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Carefully does it

Richard Renouf attends a failed flooring complaint and wonders whether the developer will be more careful with flooring in the future – and whose installation he’ll be fitting next time.

IT was a beautiful day on the south coast, but unfortunately my call was a mile or so short of the sea front, and my timetable meant I wouldn’t have time for a paddle. The landmark I was looking for was a shop and I was to look at the two newly-built properties next door. The client, a property developer, pulled up beside me in his van and carried an opened box of the flooring as he showed me into the first.

‘I’ve fitted engineered wood in every property I’ve ever built,’ he said. ‘This is the first time it’s ever done anything like this.’

I could see what he meant. The panels were crowning significantly – raised in the centre of each panel by more than 2mm. There were a few greyed edges where moisture had clearly (to my eyes) seeped along the grain of the surface veneer, but otherwise the flooring looked new.

‘It can’t be moisture. It’s a block and beam floor and the screed went down five months before the flooring was fitted.’

I asked some questions. What was the screed?
A flow screed, which means it was anhydrite and usually much thinner than a sand and cement screed.

When was it poured?
He gave me the exact date, and when I checked the date of fitting, the flooring was laid nine weeks later.

How quickly did it warp?
Almost immediately.

Have you checked for moisture?

I checked the moisture level in the flooring, and it was higher than it should’ve been. The client was unbelieving. I took off the plinth of the kitchen units and found the bare surface of the screed underneath them. I read the moisture; it was high. I took out my back-up meter which uses a different method of measuring, and it confirmed the screed was still wet.

‘But I fitted this flooring four months ago, and I did next door at the same time, and that hasn’t failed.’

I carried out one final moisture check, this time directly from the flooring using a pin meter as the pinholes weren’t going to be a problem because the flooring would be lifted. The reading was over 17%. Finally he accepted the evidence, but was still puzzled because he felt the situation was no different to the next door property and also to the many floors he had fitted over the past 23 years.

We looked at the boards he’d brought in from his van. Rather than being engineered from layers of wood which each layer’s grain running at right angles to the layer below, this had a top and bottom layer of veneer of different wood types and a core of fibreboard which has no grain structure and will simply expand in all directions with increases in moisture levels.

The boards would therefore warp in direct relation to the relative movement of the outer layers of veneer. In this case the surface veneer expanded more than the balancing base layer and so the boards crowned.

We went into the property next door. ‘This hasn’t warped’, he said. I contradicted him. The property faced a slightly different direction and so the light through the patio doors didn’t show the crowning as badly. But when I put a straight edge on the flooring the effects of moisture were evident.

He asked me to go to a third property and this, too, was affected.

‘I’ve never used this flooring before and only bought it because you couldn’t get my normal range during Covid-19, and this was the only stuff available. If the company don’t replace it for me, I’m never giving them any of my business again.’ He told me how much this would cost them. Fortunately in my role as an independent expert I simply report on what I find and it’s not for me to decide how a case is resolved. In this case, the decision about what happens next would need to be considered carefully. There was far more at stake than three homes’ worth of flooring.

The supplier’s product would have been fine if the developer had followed the installation instructions and checked for moisture before the work was started. A surface-applied moisture suppressant would’ve been all that was needed to ensure a satisfactory job.

The developer, however, had done what he’d always done and which he had ‘got away with’ for years until this slightly different product caught him out – several times – before he learned the cause of the problem.

It’s likely the developer will be more careful with flooring in the future, and in that respect my visit was worthwhile. But whose flooring will he be fitting next time?

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