Building Inspections, Cleaning and Restoration

(Released on October 1)
About The Everything Building Envelope Podcast: Everything Building Envelope℠ is a dedicated podcast and video forum for understanding the building envelope. Our podcast series discusses current trends and issues that contractors, developers and building owners

About The Everything Building Envelope Podcast: Everything Building Envelope℠ is a dedicated podcast and video forum for understanding the building envelope. Our podcast series discusses current trends and issues that contractors, developers and building owners have to deal with related to pre and post construction. Our series touches on various topics related to water infiltration, litigation and construction methods related to the building envelope.

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Derek: Welcome everyone to our “Everything Building Envelope” podcast. I’m Derek Segal, a senior consultant for GCI Consultants and I will be your host today. I’m very excited today to have as our guest Ken Larsen. Ken is a third-party evaluator and works with the International Dry Standard Organization. Welcome, Ken.

Ken: Thanks for having me on the show.

Derek: Excellent to have you here. Ken, let’s start off by telling listeners a little bit about yourself, how you came to be in the industry you’re in and, you know, what you’re involved with at present, you know, to help improve the industry and educate professionals for the good of all.

Ken: Sure, thank you. So, I’ve been in this business of repairing structures, typically on insurance claims for 41 years now. I originally come from Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada, and recently, in fact six days ago, I am proud to say that I immigrated here to the United States and I am now a citizen of the U.S. I had my own restoration firm in Vancouver, British Columbia for 20 years and sold it in the year 2000 and ended up moving down to the States where I was taught how to be an instructor in this line of work.

And so I’ve been teaching contractors how to repair buildings after fires and floods for multiple different certifying organizations, including the IICRC, the Institute of Inspection and Cleaning and Restoration Certification as well as the Restoration Industry Association, that’s another entity. And another one is the American Council for Accredited Certification, that’s the ACAC. And I’ve been approved to teach courses for each of those important industry groups.

From there, I still teach these courses around the world, including Australia, Canada, U.S., Europe. And now what I find myself doing is in addition to teaching these courses, I’m being used as a consultant in court cases, depositions, expert witness type work. And as it relates to the consumer who might have an insurance claim of their own, I’m used to help establish the scope of work necessary to do a competent standard of care project whenever there is an insurance claim and I do it from an independent third party status. So that’s my background.

Derek: Sounds good. Wow, so you’re busy. And I see just doing a little research. So you’re a third-party consultant, you are a lecturer, you are an instructor, you’re an inventor, and you’ve written some papers as well. With that in mind, what tips can you give property owners to help them be better educated to recognize they have a problem? And to find out, you know, what these important next steps are that they should take and also where they’re most likely to see these problems and how they need to be better educated on their property.

Ken: Well, so that’s a very broad question there are going to be so many different scenarios that we’re considering. I think the way…the thing, what I would like to say in response to that is that if they suspect that their insured property, your home, your business, the building itself has in some way been compromised by some event. Let’s say it was a pipe burst or a sprinkler head that failed, or maybe there was an unusual weather event that came in and water found its way in there, or something burned in a sensitive location, you know, and you don’t know if there’s the need for damages. Well, we could go on and on about all the possible scenarios.

If you get some type of a situation where you need to have answers, I would encourage the policyholder to call their agent and very carefully phrase their question, think before they make that phone call. They should pose it in the form of a question. So, for instance, “Hello Mr. Insurance agent. I was just curious if you could answer a question for me. I’ve got my insurance policy through you and this is the insurance carrier. Can you please tell me if I’m covered for this kind of peril?” And you describe what the situation is. Now you didn’t state that you have, or that you are filing an insurance claim. You didn’t even say that you had that scenario. You’re just looking to find out if it’s a covered peril. Now that’s important because it doesn’t go onto your file, but with that information, you can get a straightforward answer and then you can decide whether or not you wish to proceed with your insurance claim. And I think that’s an important first step.

Derek: And is there a particular area of the home or building they should look or be aware of? Are there areas in the home that are more likely to have experienced a leak or more likely for them to be able to see or feel something?

Ken: Well, it could be all of those things. So it’s not uncommon. So the latter thing that you said, can they see or feel something? It’s not uncommon that somebody will have a water intrusion come into their home and they don’t know about it. They didn’t discover it, it might’ve been behind the kitchen cabinets, they just didn’t know it happened. And then all of a sudden, you know, their children are starting to have a rash or they have watery eyes, or they’re complaining of headaches or that they’re dizzy, or whatever the symptom might be.

And then they go like, wait a minute, maybe I’ve got a problem and maybe it’s associated with an event that I’m not aware of. Like that water leak behind the kitchen cabinets. This is when you need to bring in some experts to try and find out what is happening in that structure and then you can proceed with some intelligence rather than just speculating what’s going on.

Derek: All right. Ken, now that you mentioned that, and you and I both know you’re up in the Panhandle of Florida where they, you know, in the last several months you had a devastating storm, Hurricane Michael, that hit you folks up there. What are you seeing? What are companies not doing a very good job with in helping these folks? And what do they need to do a better job of doing to properly investigate document damage and give these owners the right information and guidance in order to get them back to a sound condition?

Ken: Right. Well, this is a really good question and it’s an important one. The fact of the matter is that in Hurricane Michael, and that is true with most hurricane or weather-related events, especially in Florida, you’re gonna have a variety of different contractors show up in town, each claiming to be the best in the industry and trying to secure prospect projects that they can, you know, have a job after one of these events. Now it attracts these…weather events attract the full scope of quality of contractors. I have seen some of the finest work in my entire career as a result of some of the repairs performed in Hurricane Michael. I mean, seriously, just case studies of perfection, really proud to be associated with those kinds of jobs.

And on the other hand, I’ve also seen some of these jobs that are so embarrassingly substandard that you wonder how they are gonna get any revenue whatsoever out of what they do. They have no business being in the industry. And I think that that’s true of all industries on the planet is you’re gonna have some good guys and some bad guys. So what can the homeowner do to try and find out what they need in the event that they have an insurance claim? The answer is, look at who is involved. So for instance, if the insurance company says, “Oh, you need to use my preferred vendor,” well, there is a reason why they are so-called preferred. And so the question is whose interests are they serving? Are they gonna serve the property owners or their client, which is the insurance carrier?

And you know, this kind of is a good segue into the second thing that a homeowner can do. Aside from the first step of calling the agent and making sure that they are covered for a particular peril. The next thing they can do is they file a claim to find out if the insurance carrier is in a contractual agreement with the entity, this restorer that they want to bring into the house. If they are a preferred vendor, there’s a very good chance that there is a written agreement in place on the terms of that relationship that they will or will not do certain things, or they will limit prices or limit…just, you know, there’s some terms that are in there.

Derek: Scope of work.

Ken: Yeah. So it’s completely appropriate for the policyholder to inquire from the claims representative if their preferred contractor has an agreement with the insurance carrier for this arrangement and then ask for a copy of that agreement. I mean you’re about to enter into a contractual relationship with this contractor, he’s gonna ask you to sign a form. But if he’s already got a contract in place with another materially interested party being the insurance company, that may be a conflict that you would be concerned about. So research that, and if you’re not comfortable with it, explore your options to find a contractor that you are more comfortable with.

Derek: Right. And I think that’s becoming more prevalent in the industry today. There’s a lot of language in policies out there called the right to repair. And you know, again, I think you bring a valid point to the table, which is, you know, are they doing it right? Are they doing it in the interests of the property owner? And you know, what can they do if they don’t do it right? The insurance company contractor comes in, does the job, or perceived to do the job. And then a year later the homeowner is now still having problems. I mean, that’s gonna be a difficult road to go down to go back to these people and get them taken care of.

So one thing you mentioned earlier was, you know, what are they not doing right? Are they preparing the property? Are they doing a proper investigation? Are they taking baseboards off the walls? Are they…you know, what needs to be done to do a proper evaluation that maybe you’re seeing is not being done?

Ken: Okay, so that’s another bright question and I could spend hours talking just about what I’ve seen happen and what should happen.

Derek: Right.

Ken: But I think what the consumer, the policyholder needs to know is that this isn’t just a general cleanup service on aisle street. This is a skilled trade that requires a lot of training, years of education, lots of experience to try…and then an understanding of the built environment. A house isn’t just a piece of gypsum wallboard or some two by fours, it’s a system. You have a system in place where the HVAC system is the lungs of the building that can disperse a problem from one room to another room very readily. And so the whole understanding of the structure and how it works and what needs to be addressed is an important understanding that, you know, you don’t get just by going to a store and, you know, buying a bottle of disinfectant and trying to wipe things down.

So here’s what I want your radio listeners to know is that there is a standard of care that has been around for decades now. It’s called the F500, so standard 500 and the most current year is 2015, and it continuously gets updated. So we’ve just kind of gone through a recent update and it defines what is and is not expected to perform a structural drawing project in a fashion that meets the standard of care. And so, there’s a lot of contractors out there that know about the standard and they claim that is in accord with the standard of care, but you should see how wrong they have it. They say it’s in the standard, but it’s not in there. And so there’s a lot of that going on. So let me give you a very brief example if you don’t mind.

Derek: Yes, go ahead.

Ken: Here’s one thing that I saw in Hurricane Michael all over the place and it made my head explode. You’d be driving down the road and you’d see one of these little realtor signs. You have small little signs on the side of the road saying, “Oh, you’ve got a…if you have a problem in your house, you know, call us,” whatever. The one that I saw everywhere in Hurricane Michael that was so distressing to me was, “We fog for mold. We fog for mold.” So there’s introducing a mist of a disinfectant to fill the house with a gas of disinfectant, claiming that this will resolve their mold issue that they have in their house. Make no mistake that there’s all kinds of issues associated with this.

The most egregious part of this is that if you have a registered disinfectant, an EPA registered disinfectant and you deviate from the product labeling, it is a violation of federal law and these products don’t say that you can [inaudible 00:13:18]. You’re introducing that into a space that people will breathe and it’s engineered to kill stuff. Why would you subject your homeowner to that potential issue? So this was happening all over and they were charging exorbitant rates. I will say this on this show.

Derek: That’s terrible.

Ken: The product typically costs $20 a gallon, just so you know. But they put it through a machine that makes a wet mist, and so they’re using very minimal product and then they’re charging thousands of dollars for the service. They’ve got pennies invested in it. And I feel so bad for these poor policyholders because they are paying a premium price for something that is pure snake oil. It doesn’t work.

Derek: And that can hurt them actually.

Ken: Yes, absolutely it can. So beware of the fraudulent charlatans that come into these homes.

Derek: That’s out there.

Ken: They’re all over the place.

Derek: So now that you mentioned that, I’ve got moisture in my home or my building, in my mind, I mean a lot of these homeowners are thinking, let me just turn the AC down cooler. Let me put some fans on, let me open a window or two. Is it a technology? Is it a science, or is it just machinery? Do I just need three machines and the fans? Is it just a formula or a calculation? Tell me a little bit about that.

Ken: Well, again, I could spend days on that subject too. The bottom line is these, insurance carriers believe…or insurance claims rep typically try to control their costs by limiting how much equipment is placed on the job site alleging that as long as you have two or three air movers or whatever the number is and, you know, one dehumidifier that the structure will dry in an arbitrary time frame. Usually, they claim that it will be dry in three days. For the record, there is no such reference to any time frame like that in the industry standard. Furthermore, the subject of air mover counts and dehumidifier counts, there isn’t a single reference and there never has been any reference in the industry standards that state that if you install a certain quantity of air movers or dehumidifiers, it will result in a dry structure. It doesn’t say that, and especially it doesn’t say it’ll happen in three days.

So the question is, what are these equipment formulas that are spoken of in the standard supposed to do? Here’s what it does. Whenever you have wet surfaces in a building and you turn on air movers, you’re going to increase the rate of evaporation. It’s going to get real humid in there. So there’s going to be a spike in humidity at the start of every drying job. So how do you manage that humidity that you are generating and that is when the standard describes this formula that in order to control and manage the anticipated spike in humidity, the moment you turn on the air movers, you would install a minimum of so many dehumidifiers.

That’s all it’s saying, now it doesn’t promise a dry building. It just says this is a technique that you can use to manage that anticipated spike in humidity and that’s it. And so it’s a really twisted understanding when you see any reviewer of an insurance claim. When they say, you had too much equipment or not enough equipment that needs to be corrected forcefully. Because when they imply that these equipment formulas result in a dry building, they are dictating that there be a substandard approach to the effort to restore the building.

Derek: So then, in my opinion, it sounds like it takes quite a lot of skill to know exactly what you need to do, not just simply the machinery and the equipment. It sounds like it’s a science to me. I mean this interpretation is required according to the type of structure, the area of the country, you wouldn’t use the same process in Florida as you would in Canada or Arizona. And you can’t just have anybody off the street doing this. You need a specialist that’s been trained and…

Ken: And understands the process, absolutely. So that’s another really good question and it’s an important one, is that it’s not the tools that the contractor would bring into the house that results in the dried structure. It’s the technician’s skill with their tools that will result in the desired results. So here’s the illustration, I do like to use. A car mechanic can spend tens of thousands of dollars purchasing the best ratchets and wrenches that money can buy. It’s not uncommon to spend over $50,000 in one of these red toolboxes that you might have for repairing your car.

So imagine you had that much money and you went out and you’ve bought this amazing toolbox and put it in your garage. And then you bring your car into the garage to park it for the night and you park it two feet from the very front of this $50,000 red toolbox. And then you go inside and you go to sleep for the night. When you come out in the morning, is your car sick? Well, of course, it isn’t. It would be absurd to think that, you know, the tools would produce the repaired car. Rather it’s the mechanic and his skill with those tools that will produce the repaired car.

And the same is true with all of these dehumidifiers and air movers that restoration contractors frequently bring into the home. It’s not the air movers or the dehumidifiers that will result in the dry building. They are tools that are commonly used in that process, but it’s not the tool itself. And so there are many ways in which you can configure a responsible use of this equipment and produce a nice healthy structure. But it does require an understanding on the part of the technician who was using those tools. So you mentioned other places in the country, Canada, Phoenix, Arizona, Nevada, and comparing that to the world of Florida, this is a huge deal because, I mean, we all know how humid and hot it is in Florida. And then you have these chilled indoor environments where, you know, the laws of physics dictate that high humidity and high temperatures are going to seek areas that are cooler and dryer. This is just physics at work.

And so when we have some claims reps, representatives who say, oh, that should have been dried in three days, we must remind them that not only are we in a hot, humid environment, we’re on the everglades, this is wet soil, wet air, hot air and solar, you know, that’s beating on the building, driving thermal energy and the humidity into places that it might not get into if you were in an opposite environment. So there’s much to know and it’s not a simple answer to just follow this formula and every building will dry.

Derek: And you know, I’m a fan of, no pun intended, when I walk into a building and I see something, obviously I’m like, okay, I see something. Sometimes when I don’t see something yet, something doesn’t feel right. I’m maybe even more concerned when not because a lot of people are under the impression, oh, if I don’t see something we’re good. But you know, what are your thoughts on that? I mean, sometimes what you don’t see that can cause more damage than what you do actually see.

Ken: Well, it’s just quite humorous to me that you would bring up that subject after this very fascinating discussion I just had in Boston yesterday. And there was an individual who was at this event and she came to me with some mold testing results. So these are results or some consultants would come in there with a device that will pull a sample from the air and then they send it to a laboratory and they look at this little glass slide with a thin film of grease on it and they wanna see, you know, what kind of particulate stuck to the grease. And from that, they can say, oh, there was this species of mold and this hair fragments and that dust fragments and whatever. And then from there you can try and figure out if there’s an issue in the built environment or if there’s not.

Well, one of these tests, I think there were four samples that were collected. One of the samples was perfectly clean. I mean, perfectly clean. There was no dust, no debris, no mold spores, nothing in the air. Well, that’s a test where there’s, you know, no apparent problem. But the fact is that was a huge red flag because to have an air sample with nothing in it, there’s something going on in there. That is such rare, rare occurrence that you would have a perfectly dust-free environment in somebody’s home after walking around on the carpet and the HVAC system is running, and on and on you go.

So what was going on there? So there is a sample with nothing. Here’s what the conclusion was after conversing with my expert colleagues, he said, after 40 years of him doing samples, he’s seen maybe 15 or 16 of those samples where nothing came back. And he says, this is usually a clue that the contractor bent the rules or did something in that chamber to produce that ultra-pure environment and hid or caused the mold problem to be a hidden issue that can re-emerge down the road. So what does he suspect? He suspects that the contractor went in there and fogged the area with a sealant. This is different from trying to fog it to kill mold. What he did is he sprayed a sticky substance over all the surface in the building. And that way things would just stick to it. And that way there’ll be nothing in the air when they pull up the air sample.

The problem is that this encapsulant or sealant or whatever it was that they sprayed, it doesn’t stay sticky forever and it will eventually release that contaminant. And if it has toxins, you could still have the toxins that…a reaction to those toxins and almost regardless of species, I know that’s a sweeping statement, but it’s true of all mold. All mold is allergenic, which means that you can have an allergic reaction to those exposures. So what that contractor did is they cheated to get the good results. Well, the contaminant issue looking down the road. And that’s the kind of things that we look for.

Derek: Wow. Well, that doesn’t sound like that’s really working well for the homeowner or whoever got those results. But you know, I mean, I wouldn’t put anything past anyone in the industry today. You know, you need to seek out the right folks and the right experts to hire. And that sounds like that’s definitely a case of that happening. With that said, I know I’ve seen over the past couple two, three years, the intensity of the storms, more coastal flooding and probably the likelihood that things are not going to get better as far as our exposure to these events and moisture coming into our properties, especially along the coast. What advancements have you seen recently in the industry compared to the last, you know, 20, 30, 40 years that you’ve been doing this, that we can feel encouraged that, you know, you guys on your side are, you know, making these advancements and improving the technologies out there. What can you give us that’ll make us feel better and easier to sleep at night knowing that things are getting better on that end while the climate obviously and the intensity of storms, you know, continues to go in the other direction?

Ken: So in order to answer that, I think it’s important that everybody understands that there is an inherent conflict of interest that exists on an insurance claim. Insurance companies are publicly traded firms, therefore they have a fiduciary responsibility to produce profit for their shareholders. And every dollar that is spent on an insurance claim is one less dollar for their shareholders. So there must be an effort made to limit these expenses in order to make the stock as profitable as possible for the shareholders. So we understand that, we accept it, it’s just the nature of that business. With that in mind, we now understand why there is such a vigorous attempt to try and limit the scope of work and costs associated with repairing a structure. I get it. But now that I understand it, what can we do to bring fairness to an insurance claim for only the repairs that are needed, justified, usual, and customary. That’s the challenge. The insurance company is trying to keep the cost down. Contractors are inspired to make as much profit as possible.

Derek: Inflate them.

Ken: Therefore you want to have a…you know there’s the conflict. So how do you control that and, you know, there’s been bullying techniques that have been attempted by certain entities who are trying to sell the service of we will beat up the contractor’s invoice and save you 30%. In fact, they’ve published that. So a few of these entities have gone out there and said we will save the insurance carrier at least 30% by beating up the contractor’s invoices, whether it’s justified or not. That’s a very adversarial approach to this business transaction.

So the latest trends are this, that I’m seeing, and I’m encouraged by it, is a greater and more consistent practice of bringing qualified experts to figure out what is actually needed in that structure and is in accord with the standard of care not inflated, not an insurance claim shortfall, just what’s necessary. And so I’m finding more and more policyholders with an insurance claim are calling either an attorney or a public adjuster for representation. This is at least in the state of Florida has become almost a necessary practice because there is such an adversarial experience when trying to settle an insurance claim in Florida. And the other thing, I’m extremely busy being called in when there are questions of the sort of, you know, what needs to happen on this job? Is this really… Here’s a case in point.

Hurricane Michael was in excess of 170 miles an hour. You think that those winds are gonna pick up stuff off the road and off the ground and mix it with the rain and as it comes into the building that that’s probably a contaminated water source. Well, of course, it is, usually, usually it is, but insurance carriers understandably argue, come on, it’s rainwater, it’s just rainwater, it’s distilled water. Just dry it out and be done with it, no biggie. But at the end of the day is the policyholder having a house returned to them that is free of the contaminants that were introduced from the covered peril, the rainstorm, the hurricane.

Is it free of that? And this is where it takes testing to determine if in fact the structure is repaired correctly. This is how I’m involved, and my business is that I’m helping determine those answers. And you know, I am encouraged to see that more and more policyholders are understanding the necessity to bring in some qualified non-conflicted experts that can speak for the needs of the structure rather than the wants of the insurance carrier, desire of the contractor to make profit.

Derek: Got it.

Ken: So I’m encouraged by that.

Derek: So you are encouraged. Well, that’s a good thing. So for those folks that are listening, Ken, how would they reach you? What’s the best way, if they have a question or they wanted to talk to you about their property, how, what’s the best way to reach out to you? What would you recommend?

Ken: Well, I would welcome all inquiries, even from the insurance carriers who want to talk about this and some of the things that I said. Homeowners, contractors, I’m happy to speak to any of them. They can certainly reach me on my email, or my phone. Go ahead and give me a phone call or text message. I’m fine with that too. Area Code (817) 542-1189.

Derek: Great. Thanks, I appreciate that. I’m pretty confident that all of our listeners got a lot of benefit out of our podcast today. I wanna thank you, Ken, for joining us and sharing your history and your experience with our listeners and just wanted to say thank you for coming on the show. I think it was very beneficial and I certainly enjoyed it.

For those of you that were listening, thank you for joining us on today’s podcast, on “Everything Building Envelope.” Please check in on us for, you know, future podcasts. We aim to bring you, you know, the most, the latest information and technology out in the industry today regarding the building envelope. And I encourage all of you to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Once again, thanks so much. Derek Segal with GCI Consultants with Ken Larson. Thanks so much for listening today.

Ken: My pleasure.