professionals and the contractors is critical. However, if coordination is neglected, it can lead to questions regarding which of the different trades was responsible or shares some portion of the responsibility.

Uniform, rectangular buildings with one low-slope roof section are not traditionally considered aesthetically pleasing. In fact, these buildings resemble the shape and appeal of a cardboard box. As such, features like clerestory areas are often used by the designer to add architectural interest to buildings, which in turn create geometric discontinuities like wall-to-roof intersections. These areas can be an entry point for water if not detailed, constructed, and maintained correctly, and can require more frequent maintenance to remain water-tight.

Typical components at these critical interfaces, such as metal or roofing membrane flashing, can become a potential vulnerability when construction defects are present. Claims of construction defects in these systems may include inadequate overlap of flashing components, improper sealing or adhesion of laps between flashing or membrane sections, or the use of substandard materials. As with other flashing issues at roof penetrations, defects could compromise the integrity of the building enclosure, allowing moisture to seep into the building.

Cladding Systems

Moisture intrusion through exterior cladding systems (for example, stucco, stone veneer, and siding) represents another significant stage for construction-related defects to manifest. These cladding systems, which serve both aesthetic and protective functions, can harbor construction defects that compromise their efficacy in resisting and redirecting environmental moisture. Common construction defects in cladding systems include installation-related issues such as gaps or inadequate sealing, as well as material shrinkage-related cracks, which are avenues with potential for moisture to penetrate the claddings.

Due to the possibility of these issues, as well as factors including normal expected moisture migration through porous cladding materials like stucco, it is important to consider that moisture may enter through or behind most (if not all) cladding systems to varying degrees, and to plan accordingly. Because of this, properly specified and installed building wrap and flashing systems become essential components in defending against moisture infiltration. However, defects in the installation of the cladding systems or degradation of the related preventative components can render these measures ineffective. For example, even if a drainage plane and flashing are provided between stucco or brick veneer and frame construction to redirect water entering through the porous cladding, these systems can be ineffective without provisions to allow moisture to exit from behind the cladding; examples of these provisions could include weep screeds in stucco systems, or weep holes in brick veneer. In addition, construction-related issues may arise, which can potentially include mortar falling into the wall cavity during installation of brick and blocking the weep holes, or instances where the weep holes are covered by the adjacent soil during grading and landscaping.

Stucco trades often exhaust their coverage through numerous claims, especially in humid environments with favorable conditions for litigation, like Florida. A new trend is emerging in these and other markets, as claims involving moisture intrusion through the wall cladding system are increasingly targeting framing deficiencies. In these instances, plaintiffs are alleging that poor framing practices are causing building movement and damage to the stucco, ultimately leading to moisture intrusion. This trend has resulted in expanded claims against framing contractors. Like the roof drainage issues discussed previously, this shift highlights the interconnectedness of various construction elements and the ripple effects that defects in one area can have on others.

Surface Water Runoff and Groundwater

Moisture does not stop with entry through the roof and wall cladding systems, as the interfaces along the lower walls and foundation, as well as door openings, are also common potential areas for entry into a building. The dynamics of roof- and site-related water runoff, as well as groundwater infiltration through slabs on grade, present unique challenges for the foundation. Deficiencies in the design or construction of site drainage systems, improper slope design, or compromised foundation waterproofing or moisture barrier installation techniques can contribute to moisture intrusion. The technical intricacies of managing water runoff and groundwater infiltration involve understanding the principles of site slope design and surface water diversion and are interrelated with the roof drainage systems. Additionally, employing effective foundation moisture mitigation systems based on initial vulnerability assessments and site soil investigation are crucial components in mitigating the risks in regions where high-water tables or other subsurface moisture conditions are a potential issue.

Window Systems

Windows, essential for transparency and ventilation, become potential vulnerable points for moisture intrusion when construction defects are present. The intricate interplay between building wrap, flashing, and drainage systems at the windows ensures that moisture is kept at bay. However, construction defects in these components can disrupt this delicate balance, leading to moisture-related challenges.

Even windows designed and manufactured to the highest standard can become vulnerable entry points for moisture if installation- or detailing-related defects are present. Improperly applied or degraded sealant around windows may create openings for water to seep through, especially around flashing points. Uneven installation, gaps between the window frame and rough opening, or inadequate flashing can all lead to moisture intrusion around the window perimeter. Defective building wrap installation or termination, as well as compromised drainage systems can also contribute to moisture intrusion around windows. For example, some window drainage systems include weep holes designed to drain water from the frame, which can be damaged during installation, and can be obstructed with sealant during installation or routine maintenance. Furthermore, defective window components like cracked glass and poor seals or weatherstripping at sashes can create pathways for water entry.

In addition, construction-defect claims citing condensation on the inside faces of windows are on the rise. Windows act as a barrier between the inside of the building and the outside environment, separating warm air from cold, and moist air from dry. As a result, moisture in the air may condense directly on the glass surface. This surface condensation is the result of the thermal properties of the window system and the temperature differential between the interior and exterior of the building. Design, material, and installation deficiencies can cause unwanted condensation. For instance, aluminum framed windows, with lower insulation values and no thermal break, are more prone to condensation compared to aluminum windows with an adequate thermal break that reduce thermal energy loss or transfer. Similar principles can be applied to the roof systems, exterior cladding systems, and other portions of the exterior envelope, which may experience condensation-related issues as well.

Plumbing and Electrical

Plumbing and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors are familiar with water release events. The first line of defense against leaks in the domestic water system of a building lies in the very pipes carrying water throughout the building. However, using pipes unsuitable for the intended water pressure, temperature, or environment can cause cracks, bursts, and/or leaks. Even with the right materials, faulty installation can create weak points that are susceptible to leaks. Poorly joined pipes, improper or inadequate adhesive applications, loose connections, and inadequate support may become ticking time bombs under changes in water pressure or even minor movement of the pipes. Beyond material and installation, the threat of corrosion and other material degradation deserves consideration. Factors including exposure to harsh chemicals, improper grounding of metal components, or stray electrical currents can silently deteriorate pipes, eventually leading to pinhole leaks and potential for catastrophic breaks and flooding.

While leaking pipes are a major concern, construction defects can lead to moisture intrusion beyond plumbing issues. Smart houses are becoming more common, and HVAC and electrical-related trades are seeing more moisture-related construction-defect claims involving preventative systems and other smart technology. For example, a newly installed water or leak detection sensor may fail to alert, or an automatic shut-off valve for a plumbing system may fail to close.

The condensation-related issues discussed earlier can be caused or exacerbated by issues related to the design and implementation of HVAC systems. When not properly designed, heating and cooling systems can cause an imbalance in the overall moisture of the building environment, causing moisture vapor drive, which in turn can increase the potential for condensation and related distress. In addition, construction-defect claims for excessive condensation may include inadequate ventilation, specifically in locations with limited or improper ventilation, such as restrooms with a lack of proper exhaust fans, or locations with improperly vented clothes dryers.

Gone are the days of simple lawsuits that point the finger at just the roofer when there is evidence of moisture intrusion, or just the plumber when there is evidence of significant water issues. We have begun to see a variety of causes of varying degrees of water intrusion or moisture-related damage and allegations. While we do still see roofing, plumbing, and window issues remain at the forefront of construction-defect litigation, it is becoming more prevalent to see assertions of cladding being improperly installed or installed over defective work, surface and groundwater issues which call into question civil engineering, and technology issues that lead to complications and exacerbation of water damage, as we have become more reliant on technology.

In today’s litigious society, every trade that has worked on the structure may be brought into litigation, until it can be determined the true cause of the water intrusion and resulting damage. Even then, it may be difficult to find an exit. From roofing to foundations, each element can play a crucial role in safeguarding structures against moisture-related damage. Because of these considerations, moisture intrusion resulting from construction defects is and will continue to be a multifaceted challenge that requires a nuanced understanding of various building components and systems.


About The Authors
Multiple Contributors
Donna Friis

Donna Friis is a senior project engineer at Envista Forensics.

Victoria Godwin-Reese

Victoria Godwin-Reese is general liability and construction litigation defense attorney with Chartwell

Ian Cranston

Ian Cranston, P.E., is senior project engineer with Envista Forensics.

Laura Huffman

Laura Huffman is vice president of casualty operations at Engle Martin.

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