How to protect build sites and homes from Colorado’s increasingly wet weather
While water is an invaluable natural resource, too much of a good thing is not great — especially when it comes to building sites. On the heels of record-breaking rainfall across Colorado in June (the wettest since 1872 after a whopping 6.1 inches was recorded in Denver), the topic of water mitigation seems timely. From scouting suitable building sites to ensuring the home in-process is landscaped to protect against flooding, a trio of experts weigh in with tips builders can use to ensure their projects proceed on-time and remain water-tight — no matter what Mother Nature unleashes.
Work from the ground up
Employing a civil engineer to inspect site-specific variables — from soil stability and groundwater presence to existing utilities and notable landscape features — is an integral first step in any water mitigation strategy. Once a site is deemed suitable for digging, proactive measures to manage water flow and avoid erosion are essential.
“Proper grading and drainage are the number one factors of mitigating water damage,” says Grace Covington, CEO of Covington Homes in Colorado Springs, who underscores the importance of the master drainage and grading plan in disclosing how groundwater flows through any given parcel. In short, directing water away from the structure to avoid it collecting around the foundation is key. Any modification that interrupts water draining away from the structure risks directing it toward the house and into the basement.
The most common issue to crop up during this past summer was excess standing water during the foundation build. When facing a seven-foot hole full of water, Covington adheres to a simple rule of thumb: “Drain it out, wait it out, and dry it out,” she says. In extreme cases, where it’s unlikely the hole can be properly dried out, Covington says it may be necessary to remove the saturated dirt, replace it with new dirt, and involve an engineer to ensure the foundation and surrounding soil have not been compromised.
Batten down the hatches
Protecting costly building materials from the elements is not as difficult as one might imagine. “[A majority of] the materials used in building a home — prior to drywall — are water resistant,” Covington says. Lumber is culled from trees inherently engineered to withstand all sorts of weather conditions, and plywood is sealed with synthetic resins that make it water resistant. Ditto for shingles, which are designed as a first line of defense against the elements, no matter the season.
When unexpected storms blow in and get lumber a little wet, Covington suggests waiting a few days for it to dry out — especially when installing sheetrock. “Once you have the house dried-in, with weather barriers up on the exterior plus shingles on and flashing installed, you won’t see too many [water-related] issues,” Covington says. Once builders start to put the finishes in, the most common sources of water damage are an open window or the impact of outside factors such as another job site. “What you can’t avoid [or even anticipate] is what others around you are doing,” Covington says, pointing to a recent incident where a nearby developer accidentally removed a berm (designed to divert water away from their project) and released floodwaters downhill into the basement of one of her under-construction homes — an unfortunate inevitability of the building process.
Remain rooted in place
Building landscapes that are storm-proof (and by extension erosion resistant) might be the single most savvy step builders can take to ensure a home and its environs remain unscathed by the elements. “The basic idea is to convey water away from the house while making it as easy as possible for water to drain away from the foundation,” says Dan DeGrush, senior landscape architect at Lifescape Colorado. In the best-case scenario, which involves placing the house at the correct elevation and grading away from the foundation, “gravity will do all the work for you,” DeGrush says. But that seemingly simple approach can get expensive — especially on flat lots, where homes are almost flush with the ground or when fancy drainage basins and intricate piping are involved.
While proactive planning for site drainage can address most issues before they arise, common offenders do arise: Downspouts coming off a roof drain, especially where a pathway or patio is located, forces a builder into piping drains to avoid having to step over unsightly metal kickers. In this scenario, DeGrush points to his number one rule of thumb: “Never use black corrugated pipe,” he says of a quick fix that lacks rigidity and is notorious for getting crushed and clogged. Instead, he suggests schedule 40 PVC — which has thick, rigid walls, decreasing the chances of compression under the weight of surrounding soil — designed specifically for sewer and drainage purposes. Ditto for building below grade.
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“Anytime your threshold is below the road, and you have water coming down to your house, you’re forced into a swale,” he says. A swale — a ditch-like depression designed to divert water around the foundation — can, in the case of freak downpours, result in standing water, which is the precursor to other more destructive issues, such as erosion, ruts and sediment runoff.
Some landscape features, such as dry stream rock swales, do double duty conveying water away from the house and directing it toward spots in need of irrigation. “They have to be very tolerant plants that can handle high volumes of water and [periods of drought],” DeGrush says, pointing to a limited palette including feather reed-grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) and Stella D’Oro reblooming daylilies (Hemerocallis Stella D’Oro).
Aesthetics aside, DeGrush returns to the genesis (and, by extension, number one cause of moisture-related issues) of any new construction: digging out the foundation and backfilling the soil. “When [builders] don’t compact as aggressively as needed, it creates air pockets which — in the event of an extreme amount of rain — will consolidate [the fill] and [create] sinkholes around foundations,” he says of a phenomenon happening six to nine feet underground that, under dry conditions, is neither noticeable nor problematic.
“When the ground gets saturated, water can’t percolate in anymore, so it runs over the top and creates erosion,” DeGrush says. Proactive sediment control measures — such as silt fences, straw wattles and erosion blankets — can temporarily slow the flow of water and reduce damage both during and after construction, an especially pertinent consideration when building in and around the Denver metro region where the soil is notoriously dense with clay.
“I don’t think it’s a choice,” DeGrush says. In the wake of wetter wet spells and drier dry spells, he sees proactive planning for weather-related extremes, which used to be somewhat of an option, as a required part of today’s big-picture construction process.
Plan for the worst-case scenario
In the event disaster does strike during the construction process, having a proactive plan in place is a must. Rob Whittet, agency partner at The Brokerage Insurance Group in Englewood, says builders’ risk insurance — coverage specifically designed to protect building sites and structures under development, as well as those materials and equipment used in the project — is essential. “Until you actually live in a house, a homeowners insurance policy doesn’t apply,” Whittet says, noting both the importance and limitations of proper coverage.
“[A builder’s] general liability insurance doesn’t cover the materials used to build a house, or the items inside a house, so builders’ risk insurance covers the transition to occupancy,” he says. The coverage must be obtained early on in the process, often before ground is broken on a project. “Insurance is designed to reward people who are proactive and do things ahead of time,” he says, which, when it comes to mitigating water damage, can be tricky.
“Water damage [from external sources] is typically not covered with these types of policies,” Whittet says, regardless of whether that water is coming from the sky or from a neighboring property or building site. Homeowners need a separate policy that includes flood coverage to have any kind of protection in most instances of water damage which — even with proper coverage — can be extremely limited. As a brokerage firm, Whittet represents his clients as opposed to a single insurance carrier; in this role, he not only walks them through the process of purchasing proper coverage but also identifying potential pitfalls in that coverage.
“Water is a tricky one, and we’ve had so much of that this year [in Colorado],” he says, citing myriad instances of window wells filling up and water seeping into foundations. “Insurance is designed for accidents,” he says, and when insurance companies don’t cover water damage, “it can be a tough pill for [homeowners] to swallow.”
Bottom line? “It feels like we are getting into more and more [weather-related] extremes,” DeGrush says, deeming water mitigation an issue that — if not addressed proactively — stands to create costly measures in the long run. Wet weather aside, Covington cites proper on-site supervision, by a director of construction or site superintendent, both of whom should be OSHA certified, as the single best way to ensure water damage remains at bay.
“If you’re managing a job site correctly, and you make sure you have the proper grading and drainage before backfilling the foundation, you shouldn’t have water intrusion,” she says. That’s true not only during the build process but also after, once the dust has settled and the homeowner is (happily) in residence.