Q. We’re building a second-floor addition, completely open underneath, including our master bathroom. Our neighbors did this and had big problems this winter. First, their faucets froze up, and then there was leaking, and the two-sink vanity was ruined. The contractor blamed the plumber and architect, who blamed the contractor. Nobody is taking responsibility, but in the meantime, the vanity was replaced by another company, which used another plumber. We don’t want the same thing to happen to us, so who’s responsible, and how can we avoid this?
A. I shiver at the thought of freezing pipes. Let’s hope the replacement vanity was installed only after the real problem was solved — namely, protecting the pipes. Even if there was no mention of the correct method of installation in the plans, the architect isn’t responsible for workmanship.
There’s a mantra-like phrase used by many contractors when this happens. They often first reply, “It’s not in the plans.” But it really is, by virtue of the fact that the law, in the form of building codes, specifically requires that piping be protected from freezing, and building plans will state that the contractor shall follow all state and local codes.
Following the law (a.k.a. building code) is part of the problem. I wish more people had paid attention in science class, and especially the part when we all learned that water expands when it freezes. Frozen pipes, not being flexible, yield to a much more consistent law, the law of nature, which is often referred to as “common sense.” Over the years, as a practicing licensed architect who makes house calls just like a country doctor, I’ve learned that common sense isn’t really all that common.
Common sense, the laws of nature, and building and plumbing codes all reinforce the fact that piping should be installed with room for insulation, vapor and air barriers in the wall, and floor and ceiling cavities to allow room for isolation of the piping from weather. One of the first things I tell clients, at our first meeting, is to scrutinize insulation and make sure they see no daylight, no gaps, no places where cold air can get to the interior before the inside air has a chance to warm the pipes. The plumber is obligated to ensure that pipes are installed with room in the cavities for insulation to be placed between pipes and the exterior, leaving less room in the interior, if possible, so interior heated air can do its job.
The contractor has to monitor the insulating of the entire enclosure of the building, making certain that insulators, usually hired sub-contractors, do a thorough and code-compliant installation. Thin spots, tiny air gaps and missing insulation in hidden corners, behind and under vanities and toilets, around window frames and at the junction of ceilings, roofs and walls are probably the most common places. Your job can succeed with this in mind, if everybody is mindful, but make no assumptions!
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