Installation Issues Can Lead to Legal Troubles

By Trey Barrineau

Each year, design and manufacturing improvements make windows better in terms of energy efficiency, resistance to air and water intrusion, and other factors. But those advances don’t mean much if the windows aren’t installed properly.

Poor installation, particularly with regard to managing water intrusion, remains one of the biggest problems in construction. It’s a major source of litigation, says attorney Chip Gentry, a founding member of the Call & Gentry Law Group.

“Build it ‘cheaper and faster’ is a core cause of construction defects,” says Gentry. “It means an inferior final project, and it’s a chronic problem.”

James Katsaros, a research fellow with DuPont Performance Building Solutions and chair of the AAMA Flashing Committee and the FMA/AAMA/WDMA Installation Committee, agrees with that assessment. “A very high percentage of windows are improperly installed,” he says. Katsaros is part of an industry-wide effort to improve installation standards and training.

The Problem

Katsaros says water infiltration can come from anywhere. However, the most common routes are through the window joinery, at the window-wall interface because of improper integration with flashing or sealants, or from above the fenestration, either in the wall cavity or behind the sheathing or water-resistant barrier (WRB).

“A lot of people think flashing a window is just protecting from water that comes from the outside,” Katsaros says. “But even as common or maybe more common is the fact that water can come from above the window in the wall system. If there’s a breach in the weather barrier and there’s penetration above the window, the water goes down.”

Windows are a disruption of an exterior wall’s drainage plane. Flashing manages that problem, Katsaros says, so it’s important that it’s done right. If it’s wrong, it can cause huge problems.

“Improper flashing, like if you do a reverse shingle at the head or if you wrap your WRB underneath the window at the head, could direct water to the interior. Actually, it’s worse than no flashing at all, because it acts like a funnel,” he says. “So you have to have the right shingling approach and the right sequencing in order to manage the water not just from the outside, but within the wall.”

It’s a complicated issue. In fact, it’s so complex that a recent draft of a new AAMA flashing standard for replacement windows has six different scenarios in terms of where the window is positioned and how you treat the interior, and three different scenarios for how you manage water.

Based on all those scenarios, Katsaros says the task force created 54 drawings in the appendix that deal with 18 different water-management combinations for the head jamb and sill flashing.

Want more complexity? The task force sectioned the replacement window market into four different categories—pocket replacement into a wood frame, pocket replacement into an existing aluminum frame, full frame replacement with partial cladding removal, and full frame replacement with no cladding removal. The group decided to focus on full frame removal with no cladding.

The task force then developed a decision tree that covers many questions that come up as crews go over a jobsite.

“We considered things such as the condition of the system, what’s being replaced and what’s staying, what’s the condition of the wall and what’s happening with the interior,” Katsaros says. “All of those things will lead you to one of those four outcomes in the decision tree. If it leads you to full frame removal with no cladding, which is most common in brick facades, that’s the document we’ve been developing.”

Katsaros says it’s extremely helpful to have illustrated guidelines that installers can follow.

“A lot of times, window manufacturers will have crews out there that they really don’t have control of,” he says. “It’s whoever the framer has or whoever is employed that day, so they have to make the instructions very simple. On a day-to-day basis, you really don’t have a lot of control over who’s going to be doing the installation unless you’re setting that up as a certified installed service.”

Katsaros says a lot of companies will have certified installers who go through rigorous training, but that’s more the exception than the rule. Because of the ongoing lack of skilled labor, companies such as DuPont are working on flashing that even inexperienced workers can be comfortable with.

“We’re trying to develop products that are simpler to use and work under all kinds of different environmental conditions, and that’s really where things are going,” he says. “People are developing products that are more robust and simple, but nothing replaces good training.”

Finally, Katsaros says the industry needs to get behind these products and practices and help spread the word among installers.

“We need to generate a better awareness of best practices that are being developed,” he says. “These are being developed by experts in the industry and are represented by all the major window manufacturers. This is what they feel is giving them the best protection for their product.”

Attorney: Good Installation, Strong Insurance are Vital for Window Companies

Chip Gentry, a founding member of the Call & Gentry Law Group, says improper installation frequently crops up in lofts and apartment conversions and in redevelopment projects, he said.

“Bad building or design cases man-age to become bad window cases,” said Gentry. “They’ll sue the general contractor, and water in a building is blamed on fenestration no matter where it shows up.”

Construction-defect litigation is time-consuming and draining, both financially and emotionally. And when more parties get involved, it can make it harder to reach a settlement. Often there are fights between insureds and insurers, and it can be difficult to get people on the same page, said Gentry.

Fenestration companies are sued most commonly for things such as contract disputes, disgruntled employees, patent litigation and, more often than not, installation issues.

“Installation mistakes are a big one, and they can be prevented,” said Gentry. “We have to be at least somewhat involved in installation because of this.”

Gentry, who is also a blogger for DWM, offered several of the most common installation mistakes that can lead to litigation. Among them are not sealing house wrap, lack of end dams, flashing or subsills, and poor shimming. Poor caulking is also a common mistake, whether it means not cleaning the substrates thoroughly, not using the proper tools, or not leaving space for caulk to expand or shrink.

Final checks matter, Gentry said.

“Installers are the face of the window industry,” he said. “You have to see—does it open? Does it close? Does it lock? Were specs followed? Get your standards set; be involved in specs. Get boots on the ground, and make sure it’s done right.”

A dollar today can save your company millions tomorrow, he added.

To view the laid-in version of this article in our digital edition, CLICK HERE.


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