Love Your Trees, But Keep Them Away … Please!

In hot, dry, crowded Southern California, many people are attracted by those resort style or park-like homes set on ocean-view or urban forest lots.  They tug at every nature lover’s heart.  You fall in love with statuesque Palms or the sculpted limbs of old California Oaks or evergreen Cedars or stately Sycamores or fragrant Eucalyptus surrounded by beautiful lawns and beds full of shrubs and flowers.

I love trees too.  Trees provide shade and are awesome to look at.  There is, however a big downside to trees placed too closely to homes. They look great when you buy the home or when you plant those stick-like saplings.  Years later, unfortunately, we are often asked by property owners and insurance companies to evaluate the structural damage after large trees fall or invasive tree roots cause harm. Continue reading

Preventing Termite Trouble

When was the last time that you had a termite inspection done on your Victorian, craftsman, Spanish revival or modern home?  If you’re like many of us, that might have been a day or two before you moved into your newest home—even if it has been decades.  Unfortunately in Southern California, it is generally termite season 365-days a year and none of the various treatments available last forever although some are more effective than others.So you need to watch out for signs of new termite infestations.  At Helfrich Associates, we’re licensed engineers specializing in structural issues and we routinely encounter termite infestations and damage.  We see them or sadly the damage they’ve already caused most often when we are a part of large renovation projects involving classic homes, such as aging Victorians with their intricate decorative trims or craftsmen with their rustic natural style.

About Termites

With modern structures from the 1950s on, stucco is generally the exterior material of choice in Southern California.  You’ll find, however, that these so-called “stick houses” are wood-framed structures with wood throughout the attic.  Anywhere there is a void in the stucco or brick trim or siding, or torn vent screens, that’s an entry point for ravenous termites.  They are relentless once they find a home and continue to breed, eat and destroy structures from the inside-out.

Now for the latest bad news about termites; this is cringe-worthy so you might want to skip a sentence or two.  They are now considered by some scientists as relatives of the dreaded disease-carrying common cockroach.  That fact alone should make you want to call your pest control service and ask them to inspect for termites.

According to Wikipedia, “Like ants and some bees and wasps . . . termites divide as “workers” and “soldiers” that are usually sterile. All colonies have fertile males called ‘kings’ and one or more fertile females called ‘queens’. Termites mostly feed on dead plant material and cellulose, generally in the form of wood, leaf litter, soil, or animal dung. Termites are major detritivores, particularly in the subtropical and tropical regions, and their recycling of wood and plant matter is of considerable ecological importance.”

We wish to expand on that post and say, “Unless you’re a homeowner in Southern California, who owns a stick-house, has an attic, or a garage, with open wood framing, etc.  If only termites would limit themselves to outside leaves, dead trees and wood piles, but they are not all that picky about what kind of wood they eat and your nice warm home is the perfect dining room for them six to nine months of the year.

More bad news from the scientists: “Termites are among the most successful groups of insects on Earth, colonizing most landmasses except Antarctica. Their colonies range in size from a few hundred individuals to enormous societies with several million individuals. Termite queens have the longest known lifespan of any insect, with some queens reportedly living up to 30 to 50 years.”

Prevent, Search & Destroy

To balance that perspective, many kinds of birds and various mammals eat termites including some humans who consider them a delicacy. (Yuck!)  We don’t, however, recommend that you turn your attic into a kind of Noah’s ark or zoo to get rid of termites.  When we find termites during construction or restoration projects, there is no choice other than to call in a pest control specialist to rid your home of these voracious pests.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is interested in controlling termites to keep people safe while minimizing environmental damage as well.  In fact, the EPA offers a free handbook, which is available by clicking on this link, ”EPA Citizen’s Guide to Pest Control Safety.”  You’ll find this guide is full of steps that you can take on your own as a homeowner as well as helpful information on when it is time to use a professional pest control service.

We wish to expand on that post and say, “Unless you’re a homeowner in Southern California, who owns a stick-house, has an attic, or a garage, with open wood framing, etc.  If only termites would limit themselves to outside leaves, dead trees and wood piles, but they are not all that picky about what kind of wood they eat and your nice warm home is the perfect dining room for them six to nine months of the year.

The EPA recommends that you can help prevent termite infestations by following these steps:

  • After construction, keep the soil around the foundation dry through proper grading and drainage (including maintenance of gutters and downspouts).
  • Reduce openings that offer termites access to the structure (filling cracks in cement foundations as well as around where utilities pass through the wall with cement, grout, or caulk).
  • Fix leaks immediately.
  • Keep vents free from blockage, including plants.
  • Ensure that trees and shrubs are not planted too close to the structure and do not allow them to grow against exposed wood surfaces.
  • Do not pile or store firewood or wood debris next to the house.
  • Inspect periodically to help ensure that termite colonies do not become established.

You’ll recognize several of these preventative measures as steps that we’ve discussed in our blog series on routine home maintenance tasks.  

If Disaster Strikes

As we’ve said before, we recommend that our clients establish a routine pest maintenance schedule with a licensed, professional company.  These companies and their certified technicians have access to national, state and locally approved products for application in the proper strengths to be effective, yet safe.  For example, they know how long you might need to leave home when certain products are in use or if it is safe for you to remain home.  They are also familiar with pest behavior such as where they are likely to reside inside and outside of your home and more.

Should you find major damage, we at Helfrich Associates are here to help you remediate, reconstruct and recover.  We’ll be happy to come out early in the process and evaluate the situation from a structural engineering standpoint  We’ll provide a report detailing the damage and the remediation steps, including any reconstruction necessary.  

We’ll work with your contractor of choice and help with plans and permits if necessary.  We also pre-inspect to make sure all construction work is done to code so you’ll pass any required municipal inspections. You’ll be good as new or better once the job is done.

Property Inspections—Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Can a tennis ball really give you home-buying insight? Normally, when people are looking for properties to purchase, they worry about the roof or the walls or the plumbing or the appliances or the heating/ac system, but not many realize that inspecting the foundation is critical to the building’s structural integrity.

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Red Tag Alert: View for Days Comes With a Price

The ocean and canyon view

We were asked several years ago to consult on a “view” property in Malibu, California, that had been red-tagged (deemed unsafe for occupancy) due to earth movement and undermining of the house by a landslide that had occurred during the winter rains of 2004/2005. The client contacted us in May, 2015, after he purchased the property. Continue reading

That’s The Breaks: Aging City Water Lines

Most of us in Southern California, even during periods of drought, generally take it for granted that when we turn on the tap the water flows.  Our reliable municipal network of ground and surface water resources, water treatment plants, pumps and pipes is generally an invisible world until the water temporarily stops flowing—usually due to a planned maintenance outage or a surprise prolonged power outage or a line or pump problem.
Unfortunately, some people have had the opposite experience and it’s becoming more common as our infrastructure ages in the Golden state:
What happens when a city installed pipe bursts below the ground on your property?
Well, the only way to describe it is, “That’s a gusher!”  Most of us would never see such a disaster coming, but it does happen from time to time due to earthquakes, corrosion, construction and other maintenance or operational issues.
Part of our client’s property in Simi Valley was flooded when a city water line broke on the property. The back and side yards of the home were inundated with several inches of flowing water on February 18, 2019 from the city’s broken pipe. In these situations, everyone is usually very cooperative until the water is shut-off and the homeowner calls the insurance company, the repair contractors or the family attorney.

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Inspecting This Old House To See If It Stands The Test of Time

If you’re a fan of classic architecture and the great homes of the past centuries, then you’ve probably also watched the PBS television classic, This Old House.  Many of the homes featured on the long-running TV Series are located on the East Coast and typically have required construction repairs and updating with modern plumbing, electrical, HVAC.

On the West Coast, we have our share of classic homes too, dating back to the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries.  In Southern California, our classic Victorians, Craftsman, Adobes, Spanish Revival and Ranch homes are local architectural treasures and are of historic significance.  For our clients, preserving them is often both a practical matter as their principal residence and a labor of love to ensure their survival continues for generations to come. Continue reading

Cracking Up Over Eaves

We were hired to evaluate the interior ceiling cracks in a home in Fullerton. CA. A contractor performed measured floor elevations to see if there was any foundation or slab movement and their measurements showed that the slab had not moved. So, foundation settlement was ruled out.

During our site inspection it was noted that the eaves were between 5 and 6 feet wide. A normal eave is between 2 and 3 feet wide. It was also noted that stucco had been added to be bottom of the eaves which made them heavier than normal eaves.

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Trees: A Thin Line Between Love & Hate

What do you do when the tree you love is causing damage to your building?
On one of our recent projects, we visited an apartment building complex where one unit had visible damage caused by tree roots. The adjacent unit had no damage.

However, upon further examination we discovered damage to the sidewalks, and it became obvious that tree roots are growing underneath the foundations. We observed a 23-feet-section of the exterior wall that has been lifted several inches. Continue reading

Understanding Shoring for Building Repairs or Renovation

An example of shoring.Shoring is a critical technique for many building renovation projects. If you have an older property that needs repairs or renovation completed, you may need to include shoring in your plans. Shoring a building consists of temporarily supporting the structure while critically important portions of the building are removed and replaced.  These include critical elements include foundations, load-bearing walls, and the roof.  Shoring can also be used to prevent collapse of building elements that are failing, and can allow the building to be safely occupied during repair construction.

Three of the most common are lateral shoring, vertical shoring, and excavation shoring. Continue reading