Key Building Practices in a
Mixed-Humid Climate

March 5, 2013

Key Building Practices in a Mixed-Humid Climate

Builders have had to contend with the effects of rain and humidity on the homes they build for as long as homes have been built. But moisture control has become an even bigger issue in home building as houses have gotten tighter and more energy efficient. More air sealing and insulation in exterior walls create colder walls that are less able to dry naturally when they become wet. 

This makes the design of the wall assembly really important to not only keep moisture from getting into the exterior walls, but also to let any that does get in escape or dissipate somehow. But cladding selection is often dictated by architects and homebuyers based more on aesthetics than building science. So the (multi) million dollar question is, “What’s the most effective combination of structural sheathing and exterior cladding to help avoid excess moisture in exterior walls?”

The Home Innovation Research Labs recently completed a nearly two-year field investigation of nine different pairs of north- and south-oriented wood-framed wall assemblies to answer that very question.

The study was conducted on the suburban Maryland campus of Home Innovation Research Labs, located 20 miles east of Washington, D.C., in a mixed-humid climate. The mixed-humid climate is defined as having:

Every climate has its own characteristics to be considered when designing a wall system. The mixed-humid climate has unique and dynamic conditions related to moisture control – moisture migration from the inside of a structure during the winter and from the outside during the summer – which can be problematic for certain wall assemblies.

The claddings used in the study included traditional stucco, fiber cement siding, brick veneer, manufactured stone, vinyl siding, and insulated vinyl siding. These materials account for nearly 90 percent of those typically used in residential construction in the United States. Moisture content of the sheathing (either OSB or plywood) and wall cavity temperatures were measured in each wall section at various points throughout the study. Some of the wall assemblies differed substantially in both cladding type and moisture handling, while others were similar in type and appearance, but differed with regard to their moisture drainage design.

To test the various wall sections, Home Innovation Labs performed controlled injections of water behind the cladding at set intervals throughout the research duration. Some walls were less able to drain or otherwise dissipate the injected water than others, but all performed satisfactorily in terms of the standard industry moisture content levels. Under normal weather exposure, the studs and sheathing in all walls tested remained well below 20 percent moisture content, which is the long-accepted industry threshold for wood decay. That said, stucco-clad walls with only one layer of water-resistive barrier (WRB) had the least ability to dissipate injected water. Walls with manufactured stone cladding and two layers of WRB were better able to dissipate injected water than the stucco walls with one layer of WRB, but not as effective in doing so as the other cladding systems. Insulated vinyl siding, traditional vinyl siding, and brick were the three driest claddings tested.

Wood Moisture Thresholds – What’s it all about?

Wood building materials, and assemblies constructed of wood or wood-based products, perform best when they remain dry. For this reason, there are industry-established moisture thresholds for wood products relative to decay, rated structural performance, and mold growth.

Prominent organizations in the wood industry have defined a dry condition for engineered wood products (EWP) – i.e., plywood, oriented strand board – as moisture content (MC) of less than 16 percent, and for solid wood of less than 19 percent. These levels relate to rated structural performance. The reason the threshold MC is set lower for engineered wood products than for solid wood is that engineered wood products have lower equilibrium moisture contents than solid wood at equivalent relative humidity conditions. When wood products are used in conditions where moisture contents exceed these levels (16% for EWP; 19% for wood), the National Design Specification requires that Wet Service Factors be applied. The Service Factors de-rate the design values for material strength and stiffness. Engineers apply these Service Factors when they expect that in-service moisture conditions will exceed the thresholds.

The same moisture threshold value that determines application of Wet Service Factors is also assumed by the wood products industry to be the upper limit of in-service moisture content limit for wood-based structural panels. The industry applies the same assumed limit to in-service moisture content of both plywood and oriented strand board (OSB) panels.

In fresh, un-infected wood and wood products, decay is only likely to be established when moisture content exceeds the fiber saturation point (average 28 percent MC in lumber) at temperatures between 50 and 95°F. The long-recognized 20 percent threshold provides a margin of safety with regard to preventing the spread of decay.

Thresholds for mold growth have been established in the first edition of ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 160-2009: Criteria for Moisture-Control Design Analysis in Buildings defined as “Conditions necessary to minimize mold growth.” These values in the standard translate to lower maximum allowable in-service moisture contents for engineered wood products than the value assumed by the industry (APA 2002). The mold growth prevention criteria outlined in ASHRAE Standard 160 consist of three parameters: time, temperature, and surface relative humidity. The criterion with the longest time duration element (30-day running average) specifies that surface relative humidity not exceed 80%; this corresponds with a solid wood moisture content of 16%, which approximately equates to a plywood MC of 14% and OSB MC of 13%.

Moisture Content

Solid Wood







Fiber Saturation2








Mold Potential4




1 Morris, P.I., Understanding Biodeterioration of Wood in Structures, Forintek Canada Corp./Canadian Wood Council
2 Forest Products Laboratory Technical Note Number 252 (for softwoods)
3 National Design Specification
4 ASHRAE Standard 160 (EMC @ 80%RH)