Renovation & Design
Question: We live in a 12-year-old cab-over house with vaulted ceilings. At the peak of the vault the tape has come away and cracked across the expanse of the room. I have had this retaped and sprayed with stipple, but it just pulled away again. Several months, and many dollars later we are left with a mess. I am reluctant to hire someone else to do this without knowing what to expect. The original taper came back to look at it and said he had never seen this happen before and he would talk to some other tradesmen to see what they had to say. Needless to say, he never got back to me. Since this house design is popular, I would assume others must have had this problem too, and perhaps you have seen it. You did a home inspection for me after we bought the house, but of course this happened about six years after moving in. Thanks for any info you can give me.
Answer: Cracks in vaulted ceilings in newer homes is a very common occurrence and may have one or more of several causes. Determining which ones are responsible for the problems in your ceiling will be the answer to solving this reoccurring issue.
I am quite surprised that the drywall taper who repaired the ceiling in your relatively new home has never seen this issue, as it is very common in new homes with vaulted ceilings built with trusses. Most times it is relatively minor and extends a short distance from the exterior walls, or at the top of partition walls. In almost all cases it is primarily a cosmetic issue, so no need worrying about anything too serious associated with this defect. The real key to a permanent solution is to determine which of several issues are causing this to happen, even after supposedly being repaired.
The two most common causes for this type of ceiling crack are due to poor workmanship. The first suspect is the original drywall taper, who may have done too quick or too sloppy an installation job of the original tape covering the seam between the two pieces of drywall joining at the peak. The solution to this would be to totally remove the original tape and drywall compound and redo the job properly. As you already attempted that, it would be futile to try a third time, without further investigation. Even though I suspect the tradesperson who did the repair for you is deflecting their responsibility, by claiming to have never seen this, there may be something else affecting the ceiling.
The second workmanship defect which can cause a crack near the peak is improper securing of the drywall to the trusses. When the ceiling drywall is applied, there is often a few layers of 6-mil polyethylene sheathing at each corner or junction. Especially at the end of the ceiling, at the exterior wall, this plastic may bunch up due to overlapping from the exterior wall poly and both sides of the sloped ceiling. The drywall installers have to force the sheets of ceiling drywall upward to ensure they compress the poly layers before they secure it to the trusses with screws. If they don’t apply enough force, there may be a slight gap between the drywall and the trusses, where the plastic sheathing is bunched up. Any significant gap in this location may allow the individual sheets, on opposite sides of the peak, to move with changes is temperature. A good taper can apply enough drywall compound to visually even out a slightly uneven joint, which may add to the cracking and deterioration later on.
The solution to this potential defect should have included having the drywall resecured to the trusses, before applying the new tape and drywall compound. Since that was likely not done, the new tape cracked, just like the original. I would be surprised if your taper took responsibility for that happening, even if they should have asked to have the drywall tightened before doing the tape repair job. Unfortunately, the only way to test this is to hire someone to rescrew the ceiling, which will make a further mess. It should, however, provide a more definitive answer and allow for a better repair, this time around.
The other two items that could also allow your ceiling to crack at the peak are movement and moisture. If your home is settling over time, as almost all houses in our area do, if not built on deep concrete piers or piles, the main floor may be moving. This can cause some main floor partition walls to move up, or down, which normally causes ceiling cracks above those walls. These can also push up unevenly on sections of the roof trusses, which will certainly cause some ceiling cracking. The solution to this issue is to hire a contractor to evaluate the house for movement and slowly adjust the teleposts below your main beams, to straighten the floor.
If the floors have not moved at all, likely because your builder was one of the more knowledgeable ones that builds with concrete piers, then a look in the attic is in order. It is possible that the insulation installed on top of the vaulted peak has blown off or moved, leaving an area subject to heat loss and condensation. This could cause isolated winter frost development in that location, which would melt and slightly wet the drywall each spring. Over several years, this could easily allow the drywall tape to detach, causing your problems. The way to fix that would be to add more insulation in that location and do any repairs necessary to the air/vapour barrier, as needed.
Determining whether your ceiling cracks and lifting tape are due to poor workmanship, movement, or lack of proper insulation and air sealing is the key to unlocking the mystery of the defect. Hiring an experienced general contractor to evaluate the situation and make that determination should provide the answer you seek.
Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the past president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors — Manitoba (cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.