Top 10 tips to look for water damage and mold in buildings

Am I moving into a “Moldy Mansion”???

Now that rain had returned the San Francisco Bay Area, moisture, leaks, and especially mold are going to be much more prevalent than during the dry times due to our severe drought. This winter’s forecast “El Niño” may bring more rain and possible flooding than California has seen in a decade. Many of our buildings are going to leak in places we were not aware of when the skies were clear.

From State of California—Health and Human Services Agency California Department of Public Health

Statement on Building Dampness, Mold, and Health – September 2011

“CDPH has concluded that the presence of water damage, dampness, visible mold, or mold odor in schools, workplaces, residences, and other indoor environments is unhealthy………….we strongly recommend addressing water damage, dampness, visible mold, and mold odor………… protect the health and well-being of building occupants, especially children.”

Mold is ubiquitous, mold spores are floating around in the air everywhere, all the time.

The total number of spores and specific species can vary wildly. While a small amount of mold is growing in all of our homes, especially in kitchens and bathrooms, this growth rarely triggers symptoms for normal occupants. Significant mold growth due to water damage is of the greatest concern. Hidden water damage can promote significant mold growth that can seriously affect occupant health.

A direct quote from a client:  ….how to find a new place that has a lower chance of having a mold issue” (they generally already have a confirmed issue in their current environment).

The best way, by far, would to have any new home you are considering moving into inspected and tested by a Certified Microbial Investigator.  A standard residential Mold/IAQ Inspection with air and/or surface sampling will typically identify if any significant mold growth is active in a home.

However, the cost of an inspection can be impractical if you are looking at multiple places to move to. Below are 10 tips you can use to identify water damage and mold growth in building prior to purchase or signing a long-term lease. Use these tips to narrow your search and then invest in a professional inspection when you have found the “one”.

Top Ten Tips for looking for Mold in Buildings No Downspout

No Downspout

10) Drainage

At minimum this usually means gutters and downspouts.

  • Do the downspouts tie into a site drainage system?
  • Are the gutters clogged with leaves and other debris?
  • Walk around the property, is it on a hill?
  • Will water flow toward the building when it rains?
  • Are there drainage culverts, channels, and storm drains?
  • Are these drains clear or clogged with debris?
  • Is there evidence of water splashing onto the building siding?

Proper drainage is key to preventing excess moisture entering a building, a basement, or crawlspace and leading to dry rot or mold growth.



9) Building Envelope

Roof, Windows, Doors, siding, Foundation – Leaks from Exterior

Top 10 tips for looking for water damage and mold in buildings - Peeling Paint on Siding
Peeling Paint on Siding

Look at the roof, is it in good condition? Are the roof penetrations well sealed or is the

sealer old and cracking?

Check the ceiling inside for signs of roof leaks, water staining, bubbling, etc.

Look carefully around siding, window and door frames?

  • Is the caulking cracked or smooth and in good condition?
  • Are the frames cracking?
  • Is the paint peeling?
  • Are there cracks or other gaps (where a chimney meets the wall may be one) that may allow water to enter the building envelope?

All are signs that water may be able to enter the building envelope.

8) Leaks

Interior – Plumbing – Fresh water and Drain Plumbing

Water and moisture don’t only come from the outside. The internal plumbing system can leak and provide moisture for mold growth.

  • Check under all sinks, kitchen, bathrooms, laundry room for visible leaks and musty smells.
  • Look around tubs and showers for signs of leaks, mold growth, and bubbling. Tiles that are coming loose are often a sign of moisture in the wall behind.
  • Look at drains for signs of leaks.

7) Condition

Top 10 tips for looking for water damage and mold in buildings - Clogged Drain

Clogged Drain

What is the overall condition of the space? Run down or pristine? Likely somewhere in between, but the general condition can give you a clue how well long term maintenance has been. Shoddy maintenance can allow water damage to fester and mold growth to set in.

6) Condensation

Single pane windows are notorious for excessive condensation.

  • Are window sills cracked and stained?
  • Are window sills dirty or show visible mold growth?
  • Check the back of blinds and drapes for signs of condensation and mold growth.

Older homes, prior to the 1970’s, are usually not insulated. Large pieces of furniture placed against cold, outside walls can be place for condensation and mold growth.

  • Check behind large dressers, bookshelves, or headboards for condensation and mold.
  • Closets that share an outside wall can be very problematic. The excess condensation, limited airflow in a closed closet, as well as plenty of organic material for mold to eat (cotton and wool clothes, cardboard boxes, etc) can lead to a significant mold infestation.

5) Ventilation

Bathroom without sufficient ventilation can be very problematic for condensation. If there is water staining and mold growth or mold stains on the ceiling or walls (some growth in the shower and bath is normal, but not outside of those areas) it is likely condensation may be a problem.

  • Does the bathroom have a good exhaust fan?
  • Is the fan register clean or clogged with dust and debris?
  • Does the bath fan have a timer?

Many older buildings only have windows for bathroom ventilation adding a fan to the window or the bathroom may be necessary to counteract excessive condensation. Kitchens also should have exhaust fans for the range stove that can exhaust excess moisture from cooking to the exterior. Some older buildings only have recirculating fans or no fans at all.

4) HVAC System

The HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system is very important to maintaining both occupant comfort and good air quality. Often the HVAC system is the only way to filter the air we breath inside our homes, although not all HVAC systems have filters! Also, dust and moisture and pests (insects and rodents) can hide out in our ducts and other areas of the HVAC system.

  • If the system has a filter, check it! Is it dirty or clean?
  • Change the filter regularly and use the best quality filter the system can handle.
  • Check the ducts and registers with a flashlight. Are they dirty or clean? Any signs of insect or rodent infestation. Take a sniff, there should be no foul or musty odors.
  • Lift floor registers and look inside for dust and debris.
  • Some systems don’t have ducts, such as radiant floor heat or wall or space heaters.
  • Check wall heaters for buildup of dust and debris. The insides should be clean.
  • A portable air HEPA filter may be advised if the building has radiant heating.

3) Housekeeping

Top 10 tips for looking for water damage and mold in buildings - Visible Mold Growth on Baseboard and Wall

Visible Mold Growth on Baseboard and Wall

Does the building seem “clean”? Remember to check the hard to reach places.

  • Check the tops of door and window frames for dust buildup.
  • Check under the refrigerator. This area can build up quite a bit of debris and mold can grow on the condenser coils.
  • Check behind large items such as cabinets and couches.
  • Mold can easily grow on “Biofilms”. Household dust is considered a biofilm, as it is composed of organic material (skin cells, insect part, cotton and cellulose fibers, pet dander) that mold can use as a food source.
  • Does the building have carpet? Does the carpet appear clean? Is the carpet stained? Carpet can hold moisture from cleaning and spills as well as pet urination, in additional to other contaminants carpet tends to accumulate settled mold spores that come in the air from the exterior.   Carpet can hold mold spores that can become active under conditions of high humidity.

2) Musty Smell

Probably the second biggest “Red Flag” for building you may occupy. A musty smell = ACTIVE MOLD GROWTH. Trust your nose and if there is a moderate to strong musty smell, RUN AWAY.


Mold should not be growing inside a home, with the exception of small amounts around sinks, baths and showers. Sometimes a minor amount around window sills is acceptable. But if you see visible mold growth on walls, ceilings, baseboards, under sinks, etc. this is sign of a significant mold infestation.

As stated by the California Department of Public Health:
visible mold, or mold odor in schools, workplaces, residences, and other indoor environments is unhealthy”.

I hope you can use the above top 10 tips to help find healthy and happy place to call home!



source: healthybuildingscience

Architectural Industry – New Trends

The Architectural Industry

In early summer 2012, when I joined HBS, I also transitioned from working as an architect myself, in the mainstream architectural industry, into a consultant to architects. Since then, I have worked with many architectural firms of all sizes, on small to very large projects. This gave me the unique opportunity to really step back and see the industry from the outside in, as opposed to being in the trenches myself.

There are a couple things that have stood out to me that I will put forth in this blog.

New Trends

I noticed a trend in architectural firms of all sizes to have younger, not very skilled architects, play the role of (senior) project manager on large, sometimes incredibly complex projects. The lack of experience on part of the project manager is supposed to be made up by an extensive team of consultants, hired for everything from specifications and sustainability to waterproofing. Large Commercial ProjectsNot long ago, large, complex projects used to be managed by older and experienced architects, but that is not the case anymore. This may be the result of downward fee pressure on architectural firms or a lack of qualified labor, or a combination.

Sometimes it’s also the increasing complexity of building materials – e.g. we now have curtain wall consultants to review curtain wall drawings provided by design-build sub-contractors.

Dividing the architectural scope of work between so many different consultants and design-build subcontractors not only reduces the size of the fee that the architect can claim.

Extensive coordination also takes a toll on the quality of the project as things are lost in translation and issues fall through the cracks between multiple stakeholders.

What else is Trending?

Yet another trend I see, is the widening gap between the top tier international design firms and the rest of the industry. The top firms are increasingly “expanding” their frontiers and the way they design, by including building performance analytics, materials screening (for chemicals of concern), climate analysis etc., in their conceptual as well as later stage building design. New positions such as building performance specialists have been carved out as a result of the growing emphasis on sustainable buildings. These specialists are adept at developing simulations using a variety of different high performance design softwares to enable building solar studies, computational fluid dynamics, indoor comfort analysis, etc. Needless to say, the ability to deliver LEED certification is a bare minimum off course. While these leading design firms are charting new territory, the bulk of the industry struggles even with understanding the California Green Building Standards Code and how to incorporate it in their projects.

Given that climate change and global warming is pushing us to makes our buildings more and more energy efficient, clean (i.e. free of toxic chemicals in building products) and green, I wonder how this will affect the vast majority of the architectural profession that has not caught up and wake up one day to find themselves facing a “new normal”?

source: healthybuildingscience

Indoor Air Quality and Brain Performance

The Harvard School of Public Health recently released results of a small study that supports what green building enthusiasts have known for years – Indoor Air Quality and Brain Performance are directly connected. While small (24 real people), the double-blind study appears to have been well-crafted and executed under exacting controls. With much ado, the researchers rolled out the results to an enthusiastic audience at GreenBuild 2015. While the results seem rather commonsense, I’m delighted to see Harvard and the National Institute of Health begin to pay more attention to IAQ and cognitive function.

Grim, but true, extrapolated across a larger population the meaning of this study may have dire consequences for the future of our civilization. While the EPA has been focusing most its regulatory efforts on outside air, and OSHA focuses only on the worst-of-the-worst offenders, the common worker and building occupant has largely been neglected – at least in terms of governmental attention and regulation to indoor air quality (IAQ). And where regulations do exist, such as minimum required ventilation rates, they are often not enforced or regulated closely enough to ensure widespread adoption.

Average IEQ Conditions for Mental Aptitude Study

Six Days of Cognitive Function Testing

Sound like fun? Only if you’re masochistic!

24 darling volunteers went through many different cognitive functioning tests over the course of 6 days. The only significant variables that changed were concentrations of CO2, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and Aldehydes. The chart above shows some of the primary variations tested that were meant to reflect a “green or conventional buildings.”

IAQ Cognitive Domains Tested

Cognitive Function in Plain English

Cognitive what?!?!  The above chart illustrates nine different areas of brain function that were specifically studied. The researchers used standard testing methods to evaluate these various metrics, and it was discovered that some areas of cognitive function were more severely affected than others.

Cognitive Domain Affected by Indoor Air Quality

Cognitive Domain Affected by Indoor Air Quality

Brain Performance In Green vs Conventional Building

The charts above and below summarize the results. In almost every category the green and “green+” buildings outperform conventional and poorly ventilated spaces.

The most significant downgrades in mental performance were in Crisis Response, Information Usage, and Strategy. Makes you want every police station, school, hospital, and your very own home and office to be green, right?!?!  Does the White House Situation Room have sufficient ventilation and healthy materials? If not, does poor IAQ now constitute a national threat?

Indoor Air Quality and Brain Performance

Indoor Air Quality and Brain Performance


Indoor air quality and brain performance are obviously interconnected. If too many buildings across the US have insufficient ventilation and/or high levels of harmful VOCs and aldehydes, our nation will suffer in terms of crisis response and strategic thinking. Perhaps this helps explain some comments I’ve heard in recent political debates.

I pose that we add CO2 and VOCs to the priority terrorist list. They pose a clear and present danger to the US, and we should go after them with all we’ve got!

There is much more research needed, but I’m thrilled this small study received so much attention and I hope it leads to additional research and policy change. In the meantime we’ll keep encouraging our green building projects to achieve good ventilation and use healthier material alternatives.

source: healthybuildingscience