July 2015 – 30 Years

By Tony Shepley,
What do wood, window installation, and the Internet all have in common? Glad you asked! Several things as a matter of fact, but most importantly, they’re not the same as they used to be. Next time someone tells you “I’ve been doing it this way for 30 years”, you can bet it doesn’t apply to the modern Internet, which made its debut in the mid-90’s, and it certainly doesn’t apply to window and door installation because the world has changed when it comes to building envelopes, test standards and installation methods.

On the other hand, wood practices may benefit from 30 years of practice, but only if it involves some of the old “do it right the first time” philosophy so you don’t end up doing it over. In days of yesteryear the combination of old growth lumber and relatively un-insulated structures allowed wood to stand up remarkably well to the test of time. Next time you take apart a 100 year old house, you likely won’t find much insulation, but you will find a structure that has been able to breathe and has components that are often in quite good shape. The unintended consequences of well meaning building codes has been the reduction in the breathing ability of a house. By the restriction of airflow, moisture too often is trapped in all the wrong places. Give moisture free passage and it always seeks equilibrium, trap it and you’re stuck with the consequences.

With all that technology has given us, in the way of alternatives over the past 10,00 years, wood still remains the dominant material for structure and trim. Try as we might to replace it with composites, synthetics, and plastics, wood still rules the building world. Wood still works the way Mother Nature intended it to and as long as we remember a few rules of nature, we can make wood work most effectively. Old growth, slower growing trees had tighter smaller growth rings and the quality of the fiber was higher because in a crowded forest, each tree had to fight to compete and survive. Imagine the size and quality of trees the Pilgrims found when they got here! We have figured out how to grow trees faster to keep up with demand, but this has given us ”new growth” wood fiber that has larger growth rings and more sap wood and less heart wood.

We have to respect a few of the laws of nature better with new growth wood. 1.) Seal the cut ends and nail holes 2.) don’t assume all wood is equal. Wood soaks up moisture just like the stalk of celery in science class used to soak up colored liquid. Capillary action is the process by which the tree fed itself while on the stump, but now seeks equilibrium when exposed to moisture. Add air, water and a few micro-organisms and you have the natural process of rot. To avoid the above, look for good quality materials, consider various treated options, and seal up the ends and nail holes just like they did in the good old days. Stable wood is happy wood. Even treated woods are not all equal. We, at Shepley stock pressure treated that is rated for ground contact in 2×6 and wider. As of this writing we are the only yard on the Cape and islands to do so. Everyone else stocks only “above ground” material which is treated to a lighter level and can suffer rot in just a few years when installed in close proximity to, or in contact with the ground. Yikes! Who knew?

Whether it’s properly installing doors and windows to meet the new blower door code requirements, or to withstand the pressures imposed by our code imposed super tight building envelopes, or it’s taking the time to make sure end grain and nail holes are properly sealed, the common element is this—if there isn’t time to do it right, you’ll have to find the time to do it over. Many of the issues we find in the field are the result of 1.) I didn’t get paid enough to do it the way the instructions said to do it, 2.) I was under a lot of time pressure to get it done, or 3.) the old stand by, ”I’ve been doing it this way for 30 years”. A note of caution. 1.) you will never get paid enough to do it twice 2.) nothing increases pressure like a do-over and 3.) times have changed in the past 30 years and we need to be aware of what that means for us. 30 years ago, I wasn’t Googling “capillary action”, I was looking it up in the Encyclopedia!

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