Roof rot

Homeowners, builders face foam-core panel problems

Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Nearly 100 homeowners, most in West Juneau, are dealing with rotting roofs that could cost more than $100,000 each to replace.

One local builder said the problem is in the design of foam-core panels that allowed moisture to build up in the roofs, leading to rot. And a local civil engineer said installation problems contributed to the damage.

Laurie Perkins is one of the West Juneau homeowners facing structural and financial collapse if her roof isn't fixed. Though her 2,000-square-foot home was built in 1995, it already needs a new roof due rotting foam-core panels.

"It's very distressing," Perkins said. "I have medical problems with my neck we need to pay for, we have two young kids in school and my husband is the commissioner of the Department of Transportation. He will lose his job next year because of new political appointees and administration. ... So we're obviously worried. If we wanted to sell the house or needed to move somewhere else for him to get a job we can't."

Homes with the roof-rot problem were built between 1993 and 1996 and used Structured Insulated Panels that are decaying due to poor workmanship and faulty manufacturing of materials, according to Civil Engineer John Cooper of Cooper Consulting Engineers.

Mushrooms growing from shingles, discoloration and panels rotted so badly a person could poke a hole through them are just some of the problems.

Replacement costs are poking holes in consumers' pockets too. Perkins said she has to replace her roof. Though she doesn't have an exact cost, it will run more than $200,000 based on other local roofing projects, she said.

Another homeowner, who did not want to be identified, said his roof repairs will top $150,000 and will be financially devastating.


"We are just hoping the responsible parties will do the right thing," he said. "I don't know that this will be the case."

The man said he has attempted to get some relief from his homeowner's insurance policy without success.

Cooper, the civil engineer, said for many homes, the rot is breaking down the structural integrity of the roof. He said some homeowners' roofs "will have to be shoveled every time we get an inch of snow so they are not wearing the roof."

Cooper was brought in as several homeowners considered legal action gainst contractors and manufacturers of the roof panels. He inspected several of the houses and is involved in several reroofing projects. Cooper said he found panels incorrectly sealed at the joints and holes in the foam core not properly filled.

"The contractors made some mistakes and the manufacturers made some mistakes," Cooper said. "Some of the panels were even installed by factory crews and they went just as belly-up as anybody else's. ... Basically, none of them got it right."

Don Madsen, owner of Madsen Construction, said the fault lies with the design of the panels. Madsen's company was one of several contractors who used the panels in Juneau building projects.

"It didn't matter who installed them, all the panels have failed," Madsen said. "The panels come 4 foot wide and are put together by a joint method. But the joints they use don't pull the panels together. It's just a defective design for connecting."

Madsen said his company used the panels from 1995-96, but switched back to traditional building materials because they were less expensive.

The panels are constructed from two pieces of board that sandwich a core of rigid foam insulation. The panels are connected by an expanding foam spray that, if used properly, should fill gaps in the panels and holes in the foam core, Cooper said.

"The foam didn't adhere," Cooper said. "Everyone believed the foam would adhere. There were commercials on TV of this stuff adhering underwater. But it didn't and now there's big bunches of moisture up here."

Cooper said to seal the foam-board panels to each other, the builders would have had to wait for less wet weather and ensure the materials were completely dry.

"In other words you have to bust your butt to get it done right," Cooper said.

Another factor was many houses were built without vapor barriers at the manufacturers' suggestion, Cooper said.

A vapor barrier is like a heavy sheet of plastic stretched under the base of the roof. It stops vapor molecules from getting through to the wood.

Breathing, showers, baths and cooking create vapor pressure inside the house equivalent to three gallons of water a day, Cooper said.

"This vapor in a house can be likened to a pressure cooker," he said. "The vapor pressure builds up and if there are any voids in the roof the vapor acts the same way in a house as it does in the cooker when pressure is released."

The vapor traveling through the roof hits the dew point temperature and changes to water, Cooper said. This water is then trapped inside the roof and is what rots away the panels.

"If you don't have a vapor barrier installed and you have gaps in the roof, it's like a pipeline," Cooper said. "The vapor will eventually condense and the saturate the skin of the SIP. At that point you are counting on beads of foam to obstruct those water molecules. But if there are gaps, forget it."

Staff at Insulaspan of Idaho and Premier Building Systems of Washington state, two of the leading manufacturers of such panels used in Juneau, did not return repeated calls made by the Empire.

The new roofs Cooper is installing are more traditional construction, he said. Builders working with him are using vapor barriers in all the homes under sheets of manufactured wood board, covered with a layer of fiberglass insulation and topped with a "cold roof," which allows air flow.

Meanwhile, Madsen said his attorneys were drafting letters to homeowners telling them to get their roofs inspected. Madsen also said he has sent claims to his insurance company. Nobody knows who is going to end up paying for the roof replacements, he said.

Laurie Perkins said she hoped to get her roof finished soon but contractors are booked through next summer.

"It will be difficult when we finally have to get it fixed, we'll be out of our home for weeks or maybe months, we'll have to find a place that will take us and our dog," she said. "We'll just be relieved when the problem gets fixed. If the problem gets fixed."

Melanie Plenda can be reached at

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