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Ask the Builder: What you can learn from rusty steps
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Ask the Builder: What you can learn from rusty steps

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What a sad situation to see rust stains on these concrete steps!

When you visit a home, what do you notice first? For some it's the decoration or color coordination. For others it's the landscaping. For me it's the defects. My eye is attracted to any and all errors and failures resulting from how the home was built or remodeled. It's almost like a disease for me: Instead of enjoying looking at a home, I feel like I’m inspecting it.

Recently, I had to travel from my home in central New Hampshire to Cincinnati. Cincinnati is my hometown, and in some ways it was great to be back. But I quickly discovered there are more traffic lights, potholes and low manhole covers in a two-square-mile area in the east side of town than we have in all of Belknap County, New Hampshire! If you want to make a good living, open up a shock absorber and wheel alignment shop in Cincinnati.

One of my stops was the church I got married in. I had a few extra days to wander around, which I spent taking photos of the places that mean a lot to me. At the church, I was saddened to find a flight of concrete steps with horrible rust stains. What a shame! I knew the cause instantly: The reinforcing steel in the concrete was rusting.

What's more, that rusting steel is expanding. That’s what happens to reinforcing steel when it starts to rust. Within a few years, these wonderful concrete steps that should have lasted 70 years or more will be cracked and falling apart.

It’s going to cost thousands and thousands of dollars to replace these concrete steps in a few years when they start to fail. The expenditure could have been avoided if the concrete contractor who installed the steps had taken a few extra minutes to roll on or spray on some metal primer and then add a coat of finish paint to the steel rebar. That's all it would have taken to prevent the rust.

This is so easy to do and the paint might have cost just $50. The reasons are plenty as to why it wasn’t done. It most likely is the building committee members who advise the parish priest just don’t know to do this. If a young architect prepared plans years ago for the steps, he might not have put in the written specifications telling the contractor to paint the rebar.

I tend to do autopsies on failures like this and then try to share what happens so I can help you avoid the same problem.

What’s the biggest takeaway from this simple rust stain situation? I know you’re not going to like this, but you should be thinking about taking on a more active roll in specifying what you want done at your home and, more importantly, how the contractors should do it. You may think this is confrontational, but it’s not if you make it clear what you want in the plans and written instructions contractors use to bid your work.

My guess is you’re like most people, including me: You don’t know what you don’t know. And to add to that, you may not know the lexicon of building terms. In some respects it's a different language.

But the internet has made your job so much easier. You can easily get great advice from a industry associations that publish easy-to-understand documents about how products should be installed. The same is true for manufacturers. A wise homeowner selects all the materials they intend to use on the job long before the contractors arrive to look at things. A wise homeowner also reads all the installation instructions and notes the really important parts.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you want a few very expensive French doors installed that lead out to a deck. Manufacturers now have very detailed information about how to flash the doors, how to install them, and exactly what needs to be done to make sure they operate like a Swiss watch. Often they have great videos you can watch.

Absorb all this information. Stipulate in your contracts that products must be installed according to the written manufacturer’s instructions. If you’re not able to see the work happen, require in writing that the contractor take photos of important steps before they get covered up. Have him email those photos to you daily.

Technology has made it so very easy to do all of this. Make use of it so your investment doesn’t fall apart like the concrete steps 20 or 30 years before it’s supposed to happen.

(Subscribe to Tim’s’ free newsletter and listen to his new podcasts. Go to: AsktheBuilder.com.)

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