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‘Government insulation scheme ruined my home’

‘Government insulation scheme ruined my home’ is the headline of this BBC piece about a man who says his flat has been ruined by black mould caused by a government “green” insulation scheme. The words “insulation” and “home” could be replaced by many other words and the headline would still hold.

Although the piece describes Blaan Paterson as a “homeowner”, it seems from the text that his ex-council flat is still under the control of South Lanarkshire Council to some extent. He insists he was signed up to the Universal Home Insulation Scheme (UHIS) in 2011 without his consent.

Things done by governments to people without their consent often turn out badly.

Things done by governments for people who grab them with both hands under the impression that they are getting a free benefit often turn out badly, too. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, goes the proverb. Buyers have an incentive to think carefully about whether a proposed purchase is wise before they commit their money. Recipients of free stuff don’t. The incentives on government contractors not to think about whether insulation is right for a particular property are also strong.

Tom Woolley, a semi-retired professor of architecture, has been highlighting “cavity wall insulation disasters” for a number of years.

He has also advised pressure group Cavity Insulation Victims’ Alliance (CIVALLI), which has given evidence at the UK Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

He told BBC Scotland: “The problem with filling up the cavity either with glass fibre and perhaps, to a lesser extent, polystyrene is that it stops the building ‘breathing’.

“Vapour collecting in the building or dampness that gets into the walls can’t escape because it’s blocked up by this stuff.

“It tends to lead to dampness and mould inside the houses. We have plenty of evidence of this. I would say there are hundreds of thousands of examples of this throughout the UK.”

18 comments to ‘Government insulation scheme ruined my home’

  • Steven R

    Things done by governments to people without their consent often turn out badly.

    Therein lies the rub as the Bard put it. Ostensibly, we do give consent via our legislatures. We select and send people to Congress or Parliament or state legislatures who (supposedly) have oversight and budgetary control over those agencies. Presidents and Prime Ministers put their people in charge of agencies, but we put people in the White House or 10 Downing (albeit indirectly). Ultimately it comes down to us not saying no. One of the points the Supreme Court made in the Obamacare case was that it wasn’t their job to protect us from ourselves. If we weren’t willing to say no loudly enough that our betters in DC had no choice but to listen, that’s on us.

    Of course, that’s also the “on paper” version of how the world works. In “in practice” version has people with good intentions who don’t think things through, people in agencies with agendas, lobbyists greasing palms, Senator Takeabribe and Representative Handsout looking for “campaign contributions” and not worrying about insider trading laws because they don’t exist for themselves, lame duck administrations not worrying about getting reelected anyway, and so on and so on and so on.

  • Kirk

    All y’all would be shocked, shocked I tell you, at how little actual “science” there is in “building science”. Or, architecture. Or, a lot of modern engineering.

    We wanted to build a new family home for my mom. Did the design, did all the work ourselves. Interesting point, about that? Trying to figure out whether or not to do what they call a “conditioned crawlspace”.

    Most “building science” currently prevalent in the US says “Absolutely, do not build on a ventilated crawlspace… They’re a disaster…”

    Now, you read that, everywhere. You go out and talk to the local state university, however? They’re telling a different story, based on actual experiment and practical experience. They’ve done the work, and will tell all and sundry that it’s an immaterial decision in our climate, and that you’re actually better off doing a ventilated crawl because it doesn’t trap the moisture in the structure…

    Try finding that bit of wisdom anywhere in the copious flow of paper coming out of the industry.

    I think a lot of the housing stock in the UK is going to be ruined by the willy-nilly insulation schemes, because those houses were not designed to be insulated the way that the schemes are doing it. Most of this stuff falls down on that whole “moisture transportation” issue, and you have to observe what happens in countries where they have similar climates and have tried implementing similar schemes.

    The Puget Sound region of the US has a lot of contiguity with the UK; there’s a very similar climate, and the housing stock tried similar things. It did and did not work out well; poorly implemented insulation coupled with poorly-designed moisture control/transportation schemes? Rot; pure and simple. You can go into truly ancient, entirely uninsulated wooden structures over in that area, and find no signs of rot or even retained moisture; modern ones, with vapor barriers, insulation, and all the rest? The sheathing under the siding has turned into wood-fiber mush, rotten and falling apart, covered in black mold. Because, my friends, the old house stock may have been incredibly expensive to heat, but it did breathe. Lawsuits galore on this issue, if you want to go look.

    There are reasons the old timers built the way they did. It was a vernacular building code; they knew what worked because they’d seen what failed, and what failed, didn’t get copied. If you’ve a building that was built uninsulated, simply slapping insulation and vapor barriers in ain’t going to work.

    The bright lights running these schemes and programs are never quite as smart as they think they are, which leads inevitably to disaster.

  • Steven R

    You live in the US. Remember how good dish soap used to be before the EPA decided they all had to be phosphate free because it would result in cleaner water? Now we use four times as much dishwater to get the same results we did before. We’re dirtying more water in the quest to dirty less water.


  • Kirk

    Remember flushing a toilet once?

    Remember never hearing about sewage lines or septic systems getting clogged because of not enough water being run through them…?

    Good times, good times…

    Save Mother Earth: Lynch a bureaucrat.

  • Stonyground

    We live in an ex council semi that was built in the 1950s. A few years ago we had wall cavity insulation fitted. The house was noticeably warmer and we have not had any problems with damp or mould. I think that the house is quite well ventilated, partly because the double glazing is quite old. I know that this is only one example, I wonder what proportion of these treatments are successful?

  • Some years ago when this idea was being mis sold as the latest green lunacy – sorry cure for Gaia’s ills, an acquaintance had a visit from someone peddling cavity wall insulation. He asked the gentleman if he had much success in that road so far, to which the answer was ‘no.’

    Not surprised, my friend said. None of these properties have wall cavities…

  • Paul Marks

    Many of these schemes end badly – but if anyone questions them they are told “it is national policy”.

    This really means INTERNATIONAL policy.

    As Jacob Rees-Mogg (ex Cabinet Minster) pointed out a few days ago – the latest “Energy Bill” passed without even a division (a vote) in the House of Commons, Parliament just nodded it through.

    Often “policy” does not even go to Parliament.

  • Kirk

    The really frustrating thing about construction is that there’s such a damn lag in between “built” and “consequence of choices/decisions taken”.

    Let’s say you’re a builder, trying to stay ahead of things. With the best of intentions, you use the most modern and highest-recommended products, installing them in accordance with the instructions. Or, at least, you try to… Due to employee idiocy and/or inability to adapt to new and improved methods, you sometimes find that they didn’t do what the packaging clearly told them to. Hell, you have them take courses of instruction from the manufacturer’s reps, and then they get out in the field and do it the same old way, ‘cos that’s how they always did it.

    So… You mean well, but… Intent doesn’t always produce proper performance. A lot of the times, the manufacturers are clearly delusional about their products. See many of the sheathing materials used over in the Puget Sound region, and why they failed, despite being installed with perfect accordance to the instructions.

    The other factor is that you build a house, and you’re usually done with that project for life. You never see how it lasted, unless it’s a really egregious failure. I can think of two we’ve been involved with, and both of them were down to doing exactly what the architect/engineer told us to, despite our concerns, and it turned out that Hey! Presto!!, moisture problems did indeed ensue.

    I personally think that they need to pay a lot more attention to construction technique, and that builders should have to run through a bunch of remodels in order to fully understand what impact their choices and techniques make over the lifespan of a building. You’d be amazed at the stuff that was once “industry standard practice” that today is anathema, because studying how it stood up shows what a bad idea it all was.

    You also don’t want to know what’s lurking in the background, in terms of failures. I guarantee you that when the time comes, and we finally see that Cascadia Subduction Zone quake over on the west side of the Cascades, there are going to be a bunch of houses that flat just slide right the hell off their foundations, ‘cos they done didn’t specify hot-dipped galvanized J-bolts on all those treated sill plates they mandated… Turns out, the lumber treatment likes to combine with the essentially uncoated steel in the basic J-bolt, and corrode the ever-loving crap out of it. Coupled with all the moisture over there, and we can about guarantee you that the majority of the buildings constructed which rely on those connections for earthquake safety are gonna fail. After about 5-10 years, those 5/8″ diameter J-bolts are often down to the diameter of a pencil lead…

    Of course, that’s not gonna make much difference, what with all those hillsides slipping and sliding all around.

    Methinks there was probably a damn good reason that all the locals over there, prior to the advent of the dumbass European white man, held to an “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry” potlatch life-philosophy. Wasn’t any point to trying to build a civilization, what with the periodic earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions…

  • Stonyground

    I seem to recall that in the 1970s a regular feature of the evening news was tower blocks being demolished. These were presumably built in the 1960s so hadn’t lasted particularly well. In Hull in the 1960s there was a slum clearance program involving the demolition of back to back houses and moving the residents onto a newly built housing estate that had been built using what were then modern construction methods. Some of the houses became known as the misery maisonettes. A particular feature was electric underfloor heating that was expensive to run and very inefficient. Many of those houses have been demolished but I believe that some have had the design faults dealt with and are still in use.

  • Dave Ward

    @ Kirk – I’m interested in your comments regarding old vs new building techniques, as UK TV is currently re-running several series of “Building Off The Grid”. These frequently feature traditional style log cabins in out-of-the-way places, but almost all of them now use foam packing between the logs, and various types of internal insulation underneath plywood & steel roofing. The more up to date timber framed constructions are invariably wrapped with vapour barrier fabric before cladding, then fibreglass wadding between that and the internal finishing. I don’t suppose there will be a follow-up “How are they doing now?” series in 20 years time…

  • Kirk

    @Dave Ward,

    Old vs. new… Yeah, I have my doubts about the longevity of some of these systems they’re applying these days.

    Big difference between the US and Europe is the planned lifespan of buildings; in Europe, it’s not uncommon to visit someone and be told that the house was initially built back in the 1500s, and that the main structure has been standing since then without significant work being done to it. And, most modern construction seems to be built with that same sort of longevity in mind. Here in the US? Oi. Nothing like.

    Which reflects a different mindset and lifestyle; you don’t have people over here planning to build a house for their great-grandchildren to live in. It’s “Well, we’re (maybe…) gonna retire here, but more likely, we’ll downsize after the kids move out…” It’s a hell of a lot more fluid, and when you factor in all the moving around we do? Europeans can’t even wrap their heads around that bit. “Wait… Your extended family is a thousand miles away from here? You grew up three states away? And, you’re taking a job two thousand miles in the other direction, now…?”

    There’s a sense of impermanence with housing stock and construction in the US that just doesn’t exist in Europe. If the infrastructure gets outdated on a building? Cost too much to retrofit? Tear it the f*ck down… Nobody cares; it’s all temporary, compared to Europe. I’d play merry hell finding an actual occupied house around here from back around the time of the primary wave of settlement; most of those are literal ruins. I think there’s a barn still standing, about 20 miles away, and whatever farmhouse went with it is either gone or incorporated into another structure built far more recently.

    Different mentality. We had a Slovenian carpenter visiting over here in the US, who we took out to a jobsite, and man… Poor guy was just losing his mind. All his job over there consists of is roof structure, stairs, and then finish and trim. The idea of an entire house being built out of wood? Flat blew his mind. You couldn’t afford the materials to be able to do that, in Slovenia. Or, so he said…

    The interesting thing is watching all the trendy crap going on. The latest and greatest is always gonna replace everything, but what winds up happening is that everyone tries it, finds out the intricacies, and if it doesn’t actually work, then it’s back to “best practices”. Which often amount to “Well, that’s the way I was shown to do it, and if that was good enough for ol’ Fred, it’s good enough for me…”

    I despair, sometimes… Even relatively simple stuff like “Read the damn handouts for the nailing patterns on all these brackets, please….!!!!!” is too hard for some guys. “Oh, we always used 1 1/2″ Tico nails for those…” “Hello? The prescribed nailing pattern says 16d galvanized, dammit!”

  • llamas

    What Kirk said. Funny, that sounds familiar . . . .

    In my last gig before retirement, I learned my lesson – for 99% of contractors, the signed drawings are what you might call a general idea, but subject to change on a whim and without warning. It got so I flat-out said ‘I’ll not be coming to install (your gizmo) until I have personally visited the site, measured the foundation with my own eyes and my own tape rule, seen and checked the concrete delivery slips, and you’d better have photographs of the rebar in place before the pour.’ And even then, my gig list could be pages long. Even with the Germans, who would state, unequivocally, zat everysing iss perfekt to ze drawing. Not. I once had to point out that the foundation was installed exactly 90° out from the compass rose clearly printed on the drawing. Oh, how we laughed.

    All the customers would whine and snivel about conduits over the surface, to which I would reply ‘You find a contractor who will install conduit with stub-outs within a foot of the drawing dimensions, then we’ll talk. But the last time I trusted to the contractor, I showed up with 16 tons of (gizmo), to find the main service conduit sticking out of the concrete exactly centered on the (gizmo) foundation area.’ But that was OK, because the contractor had installed PVC conduit instead of the specified steel, and then poured 250 yards of concrete on top of it. It all had to be torn out – at his expense. But I still got gigged for late installation 🙁

    We live in a solid log house, built in the 1990s. All of the log seams have double layers of foam insulation between, so there’s no air leaks between logs. With the right coatings (Sikkens), no reason this house shouldn’t stand 100 years or more.



  • bobby b

    Dave Ward – use more than the required number of eave, peak, and foundation vents, avoid the most expensive building wraps, and you should be fine. Problems came up with the ultra-sealed construction methods and materials coming out of the energy crisis days when “don’t lose any heat!” translated into “don’t let any moisture escape from inside the walls.” We built houses decades ago before I started my final schooling – did about 14, all with fiberglass roll insulation – and I did some more after retirement, and none of those structures have had moisture problems, even in our high-moisture environment.

    (Sikkens – great stuff. And blueprints can be mere suggestions if you’re building on spec!)

  • Dave Ward

    The idea of an entire house being built out of wood?

    I’ve come to the conclusion that if 2×6 lumber (or “timber” as us Poms call it) and nail guns didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be any houses standing in the US! And thanks for the replies, guys.

  • jgh

    I had steel security fencing erected behind my shop. The contractors turned up a day early, not on the day I’d taken off work, so I was unable to stay on site to supervise. One panel that should have been 4″ on my side of the property line indicated by the edge of the concrete slab was erected 4″ on the *other* side of the property line. It was obvious they’d just erected the panels as they went, and turned the corner where the panel ended instead of adjusting the panels to match the topography.

    *NEVER* *AGAIN* will I have any construction work done in my absense. I dispair, but experience from multiple jobs tells me that unless I am hovering over them 100% of the time, they will do it wrong.

    I dispair because almost universally I have to go to work to earn in order to pay them, but in order to ensure they job is done properly I have to *not* go to work …. which means I can’t afford to pay them.

    PS: rassen frassen *&^%*!””*(^” Why doesn’t TAB take me to the next field?!?”?”?”?”?”? Keep forgetting this site borks it.

  • Kirk

    @Dave Ward,

    I’ve come to the conclusion that if 2×6 lumber (or “timber” as us Poms call it) and nail guns didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be any houses standing in the US! And thanks for the replies, guys.

    Likewise, without concrete, masonry, and brick? There wouldn’t be any houses standing in the UK and a lot of Europe. You build with what your economy builds with; wood was always plentiful here in the US and Canada, and we’re a lot more mobile and adaptable. Ain’t hardly nobody in North America living in homes built by or for their grandparents; most of those houses have been sold on five or six times, assuming they still stand.

    I’ve got medium well-off acquaintances who’ve literally lived in ten-fifteen homes over the course of their lives, and not as renters, either. They’ve also lived in 8 or 9 different states, having moved for jobs, schooling, or family necessity. You don’t have that sort of mobility anywhere that I know of in Europe, so the entire mental map of “housing” is different. North America is basically “settled nomadicism” compared to Europe. Y’all hear “house”, and you’re thinking “Forever…”. North America hears “house”, and they’re thinking “Well, for awhile, anyway…”

    This drives a lot of the difference in construction standards and materials. You tell the average European that they’re buying a “20-year roof” for their (literally…) thousand year-old house, and they’ll look at you as though you were quite mad. A North American ain’t even gonna blink; they hear that, think “Yeah, ongoing cost… No problem… Next owner will have the problem…”

    Lot of the time, Europeans are looking at the North American housing market much the way North Americans look at those countries like the Philippines, where you can run into people moving house by picking the four corners of the structure up and carrying it away on foot. Totally different environment. Totally different mindset, just the way the Japanese vernacular construction used to be paper walls and so forth, adapted for the inevitable earthquake coming.

  • jgh

    Japan is also notable in that houses *depreciate* in value. People typically buy the land, any house that’s on it is either an obstruction or a temporary occupation and cleared from the site to buld what you want.

  • As a one-time mason (of the brick laying kind not the Lodge kind) I was instructed about the nature of cavity walls and weeping holes. There were many attempts by well-meaning fools to use expanding foam inside the cavity as a cheap and easy form of insulation, disregarding why cavity walls were invented in the first place. Some of the more egregious fools compromised the structure of the building by underestimating the force of the expanding foam. If misused it can push the walls apart and crack them at their base.

    Old books describe the long British war against “rising damp” and the use of cavity walls, weeping holes, and waterproof courses to defeat the dreaded rising damp and its subsequent mold and mildew problems – along with the Georgian invention of arsenic laced wallpaper. Putting insulation in the cavity CAN be done, but it must not fill the cavity and requires the use of either many holes and skilled appliers of foam, or the removal of a corner section of the structure to slide in and adhere rigid foam sections. Both of these are very expensive, and often it is less expensive to demolish most of the structure and rebuild.

    Now I want to have a five minute rave about using brick at grade instead of stone, cinderblock, concrete, or high-fired/engineered brick. You build an expensive wall of brick, start at grade, and expect it to last?